New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday offered a rare note of regret as he defended his administration’s decision to delay releasing data on Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities.
In a news conference Monday, Cuomo said that the Department of Health had “paused” state lawmakers’ request for the Covid-19 death data because his administration chose to focus on a related inquiry from the Department of Justice. Both chambers of the state Legislature were told about this at the time, he said.
In addition, he said the health department had largely put data requests on the back burner so it could deal with the immediate pandemic crisis, which he acknowledged created a “void” of facts that allowed misinformation to creep in.
“The void allowed misinformation and conspiracy, and now people are left with the thought of, ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person,” he said. “And I want everyone to know everything was done. Everything was done by the best minds in the best interest.”
By the end of Monday’s news conference – which lasted roughly one hour and 40 minutes – Cuomo took responsibility for not providing the data when lawmakers requested it.
“No excuses. We should not have created the void. We should have done a better job in providing information, we should have done a better job of knocking down the disinformation,” he said. “I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge. I take responsibility. We should have provided more information faster. We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment.”
Cuomo’s press conference came as state lawmakers accused him of a “cover-up” and said they are considering repealing the governor’s emergency powers. Last week, his top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a call with state lawmakers that the administration tried to delay the release of the data, wary of a federal Justice Department preliminary inquiry.
“And basically, we froze, because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said on the call, according to a transcript released Friday by the governor’s office.
Lawmakers consider repealing executive powers
The revelations undermine Cuomo’s self-hyped reputation as a straight shooter, honed during daily press conferences last spring as the novel coronavirus rampaged through New York. His communicative approach provided a clear contrast to former President Trump’s lies and false assurances that the virus was under control and would disappear.
In the wake of DeRosa’s admission, Democratic leaders in the state Legislature are in active discussions to draft a bill to repeal Cuomo’s expanded executive powers during the pandemic.
“There’s momentum moving in the direction of removing his powers,” a source told CNN.
The source said there was support for the removal of Cuomo’s expanded powers before the aide’s comments were made public, but now, “it’s definitely going to happen.” A bill is likely to be introduced this week in the state Legislature and voted on early next week when lawmakers are back in session.
However, Cuomo on Monday said there was no connection between the nursing home questions and his emergency powers, and he said his Covid-19 legal actions are only to protect the public.
“These are public health decisions,” he said. “They’re not local political decisions, and they have to be made on a public health basis.”
Cuomo says inquiry is politically motivated
The heart of the issue centers on whether Cuomo and New York health officials could have better prevented the state’s nearly 46,000 Covid-19 deaths, the second-most of any US state.
One particular focus of this question has been on the state’s decision to send thousands of patients recovering from Covid-19 infections from hospitals back to nursing homes. Cuomo has long said this decision was based on federal guidance to do so under the theory that these patients were likely no longer contagious and that hospitals needed the space.
Cuomo also noted on Monday that patients, specifically seniors, were at risk of secondary infection if they remained in hospitals longer than necessary.
A second prong of this question was to more closely examine how many nursing home residents died in nursing homes and how many nursing home residents died in hospitals.
Cuomo maintained Monday that Covid-19 did not spread into long-term care facilities by patients transferred from hospitals but from staff and visitors who were asymptomatic and contagious.
“Covid got into the nursing homes by staff walking into the nursing home when we didn’t even know we had Covid because the national experts all told us you could only spread Covid if you had symptoms, and they were wrong,” he said.
“Covid may have been brought into a nursing home because visitors brought it in and didn’t know they were contagious because the guidance was you can only be contagious if you have symptoms … that turned out to wrong. That’s how Covid got into the nursing homes.”
Top aide explains her remark
In late January, state Attorney General Letitia James released a report that found the state Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by about 50%.
In a statement Friday, DeRosa sought to further explain her admission that the state “froze” on the call with lawmakers.
“I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time,” she said. “We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout.”
In recent months, Cuomo has repeatedly sought to dismiss questions about the data on nursing home deaths as a “political attack.”
“What I would say is everyone did the best they could. When I say the State Department of Health – as the report said – the State Department of Health followed federal guidance. So, if you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government,” he said on January 29.
“It’s not about pointing fingers or blame. It’s that this became a political football right. Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home. It’s – people died. People died.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.