New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his administration are facing renewed scrutiny for their handling of nursing homes in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic after reports last week that his top aides allegedly altered data to hide a higher death toll among the state’s nursing home residents.
As the coronavirus infiltrated nursing homes and killed thousands of vulnerable seniors last spring, Cuomo, a Democrat, downplayed lags in nursing home patient and death data and defended his administration from allegations of wrongdoing, according to a CNN KFile review of his daily press conferences from last spring in which nursing homes were mentioned. Cuomo’s daily press conferences were hailed at the time for their transparency, especially in contrast to then President Donald Trump’s response, and ended in mid-June 2020.
Cuomo also repeatedly defended his administration from responsibility for nursing home deaths. After the Cuomo administration issued a controversial advisory last March barring nursing homes from refusing to admit patients solely on the basis of a confirmed or suspected Covid-19 diagnosis in order to free up hospital beds, the virus may have increased the risk of harm from Covid-19 in nursing home facilities, according to a report from state Attorney General Letitia James.
At a press conference in May 2020, Cuomo, who is in his third term, at the time compared the nursing home deaths to those happening in hospitals and claimed that there was “nobody” to prosecute for their deaths.
“We lost 139 people yesterday in hospitals. Who is accountable for those 139 deaths? Well, how do we get justice for those families who had 139 deaths? What is justice? Who can we prosecute for those deaths? Nobody. Nobody. Mother nature. God,” said Cuomo in May 2020, adding that he believes New York has the best doctors, nurses and hospital system in the world.
“Look, people rationalize death in different ways. I don’t think there was any logical rationale to say they would be alive today…I said, from day one, the fear is we overwhelm the hospital system, and then people die, because we couldn’t get them the medical care,” he said.
In other press conference appearances, Cuomo dodged questions on why it took his administration so long to release coronavirus patient and death information to the general public. In one instance, he said that any nursing home that submitted data “under penalty of perjury” was subjected to a criminal investigation.
“You violate, you commit fraud, that is a criminal offense, period. So they can be prosecuted criminally for fraud on any of these reporting numbers,” he said.
In another press conference from May 2020, a reporter explicitly asked Cuomo whether his administration was “fudging” any of the nursing home data. “No numbers were changed,” answered the governor.
Cuomo’s office declined to comment to CNN.
Cuomo’s nursing home scandal is among a handful of compiling crises for the governor. In addition to the governor’s reported history of bullying and berating lawmakers, five women have accused Cuomo of sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. At Cuomo’s request, the New York attorney general’s office has launched an investigation into the allegations and appointed two investigators to the case.
Despite growing calls for him to step down as governor – including from top New York state lawmakers – Cuomo has rejected calls to resign. He instead offered an apology to the women and said he never knew he “was making anyone feel uncomfortable” and denied touching anyone inappropriately.
Last month – nearly a year after the first coronavirus case appeared in New York – Cuomo took some responsibility for his administration’s delay in releasing coronavirus data regarding deaths in nursing homes and pushed back against the state attorney general’s report that the state severely undercounted coronavirus deaths in nursing homes.
He acknowledged that by failing to release data at the time, the state created a void that was “filled with skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion.”
“We should have done a better job of providing as much information as we could as quickly as we could. No excuses. I accept responsibility for that,” he said. “We should have provided more information faster. We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment and we did not do a good enough job in providing information. I take total responsibility for that. The pain in it is it created confusion and cynicism and pain for the families of the loved ones.”
Beth Garvey, special counsel to the governor, disputed reporting that said the governor’s aides “changed any of the fatality numbers or ‘altered’ the fatality data” and that the “out of facility data was omitted after [the New York Department of Health] could not confirm it had been adequately verified.
Here’s a timeline of actions and comments the governor made on nursing homes, starting last spring.
March 25, 2020: The governor and the state Department of Health issued a statewide advisory barring nursing homes from denying admission to patients solely on the basis of a suspected or confirmed Covid-19 diagnosis.
April 3, 2020: The governor signed the 2021 fiscal year state budget into law. Within the budget, a then little-known provision added protections for hospitals and nursing homes from the threat of lawsuits stemming from the coronavirus outbreak.
April 10, 2020: At the governor’s daily press conference, a reporter noted that the state health department’s daily Covid tracker was not up-to-date and asks the governor if he’s worried about the numbers in relation to nursing homes.
“I don’t know why the Covid tracker would not be up to date. That’s the first I’ve heard it, but I will check. It should be up to date because the numbers I just gave you are the up-to-date numbers. So I can check why they don’t have that on their website,” Cuomo said.
April 15, 2020: The governor pledged to implement the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance to report both confirmed coronavirus deaths and probable deaths. He also announced an order for nursing homes to inform the families of patients who test positive for coronavirus within 24 hours of a patient’s test result.
“Since we have a little bit of a period to take a breath, we’re going to contact nursing homes and facilities to find out if there were other people who passed from Covid who were not necessarily in a hospital or in a nursing home. Because there is a sense that there may be additional people who have passed away and they weren’t included in the count because they weren’t in a hospital, they weren’t in a nursing home,” Cuomo said.
April 16, 2020: At the governor’s daily press conference, a reporter pressed Cuomo’s administration on why it has taken so long to get specific information about where people are dying in nursing homes. Cuomo said that it’s because nursing homes are overburdened with “hellacious situations,” including large patient volumes, short staffs and a lack of personal protective equipment.
Cuomo responded: “Look, I’ve been on the phone with these types of facilities and they say, ‘I understand, make sure my report is on time. I have seven people critically ill, I’m short staffed, I don’t have enough PPE. And you’re giving me a hard time about reports.’ So in the balance of things, I understand the degree of difficulty, and how many nursing homes are there?”
“613,” said someone offscreen.
“613 nursing homes. Right? So you’re not talking about one phone call. But we are getting the data. It is coming in,” said Cuomo.
April 17, 2020: New York state released a list of nursing home facilities that experienced Covid-19 outbreaks.
“Why has it taken so long to inform the public about this happening in their communities? Why has the public not known about all of these numerous outbreaks?” a reporter asked at the governor’s daily press conference.
“I think they have. We’ve been talking about nursing homes every day for the past 30 days. The first outbreak was in Seattle, Washington, which was a nursing home. That’s how this country was introduced to it,” said Cuomo.
“We’ve said, 157 times, the most vulnerable population are seniors. The most vulnerable place are nursing homes. We have special precautions for nursing homes. I think we’ve been talking about it all along,” he said.
April 18, 2020: During his daily press conference, Cuomo deflected criticism that his administration could do more to encourage nursing homes to communicate with family members regarding staff members testing positive and claimed that he thinks New York releases “probably more than any other state.”
“We don’t get into a fine detail of what a nursing home does in their policy of communication with family members and what family members do. They communicate with and they talk to only the immediate family, etcetera,” said Cuomo, referring to his executive order requiring nursing homes to inform patients’ families of a positive test or death within 24 hours.
“I think we release probably more than any other state, in terms of nursing home data,” he said.
After a reporter asked if the governor thought nursing homes were over- or underreporting deaths because of the stigma associated with high death numbers, the governor responded, “I hear you. I don’t know if that’s what it is, because their numbers are gonna come out. Any nursing home that thinks they’re going to sit there and people are not going to figure out how many people passed away in that nursing home, they’re kidding themselves.”
Cuomo later reiterated that the health crisis made it difficult for some hospitals and nursing homes to file the necessary paperwork on time. He later added, “It’s important that people know and people are concerned. But you have to see the dynamic of the situation. I don’t think that there’s anything nefarious. I think it’s just the dynamic.”
April 19, 2020: Cuomo asserted that “nursing homes are still our number one concern” at his daily press briefing.
“The nursing home is the optimum feeding ground for this virus. Vulnerable people in a congregate facility, in a congregate setting where it can just spread like fire through dry grass. We have had really disturbing situations in nursing homes, and we’re still most concerned about the nursing homes,” he said.
April 22, 2020: Cuomo said that “we’ve tried everything to keep [Covid] out of a nursing home, but it’s virtually impossible,” noting that the coronavirus is “vicious.”
“If somebody says to me, ‘Should I put my mother in a nursing home now?’ Now is not the best time to put your mother in a nursing home. That is a fact,” he said.
April 23, 2020: The governor defended his state health department from accusations that it failed to regulate and investigate nursing homes.
“The state Department of Health is charged with regulating nursing homes and investigating claims of neglect and making sure they’re complying with regulations. Why is it that they haven’t done that already, if that’s what their job is?” asked a reporter.
“No, they do do it. They do it on an ongoing basis. This is a crisis situation for nursing homes. They are under a lot of pressure. We understand that. Through no fault of their own, by the way,” said Cuomo. “This happens to be a virus that happens to attack elderly people and nursing homes are the place of elderly people, so this is a very intense situation for nursing homes, we get it, but they still have to perform their job and do their job by the rules and regulations.”
April 24, 2020: The governor said at his daily press briefing he has not heard of any complaints about the new 24-hour mandate for nursing homes to release new information on coronavirus patients. He said that family members have a “right to know” and that nursing homes have a responsibility “to inform family members of the status of a person in a nursing home.”
April 28, 2020: Cuomo said it is the responsibility of nursing homes to inform families of a patient’s status. “That is, you look at the people who have passed with this virus, predominantly senior citizens, predominantly people with a compromised immune system. That is where this virus goes and it is frightening. It is frightening. And if you have a loved one in a nursing home, yes, it is frightening,” said Cuomo.
May 1, 2020: The governor asserted that nursing homes must report two numbers – confirmed Covid-19 deaths and unconfirmed, possible Covid-19 deaths – and if the nursing home data is fraudulent, they could face criminal investigation.
“But they submit these numbers under penalty of perjury. You violate, you commit fraud, that is a criminal offense, period. So they can be prosecuted criminally for fraud on any of these reporting numbers,” said Cuomo.
May 10, 2020: Cuomo partially rescinds the advisory barring nursing homes from denying admission to patients on the basis of a Covid-19 diagnosis alone. He issues an executive order requiring a patient to test negative for Covid-19 before discharging them to a nursing home.
May 17, 2020: In response to a question regarding accountability over nursing home deaths, Cuomo shirked responsibility for the nursing home crisis.
“We lost 139 people yesterday in hospitals. Who is accountable for those 139 deaths? Well, how do we get justice for those families who had 139 deaths? What is justice? Who can we prosecute for those deaths? Nobody. Nobody. Mother nature. God,” says Cuomo, adding that he believes New York has the best doctors, nurses and hospital system in the world.
“Look, people rationalize death in different ways. I don’t think there was any logical rationale to say they would be alive today… I said, from day one, the fear is we overwhelm the hospital system, and then people die, because we couldn’t get them the medical care,” said Cuomo.
May 18, 2020: At a press conference, a reporter asked, “If you talk to the experts on nursing homes, they’ll tell you before Covid-19, New York State had one of the lowest levels of care in nursing homes, and some of the most lax enforcement by the State Health Department. So is state not in some way to blame for what happened?”
“I don’t believe the experts would say that,” said Cuomo. “We have over 600 nursing homes, we’ve had one of the best nursing home systems in the country for a long period of time. You know, You can always have people who say we should do more, that always happens, and we are doing more. And, by the way, now we’re doing more and they’re complaining that we’re doing more than any other State. You can’t have it both ways.”
May 19, 2020: The governor told reporters at a press conference that, “As a government, we are doing everything that we can. We’re doing more testing than any other state. We’ve been more aggressive than any state in nursing home precautions.”
May 20, 2020: At his daily press conference, Cuomo defended his March 25 advisory that barred nursing homes from rejecting patients solely on the basis of a Covid-19 diagnosis by claiming the state followed guidance from the Trump administration (which the Trump administration disputed). He also said that the nursing home numbers were not changed.
“Look, this is a political season. I get it. I have refrained from politics. I’m not going to get into the political back and forth, but anyone who wants to ask, why did the state do that with Covid patients in nursing home? It’s because the state followed President Trump’s CDC guidance. So they should ask President Trump. I think that will stop the conversation,” said Cuomo.
The reporter followed up, “Are you fudging the numbers? Because that’s the accusation that you’re facing. That you are changing the numbers to make-”
“Well, let’s go back. Let’s do one at a time,” interrupted Cuomo. “Your first point, why did the state do that? Because the state followed President Trump’s CDC’s guidance. Okay. That’s that answer.”
“No numbers were changed,” said the governor, referring to nursing home data.
“In retrospect, do you think that was a bad decision? The March 25th memo, do you think that that [the nursing home advisory] contributed to the death toll in this state? Which is even in nursing homes is over 5,000 people?” asked a different reporter.
“No, because you’d have to be saying the nursing homes were wrong in accepting Covid positive patients. That’s what you would have to be saying,” Cuomo responded, continuing to go back-and-forth with reporters on whether an outside federal probe of his administration’s nursing home handling was needed.
Cuomo elaborated that “a nursing home cannot accept a patient who they are not qualified to handle” and that any home without the facilities to care for the patient could have told the state so and the patient could have been sent elsewhere.
Later in the press conference, Cuomo appeared to boast that despite New York’s high death toll for nursing home patients, it was ranked 34th out of 50 states in terms of per capita deaths.
“You take 50 states and you can put all 50, where is New York? No. 34. Even though we had the highest number of cases per capita, we’re No. 34,” said Cuomo.
July 6, 2020: The Cuomo administration releases its report analyzing coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, which found that Covid-19 fatalities in nursing homes were related to infected nursing home staff.
At the time, the state reported that more than 6,000 nursing home residents had died of Covid-19.
However, according to reporting from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal from March 2021, a draft of the report stated nearly 10,000 nursing home residents in the state died from Covid-19 by July 2020.
January 28, 2021: The New York attorney general issued a report that found that Cuomo’s state health department undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by approximately 50%, essentially by leaving out deaths of residents who had been transferred to hospitals. The New York Times reported the overall number of deaths did not change.
February 15, 2021: At a press conference, the governor took some responsibility for the lag in releasing nursing home data but denied skewing any data. “To be clear, all the deaths in the nursing homes and in the hospitals were always fully, publicly, and accurately reported. The numbers were the numbers, always,” he said.
March 9, 2021: In a conference call with reporters, Cuomo defended his advisory mandating that nursing homes must not deny admission to patients solely on the basis of whether they tested positive for COVID-19 or were suspected to have it.