ALBANY — Critics from all quarters called Friday for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be investigated, reined in, impeached or to resign amid controversy over the number of COVID deaths in New York eldercare facilities.
The third bombshell in two weeks landed late Thursday, when the New York Post reported that one of Cuomo’s top aides, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, attempted damage control by apologizing to Democrats in the state Legislature over the matter.
Her words were seen by critics, many Democrats among them, as an acknowledgment that the Cuomo administration deliberately withheld the death toll to avoid scrutiny.
DeRosa told the legislators the administration did not try to mislead them, but wanted to backpedal from the Trump administration’s politically motivated investigation of the death toll in New York and other Democratic controlled states.
A partial transcript of DeRosa’s comments on the Zoom conference call Wednesday reads in part:
“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.”
The transcript was issued Friday by DeRosa, not by Cuomo.
The governor himself was in Washington to meet President Joe Biden, apparently to press his point that the $12.7 billion in COVID aid Congress proposes to send to his administration is not enough. He wants $15 billion.
Cuomo was silent once again Friday on the nursing home death toll and the controversy surrounding it, surfacing only with prepared statements on the meeting with Biden, routine updates on the pandemic and the vaccinations against it, and announcing that 39 firefighters are starting training at the state fire academy in Montour Falls, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
The reaction was fast and mostly furious Friday.
- All eight of the Republicans who represent New York in the House of Representatives called for a federal Department of Justice investigation into Cuomo and his administration.
- U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, went one step further in a separate statement, calling for release of a public transcript of Cuomo’s meeting with Biden so the American people can be sure Biden isn’t complicit in a coverup and obfuscation of justice by Cuomo.
- The Green Party of New York and Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie (how’s that for strange bedfellows?) called for Cuomo’s impeachment.
- Assemblymembers Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, and Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston, urged the Legislature to revoke the emergency powers it granted Cuomo to deal with the pandemic, as did State Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Schenevus.
- Assemblyman John McDonald III, D-Cohoes, who was on Wednesday’s Zoom call, said his takeaway is that the Department of Health is working to get the data the Legislature requested.
- Albany County Legislature Minority Leader Frank Mauriello called for Cuomo’s immediate resignation.
- State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, covered all the bases, seeking state and federal investigations; revocation of Cuomo’s emergency powers; stronger penalties for violation freedom of information laws; and, if the reports are correct, resignation or removal of Cuomo as governor.
The issue has been simmering since a March 25 state order that nursing homes admit COVID-positive patients. Strictly speaking, it was the Department of Health that issued the order, but Cuomo is known as a controlling and micromanaging leader under the best of circumstances and it seems improbable the decision was made by the DOH alone amid a crisis in which Cuomo has assumed even greater powers.
Cuomo and DOH have denied the March 25 directive was to blame for the high nursing home death toll, but with an executive order on May 10, Cuomo blocked nursing home admission of COVID-positive residents.
From the very beginning, Cuomo and his team have alternately refused to publicly release data on COVID in nursing homes or released partial and incorrect numbers.
Just Friday, The Associated Press obtained records indicating that 9,056 recovering COVID patients were admitted to New York nursing homes before May 10 — 40 percent more than the Cuomo administration previously disclosed.
Most tellingly, the official death toll is apparently 15,049 now.
Just two weeks ago, the eldercare death toll publicly reported by the state as of Jan. 27 was 8,737.
On Jan. 28, state Attorney General Letitia James’ office released a damning report on nursing homes’ performance during the COVID crisis. The report, without overt criticism, also said that the state had undercounted the death toll by as much as 50 percent.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in what had become his standard defensive response, said the full data were not released because the DOH needed time to review them. He correctly noted that DOH had never presented the publicly reported death as accurate or complete.
In the same news release, he offered a new death toll — 12,743.
Meanwhile, the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany think tank, had been trying to force release of accurate numbers for months. A judge on Feb. 3 ordered the state to provide the data, and pay the Empire Center’s legal fees for its five-month court fight.
On Feb. 10, the deadline to comply, the state released a massive spreadsheet detailing dates and locations of 14,100 deaths.
The difference: The Empire Center inadvertently requested data for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. However, the state classifies eldercare facilities three ways: Nursing home, assisted living and other adult care.
So the Department of Health didn’t give it “other adult care” fatality data.
The same day as DOH was providing Empire Center with the data it requested, and the same day that DeRosa was apologizing to legislators, Zucker sent legislators a letter specifying 13,297 nursing home resident deaths and 1,752 deaths of residents of assisted living and other adult care facilities, the New York Post reported.
Tedisco, who had waged a months-long but unsuccessful effort to pry loose the numbers through other means, joined the Empire Center with an amicus brief in its lawsuit against DOH.
On Friday, he said:
“Melissa DeRosa’s statement to the Democrats that they withheld information for fear of an investigation really illustrates the Cuomo administration had the data before. They shouldn’t apologize to the Democrats. They should apologize to the families who lost loved ones for this dereliction of duty. If Ms. DeRosa is telling the truth now, then Governor Cuomo and Commissioner Zucker saying they had to withhold the Nursing Home numbers to make sure there was no duplication or double counts were lying all along. It’s a total coverup. This administration is corrupt and totally lacks transparency.”
What comes of all this remains to be seen.
Cuomo has expressed grief for those who died but the closest he has come to admitting any error is saying that everyone did the best they could under the circumstances.
Assemblyman Phil Steck of Colonie, a Democrat who bears to the left of Cuomo on a number of issues, voted last spring with Republicans to investigate COVID in nursing homes. The measure was rejected by his fellow Democrats, who hold a majority.
He doesn’t expect the Legislature will take direct action against Cuomo, either impeachment or revocation of the sweeping special powers granted to him to deal with the COVID crisis.
“I think it’s much easier to get majority support to let them expire,” Steck said of the emergency powers.
(Democratic legislators in both chambers of the state Legislature met Friday to discuss the situation, and 14 Senate Democrats subsequently called publicly for revocation of the emergency powers, the Daily News reported.)
The problem, he said, is that New York already had a strong governor even before the emergency powers were granted.
“The public really doesn’t grasp the adverse impact of a phrase that is always bandied about … and that’s ‘separation of powers,’” he said.
At this point, Steck added, further efforts are beating a dead political horse. “Honestly, now it’s up to the voters.”
And his own opinion? Cuomo hid the facts and didn’t tell the truth. “What I would say is that I just don’t find the governor credible on this issue.”