ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday accepted responsibility for the delayed release of nursing home COVID death statistics.
The governor stopped short of apologizing for it, though, and maintained that the underlying criticism of him is off-base — he and his administration did nothing to worsen the tragically high rate of infection and death in nursing homes.
“No excuses,” he said in response to a reporter’s questions at a Monday afternoon new conference. “I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge. We should have provided more information faster.”
More than 15,000 residents of eldercare facilities statewide have died of COVID-19 in the last year, according to the first publicly reported state statistics that purport to actually count all such deaths. The great majority of those who died lived in nursing homes, with smaller numbers in assisted living and other adult care facilities.
On Jan. 27, the state’s publicly stated eldercare death toll was just 8,737.
The death toll has been exploited as a political attack against Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and his administration relentlessly resisted disclosing anything resembling a full count. The standard reason offered: It’s a lot of data and it all needs to be checked.
In recent weeks, a court order and a public rebuke in a report by the state attorney general’s office succeeded in finally prying the data loose. The release included data from nursing homes and assisted living facilities but not other adult care facilities.
In a letter to state legislators, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker reportedly placed the total of all three types of facilities at 15,049.
The delay led to calls for Cuomo to be stripped of the emergency powers the Legislature granted him, and/or be impeached or resign.
Cuomo on Monday said his emergency powers had nothing to do with nursing homes and anyway, the Legislature can reverse any action he takes with a simple majority vote, which they haven’t.
He blamed his administration’s failure to make the data available on being overwhelmed by the work of fighting a pandemic and, in late August, by having to respond to a U.S. Department of Justice request for information on deaths in a handful of New York’s 600-plus nursing homes.
Both of these reasons have basis in fact, but by late August, the calls to release nursing home data had been ongoing for months, and the pandemic had been in full retreat statewide for months.
In retrospect, Cuomo said, silence was the wrong decision.
Without actual numbers, he said, conspiracy theories and misinformation festered. He said the politics of that don’t matter to him. But he regrets people being told or concluding on their own that because the state wasn’t being open, their loved ones died as a result of something that was done or not done in nursing homes.
“I didn’t create the disinformation and the conspiracy theories,” Cuomo said. Rather, he created the void in which they grew.
One thing underlies most of the venom lobbed at Cuomo over nursing home COVID deaths in New York state: his administration’s March 25 memo that ordered nursing homes to not deny admission to COVID-positive patients.
(In yet another revelation of data withheld by the state, The Associated Press recently reported 9,056 such admissions before May 10, when the governor banned the practice by executive order. That’s 40% more than the state had reported.)
The oft-repeated accusation is that this caused the death toll to soar. Cuomo and his aides have rejected this from every possible angle.
On Monday, Cuomo repeated many of the reasons: We were following federal guidelines, we didn’t think they’d be contagious, it was the staff who infected residents, we had to clear our hospitals quickly for the expected tidal wave of patients, the nursing homes weren’t forced to take anyone, some hospitals were overwhelmed, always best to get seniors out of hospitals as quickly as possible before they get a secondary infection.
He didn’t cite one statistic that actually supports his own case:
Nursing home deaths continued after May 10, diminished in the summer when COVID was at a lull in New York, then roared back in late 2020.
The late-2020 resurgence happened despite weekly or twice-weekly testing of residents and staff, a near-total ban on visits, and the ban on admitting anyone who is COVID-positive.
The results the Cuomo administration was forced to release last week indicate 14,100 deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities through Feb. 9, 2021. Of those, 8,605 occurred before May 11.
The state’s overall COVID death toll stood at 36,619 on Feb. 19, and 21,845 of them were reported before May 11.
If one accepts these numbers as accurate, the resulting split is strikingly close: 39 percent of nursing home deaths occurred after May 11, compared with 40.3% of all COVID deaths in New York.