ALBANY, N.Y. >> Trying to quell a growing outcry over the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo today launched into a 90-minute defense of his actions while lashing out at critics he said were operating in a “toxic political environment.”
Cuomo said he understood the outrage over his monthslong undercounting of deaths in those facilities but insisted no state policy contributed to that toll. At the same time, however, the governor unveiled a series of reforms to address the management and safety of nursing homes, saying, “That is the only way families will have peace of mind.”
Cuomo’s remarks, during an hour-and-a-half news conference in the state Capitol today, came as he faced one of the biggest political crises of his decadelong tenure, including a federal investigation of his administration and a move by the governor’s fellow Democrats to strip him of the unilateral emergency powers he has exercised during the pandemic.
Another prominent Democrat, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens, today joined a chorus of lawmakers backing investigations into the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, noting that “thousands of vulnerable New Yorkers lost their lives.”
“Their loved ones and the public deserve answers and transparency from their elected leadership,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement, issued during Cuomo’s news conference.
The count of deaths is at the heart of the issues confronting the Cuomo administration.
For months, the state now concedes, the official death tally of residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities was greatly underreported.
The state counted the total losses, but they were attributed to the hospitals where the patients died, not the facilities where they had lived, effectively hiding the toll the pandemic took on those facilities.
But in the wake of a scathing report three weeks ago from state Attorney General Letitia James suggesting a major undercount of deaths of nursing home and long-term care residents, the state has now updated those numbers, to more than 15,000 from about 8,500 in late January.
Cuomo again said today that he accepted blame for that undercount: “I take responsibility for all of it, period,” he said. In particular, the governor has said repeatedly, his lack of candor in releasing accurate data had created a space for false information to be propagated.
“We created a void by not producing enough public information fast enough,” Cuomo said, “and conspiracy theories and politics and rumors fill the void.”
But he simultaneously sought to reframe the debate, saying the criticism of him constituted politically motivated attacks by Republicans and others operating in a “toxic political environment.”
Cuomo had repeated a similar message for much of the week, but the crisis did not show signs of abating.
Earlier in the week, Cuomo verbally attacked a Queens assemblyman, Ron Kim, after he told reporters for The New York Times and CNN that Cuomo had berated him during a call, threatening to publicly tarnish the assemblyman and urging him to issue a statement to change remarks he had made about the nursing home issue.
Kim reiterated his story today to a national television audience during an appearance on ABC’s “The View.”
“Cuomo is an abuser,” Kim said, referring to the governor’s call to him last week. “He has abused his powers. And abusers are cowards.”
Cuomo’s office has characterized Kim as a liar, and the governor himself suggested Wednesday that the assemblyman was corrupt, accusing him of unethical and possibly criminal behavior in relationship to a 2015 law governing nail salons. (Kim denied the accusations.)
Since Wednesday, Kim has received support from several Democrats in Albany as well at City Hall.
“Look, I believe Ron Kim when he talks about what he experienced,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said on “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC. “And I believe that there has to be a really full investigation here because something happened that potentially means folks who lost their lives, family members were lost who could have been saved, and there has not been a reckoning.”
Calls for investigations from Democrats come on the heels of similar — and louder — requests from scores of Republicans, both in New York and nationally, who have seen Cuomo rise in prominence over the last year, in large part because of his perceived competence in handling the coronavirus crisis as it ravaged the state, killing more than 45,000 people.
With an unbroken string of daily news conferences in the spring, Cuomo had earned plaudits for a steady demeanor and a just-the-facts approach. Last fall, that image was burnished by a mid-pandemic memoir — offering “leadership lessons” — and the International Emmy Founders Award for “his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world.”
But that image began to unravel after the emergence of the attorney general’s findings and other news reports showing Cuomo had sometimes discarded the advice of medical experts in guiding his pandemic response.
Questions surrounding the governor’s handling of nursing homes have been percolating since March, when a guidance memo was issued that asked such facilities to admit or readmit people who were positive for the virus, a measure Cuomo said was justified by federal guidelines and implemented so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed with patients. Still, as the deaths mounted in nursing homes, there was speculation that the guidance — which was revoked in mid-May — could have caused the virus to spread among a vulnerable population.
The controversy erupted into a full-blown public relations crisis a week ago when Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, conceded in a private conversation that the administration had not provided state lawmakers with accurate counts of the death toll because of fears over an investigation by the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump.
Cuomo and Trump had often squabbled, and the governor was concerned that the investigation was politically motivated, DeRosa said, and that information “was going to be used against us.”
“Basically, we froze,” DeRosa told lawmakers.
That admission drew the interest of investigators from the FBI and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who have launched a preliminary investigation seeking information about the death count.
Cuomo made no mention of the federal probe today but defended his health department and administration at length, saying, “I’m not going to allow people to lie to the people of New York” about the causes of deaths, adding the state’s reaction to the epidemic “saved tens of thousands of lives.”
Still, he also said he felt sorrow for families that had lost loved ones, acknowledging that some factors are out of his control.
“If anyone had the perfect answer to nursing home deaths, and if anyone tells you they do, they’re lying,” he said. “Because people are going to die in nursing homes.”