The effort by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office to delay accurate reporting of the COVID death toll among nursing-home residents was more widespread than initially known, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, detailing how Cuomo’s aides interacted with state officials in the alleged cover-up.
Senior aides including secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa — Cuomo’s closest deputy — “engaged in a sustained effort to prevent the state’s own health officials, including the commissioner, Howard Zucker, from releasing the true death toll to the public or sharing it with state lawmakers,” the Times wrote, according to interviews and documents the newspaper obtained. The audit and effort last spring and summer ran parallel to efforts by some of the same aides to help Cuomo write a book about his supposedly heroic COVID response, and as the governor was criticized by Republicans for a policy of releasing people recovering from COVID from hospitals and back to nursing homes.
Amid criticism about Mr. Cuomo’s policies, the Health Department began preparing a report on the issue in the spring of 2020, under the close watch of the governor’s top advisers.
“We are getting anxious over here on this report,” wrote Ms. DeRosa in an email to health officials and top Cuomo aides on June 18, which was reviewed by The Times. She laid out what the strongest points that should be made in the report were “from my perspective”; each had to do with knocking down the idea that readmitting infected people to nursing homes was problematic.
“Needs to be able to stand up to scrutiny and definitively tell the story,” Ms. DeRosa added.
The final version of the report, which The Times has reported was rewritten several times by senior advisers to Mr. Cuomo and published in early July, emphasized that admissions from hospitals “were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.” Instead, the report contained the lower death count and cited staff as the most likely source of infections.
But another version of the study, aimed at the scientific press and drafted at the same time by nearly a dozen health officials, took a more nuanced view.
That draft, reviewed by The Times, reached the same conclusions but included a lengthy paragraph describing the limitations of the analysis, such as a lack of information about staff-resident interactions. It put the number of residents with Covid-19 killed in the pandemic at 9,739 through the end of May, far higher than what the administration was saying publicly at the time.
DeRosa ordered an audit in mid-August of the data that Zucker testified about to the legislature, and it flagged roughly 600 deaths for further investigation. The Cuomo administration cited a Justice Department investigation as the reason the audit’s findings were not released then to lawmakers. Lawmakers, however, say that was not the reason they were given at the time. Two draft letters containing the new toll were prepared for lawmakers, but not sent, according to the Times.
For months, the state released data only on deaths of nursing home residents and staff that occurred in the nursing homes themselves. That meant nursing home patients who contracted the virus and died at hospitals were counted as COVID deaths in general, not as nursing-home-related fatalities. It was only in January that the controversy came to light, after a report from New York Attorney General Letitia James released more complete information, revealing that the count first issued by the state’s health department could be as little as half of the true death toll that stood at over 15,000. “That was something Mr. Cuomo’s aides had known since the previous spring,” the Times said it found.
Elkan Abramowitz, a lawyer representing Cuomo’s office, told the Times there was no cover-up, just an effort by DeRosa and others to make sure the data was correct before releasing it to lawmakers and the public. “The whole brouhaha here is overblown to the point where there are cynical suggestions offered for the plain and simple truth that the chamber wanted only to release accurate information that they believed was totally unassailable,” he said. “The chamber was never satisfied that the numbers that they were getting from D.O.H. were accurate.”
The state government’s handling of the total number of nursing-home deaths is now being investigated by federal prosecutors and prompted some of the various calls for Cuomo to resign, which come on top of demands from lawmakers that he step down over a series of allegations of sexual misconduct.