ALBANY, NY – Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and his top aides were again accused Friday of covering up the coronavirus death toll in state nursing homes after admitting withholding data in order to do so prevent possible investigations into government misconduct.
The latest revelations came after private statements by the governor’s chief adviser Melissa DeRosa and a series of reports and court orders that have nearly doubled the official death toll from nursing homes in the past two weeks.
The revelations have led Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, to scramble to contain the political fallout as lawmakers on both parties have called for criticism, including the expropriation of the governor’s emergency powers during the pandemic, federal and state investigations and the resignation of Ms. Cuomo DeRosa and other top officials.
In a conversation first covered by the New York Post, Ms. DeRosa told a group of top lawmakers on Wednesday, during a call to address the situation in nursing homes, that “we’re basically frozen” after they last Sommer was asked by Trump for information about the Justice Department administration.
At the same time, the governor’s office was faced with requests from state lawmakers for similar information.
“We were in a position where we weren’t sure whether what we would give to the Justice Department or what we would give you and what we say would be used against us and we would not. I’m not sure there will be an investigation, ”Ms. DeRosa told lawmakers, according to a partial transcript from the New York Times.
The news of Ms. DeRosa’s remarks sparked a number of angry denunciations, including from Mr. Cuomo’s fellow Democrats.
“This is a betrayal of public trust,” said Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat on twitter. “There has to be full responsibility for what happened.”
The condemnation grew louder from Republicans who have taken Mr Cuomo’s performance in nursing homes – where more than 10,000 New Yorkers died during the pandemic but the state long persisted in releasing full data – as evidence of duplicity or even crime.
“It’s time to get past the lies and finally uncover the full truth,” he said Representative Tom Reed, a Republican from the southern plains of the state, called for a federal investigation Thursday evening.
Early Friday, Ms. DeRosa, the state’s top unelected official, tried to clarify the context for her remarks, saying she was trying to explain that “we had to temporarily postpone the legislature’s request to process the federal request first . ”
“We informed the houses about it at the time,” she said, referring to the upper and lower chambers of the legislature.
She added that the administration “was thorough and transparent in our responses to the D.O.J. and then immediately had to focus our resources on introducing the second wave and vaccine”.
“As I said when I called the legislature, we weren’t able to respond to your request as quickly as anyone would have liked,” she said.
Ms. DeRosa’s statements are revealed two weeks after a damn report from Letitia James, the attorney general who accused the Cuomo administration of coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes by the thousands.
The report forced the state health department to release more than 3,800 previously unreported deaths of residents who died outside of a facility such as a hospital and who were not included on the official list of state nursing homes.
Since then, the death toll in New York nursing homes and long-term care facilities has risen from 12,743 at the end of February to approximately 15,000 confirmed and suspected deaths as of this week.
The government released the latest figures following a court order after a six-month battle between the Cuomo administration and the Empire Center, a conservative think tank that called for full coverage of nursing home deaths under the state’s freedom of information law.
This week’s virtual meeting between Ms. DeRosa and other senior administration officials, including the Health Commissioner and Budget Director of Mr. Cuomo, and leading Democratic lawmakers should bridge a growing gap between the governor’s office and the legislature.
The legislature held hearings in early August on the government’s handling of the coronavirus in nursing homes, in which the legislature asked the state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker asked repeatedly about the full extent of nursing home-related deaths. However, lawmakers were not satisfied with Mr Zucker’s failure to disclose the number of deaths of residents outside of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Several weeks later, the Senate and State Assembly officially wrote to the Health Department requesting these numbers and additional information.