In a private call with Democratic lawmakers, audio of which was leaked to the New York Post, secretary to Gov. Cuomo Melissa DeRosa said that the governor’s office “froze” when they were asked by the Department of Justice to turn in the state’s data on nursing home deaths from the coronavirus, because they were concerned that President Donald Trump would use the information as a “giant political football” against them.
In August 2020, the Justice Department requested governors from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan turn over data on nursing home deaths, states which the DOJ said had “issued Covid-19 orders that may have resulted in deaths of elderly nursing home residents.” But the department only targeted Democratic governors, which made the probes appear partisan. At the time, Cuomo and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a joint statement saying the inquiries were a “nakedly partisan deflection” and pointing out that Republican states with similar nursing home regulations around Covid-19 were not being investigated.
“[Trump] starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes,” DeRosa said on the Wednesday call of the then-president. “He starts going after [New Jersey Gov. Phil] Murphy, starts going after [California Gov. Gavin] Newsom, starts going after Gretchen Whitmer.”
Then, DeRosa said, Trump “directs the Department of Justice to do an investigation into us.”
“And basically, we froze,” DeRosa continued. “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.”
“So we do apologize,” DeRosa added. “I do understand the position that you were put in. I know that it is not fair. It was not our intention to put you in that political position with the Republicans.”
News first broke that the state undercounted nursing home Covid-19 deaths when New York’s attorney general issued a report in late January that found vast discrepancies between actual deaths and the number reported by the state health department. For example, the AG’s investigation found that the Cuomo administration was not counting nursing home deaths from the virus that occurred after a resident was transferred to a hospital.
In a statement on Friday, DeRosa said, “I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout. As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”
The news has New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio calling for a “full accounting of what happened.” The mayor appeared on Brian Lehrer’s WNYC radio show on Friday and said, “It’s very troubling. We’ve gotta know more. We now need a full accounting of what happened. Think about seniors who — their lives were in the balance and their families, you know, just desperate to get them the help they needed. We need to know exactly what happened here. We need to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
Other local officials are calling for a more public apology from the governor’s office. “It’s not enough how contrite they are with us [lawmakers],” Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens), whose uncle died in a nursing home, presumably of Covid-19, told the Post. “They need to show that to the public and the families — and they haven’t done that.”
And things don’t seem to be improving for the governor. On Friday afternoon, ProPublica reported that, according to the Empire Center, a public policy think tank, Cuomo’s administration has still not formally acknowledged “hundreds” of nursing home deaths in the state caused by the virus.