In the last week, the shiny halo that many New Yorkers had thought hovered above Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s head may have dulled a little as it became clear that he had withheld data about Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes and then refused to answer questions about it. More than 15,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. At one point last August, when the Legislature and state attorney general asked for information, Mr. Cuomo decided to keep the toll secret. The Cuomo administration also refused Freedom of Information requests and aggressively fought a lawsuit seeking data in court. In response to the cover-up, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have called for the removal of the sweeping emergency power that the governor has enjoyed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Early on, as the virus was beginning to show in the state, allegations surfaced about patients being neglected and nursing home practices putting employees, residents, and visitors at risk. The state attorney general’s office set up a complaint hotline, which touched off a massive investigation.
State Attorney General Letitia James released a hard-hitting report at the end of January. Among its findings was that far more nursing home residents died of coronavirus-related causes than the New York State Department of Health had reported publically, by as much as 50 percent. It also detailed nursing homes’ failure to follow proper infectious disease protocols, such as isolation, and that poorly staffed facilities had higher fatality rates and caused what Ms. James said was “unnecessary suffering.” The report also said that some facilities pressured staff to continue to care for residents despite being ill or not meeting quarantine criteria, and falsified supply levels of P.P.E. But much of the fault was the result of state policies, too, the report found.
Dating back years, New York’s nursing home reimbursement model produced financial incentives to the owners of for-profit nursing homes to cash out rather than invest in higher staff levels and personal protective equipment, both important factors in the elevated death rates. Placing blame squarely on Governor Cuomo office, the report observed that policies requiring that Covid-19 patients be admitted to nursing homes may have put residents at an increased risk and obscured the data that could have been used to understand just how dangerous this was. One way deaths were undercounted, the investigation showed, was that patients who died off-site in a hospital were not counted; only about half the deaths of nursing home residents occurred in nursing homes. Despite these and a long list of other problems, there was little that could be done after Governor Cuomo expanded immunity for health care providers.
A day after the report, Governor Cuomo asked, “But who cares?” about whether a patient died in a hospital or in a nursing home, “They died.” He also said that Attorney General James’s report was a “political attack,” which, even if it were, missed the point entirely. Also that day, his heretofore deferential state health commissioner hurriedly released the withheld data on nursing home deaths, instantly raising the known total by thousands of residents. It was a belated gesture, which only underscored that the governor sought to block the State Legislature from performing its critical oversight function, as Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. noted on Tuesday.
Mr. Cuomo must answer for this, and, almost a year into the pandemic, emergency authority that eliminates the checks and balances in Albany — and at the county, town, and village levels — must be reversed.