Zucker defends state's handling of COVID nursing home policies
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff were in damage control mode Thursday as they faced two scandals: the governor’s handling of nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic and the months-long suppression of the true number of residents’ deaths, and allegations that Cuomo sexually harassed a former staffer.
Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, testified at a long-awaited legislative budget hearing. Zucker -- who had postponed his testimony, originally scheduled for three weeks ago -- appeared 2½ hours late. He immediately addressed the nursing home controversy.
Zucker said with all of the pandemic policies being put into place last spring, including those affecting nursing homes, decisions had to made quickly before science made things more clear.
“Yes, there were deaths. Too many,” Zucker told the committees. “And yes, there have been questions.”
Zucker continued to defend a March 25 directive by the governor that required nursing homes to take back from hospitals residents who were sick with COVID-19. Critics have said that led to more deaths.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Rob Ortt made a rare appearance at the budget hearing, which is usually conducted by lower-ranking committee chairs. He asked why the March 25 directive was rescinded on May 10 if did not cause any harm.
He pointed to a study by the government watchdog group the Empire Center -- using the health department’s own data, obtained through a judge’s order -- that showed the directive may have led to thousands more deaths in the homes. A report by state Attorney General Letitia James issued a similar finding.
“Both … concluded that the March 25 directive did contribute to the spread and, by extension, contributed to fatalities in nursing homes,” Ortt said.
Zucker answered that he’s sticking with the conclusion of a report that he issued last July. It said nursing home staff who might not have known they were carrying the virus brought the disease into the homes.
“There was 37,000 staff who ended up having COVID, and they brought it in advertently,” Zucker said. “At a time when we did not know about asymptomatic spread.”
Zucker also faced questions from nearly three dozen lawmakers, including Democrats like Assembly Insurance Committee Chairman Kevin Cahill. He asked about the 10-month-long delay in making public the number of sick nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals and died there.
After the attorney general found that the Cuomo administration had undercounted the numbers by 50%, Zucker released the numbers, which confirmed the AG’s report and showed that 15,000 nursing home residents and residents of other long-term care facilities died of the virus.
Cuomo’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, in a private meeting with Democratic lawmakers, said the administration “froze” last fall when the federal Justice Department started an inquiry, and that’s why the information to lawmakers was delayed.
“Were you directed by the office of the governor not to prepare that response, or was that a decision that you also made in your own office?” Cahill asked.
Zucker did not directly answer the question. Later, he cited as his reason a recently announced probe by the U.S. Attorney of Eastern New York. Zucker echoed earlier statements by Cuomo, who said it was a mistake to withhold the information for so long, because it created an information “void.”
But the health commissioner said he was too busy last summer and fall managing the deadly virus to compile all the numbers and make them public.
“There was a pandemic, which we continue to fight today,” Zucker said, “and there were many issues that were on my desk.”
The health commissioner also defended a decision to grant nursing homes full legal immunity for any potential mistakes made during the pandemic, saying it’s “not true” that the homes used the law to cut corners or not provide adequate care.
Meanwhile, a longtime associate of Cuomo held a hastily arranged telephone news conference to attest to the governor’s handling of nursing home policies during the pandemic.
Steve Cohen, a friend of the Cuomo family for over 30 years, worked for the governor when he was state attorney general. He was Cuomo’s first chief of staff when Cuomo became governor over a decade ago and is now head of Empire State Development Corp. He said he is also consulting for the governor on the nursing home matter.
Cohen said he’s been advising the governor on nursing home policies and he attributes much of the controversy to politics. He traced the troubles back to the Democratic National Convention, in August 2020, when Cuomo gave a speech critical of former President Donald Trump.
He said Trump tweeted that Cuomo was a “nursing home killer” and an inquiry from Trump’s federal Department of Justice began a few days later.
“What I view having now come in to look at this, as the politicization of an issue that should simply be a public health issue,” Cohen said.
Cohen also addressed the other controversy plaguing the administration: allegations of sexual harassment by former economic development aide Lindsey Boylan, who said the governor inappropriately touched and kissed her, and invited her to play strip poker during a plane ride. The governor denies the allegations.
Cohen said while Cuomo can be a difficult boss, he’s never witnessed any behaviors that crossed the line into harassment.
“He has never shied from giving those around him, those who are working for him in his administration, accurate blunt feedback,” said Cohen. “He has his opinion, and he shares it with you. That is not for everyone.”
Boylan was an employee at Empire State Development until 2018, but Cohen said he was not there at the time and can’t comment specifically on her allegations.
Meanwhile, the Time’s Up Foundation, created at the beginning of the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement, joined others -- including several Democratic and Republican lawmakers -- in calling for an independent investigation of Boylan’s charges against Cuomo.
The governor has not commented since Boylan detailed her allegations Wednesday in the online platform Medium, but he did deny any wrongdoing when Boylan first alluded to her accusation in a tweet in mid-December.
Cuomo, who is president of the National Governors Association, introduced remarks by President Joe Biden, at the group’s annual meeting late Thursday.