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Cuomo defends blocking Health Department from releasing nursing home deaths

Darren McGee/Office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at the Belle Center in Buffalo Thursday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo defended his handling of nursing home data while speaking in Buffalo Thursday, as more details emerged about his alleged cover-up of the true death toll.

The New York Times reported Cuomo’s administration withheld the number of nursing home residents to die of COVID-19 in hospitals for at least five months last year, preventing its own Department of Health from revealing the number to the public and state lawmakers. 

The health department produced a scientific paper last spring that included the number, but it was never published. The health department also drafted two letters for state lawmakers last fall that included the number, but they were never sent out. 

Cuomo, speaking at the Belle Center in downtown Buffalo as part of the state’s vaccination effort, maintained this was done to make sure the number was accurate. 

“It wasn't about the number. It was about the accuracy of the number,” he said.

Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, did not trust the health department’s count of the deaths, according to the Times’ report. In August, Cuomo’s top coronavirus advisor, Gareth Rhodes, flagged roughly 600 deaths as needing more verification. 

“Now, you could say, ‘Well, so what? 600.’ Yeah, 600 lives is a big deal,” Cuomo said. “And accuracy is a big deal.” 

Around the same time the 600 deaths were flagged, then-President Trump’s Department of Justice announced an inquiry into New York and three other Democrat-controlled states’ handling of nursing homes.

Cuomo said that only made he and his aides want to further verify the number.

“When you are under investigation by the Department of Justice, every piece of paper you submit you better be 100% right that that is accurate,”  he said. “Whatever you say, they can use against you.”

However, it would still be another five months before the Cuomo administration finally revealed the number. The disclosure came in early February, only after a scathing report from the New York State Attorney General’s Office found the administration had undercounted the nursing home death toll by as much as 50%.

The Cuomo administration disclosed that nearly 4,000 nursing home residents died of COVID after being taken to a hospital, making the nursing home death toll about 40% higher than what it had previously reported.

Cuomo argued that what truly matters is the state accurately reported the total number of New Yorkers to die of COVID. 

“You go to a hospital, but you die seven days later. Is that a hospital death or a nursing home death? You're dancing on the head of a pin,” he said. “We always put out the total number of deaths."

The FBI is currently investigating whether Cuomo and his aides provided the Department of Justice with false nursing home death data last year, which could constitute a crime. 

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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