What we saw last week in Attorney General Letitia James’ report on New York’s handling of the novel-coronavirus outbreak in nursing homes was not a revelation. It was the confirmation of our worst fears.
The thousands of Empire State families who have been begging for answers for months knew firsthand what the attorney general has now methodically confirmed. So do the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable residents who are now begging for COVID-19 vaccinations and can’t get them.
The “Hunger Games” vaccine rollout plaguing our state these days is the horrifying sequel to Gov. Cuomo’s and Health Commissioner Howard Zucker’s previous failure in our nursing homes. Their awful decisions cost lives, and rather than face accountability, they tried to cover it up. James’ report lays the facts bare for all to see.
Cuomo’s Department of Health underreported thousands of COVID-19-related deaths in New York’s nursing homes, period (as the governor is fond of saying).
As the old adage goes, figures don’t lie, but liars do figure. By distorting pandemic death statistics to suit his boss’ political needs, Zucker forfeited his credibility as a physician and a public servant amid the worst public-health crisis in a century. A governor who cares about credibility, who values telling the public the truth, would have already asked for Zucker’s resignation. Not this governor.
To hear Cuomo describe it, his administration continues to do no wrong. “Who cares” where these nursing-home residents ultimately perished, he callously asks. “They died.” And anybody who dares criticize the administration is accused of “playing politics.” Others who lost relatives, such as Fox meteorologist and Post contributor Janice Dean, are more or less told to shut up.
Except these are very serious accusations, levied against the governor by the attorney general, our state’s highest-ranking prosecutor and a member of the governor’s own political party.
The truth is, Cuomo is constitutionally incapable of admitting a mistake, taking personal responsibility or recalibrating his approach. He fails the transparency test on issue after issue, year after year. His promises are only as good as his momentary calculated political self-interest. And New York state is paying for it. We can’t continue to govern this state according to the dictatorial instincts of one man.
This is where the state Legislature must come into play, and I pledge to New Yorkers that we will come into play.
My conference has been demanding answers for months. We, along with the loved ones of those who tragically perished in our nursing homes last year, have been pleading with the New York state Senate majority to take action and send subpoenas to the stonewalling executive branch.
State Sen. James Skoufis, chairman of the Senate Investigations Committee, whose responsibility is to investigate these nursing-home deaths, has inexplicably and inexcusably declined our calls to this task. He and his Senate Democratic colleagues talk a big game when it comes to getting the answers New Yorkers deserve, but they haven’t done a single thing to make that happen.
There comes a point in time when you have to ask why the majority seems content to abdicate its governmental responsibilities. Sure, it’s easy to let the executive do all the work. But it’s also dangerous, as this governor’s mistakes on COVID-19 demonstrate. We were elected to a co-equal branch of government, because all New Yorkers suffer when our state government has no system of checks and balances.
My colleagues and I began and ended last Thursday calling for Zucker’s resignation. This continues to be a necessary first step to restoring public trust in the state Department of Health, a task of paramount importance during a once-in-a-century pandemic. The ultimate objective on the long road back to government accountability, though, is a full, independent investigation of the Cuomo administration’s response to the pandemic.
We need real numbers. Real numbers. We need sworn testimony. We need to figure out what went wrong in our nursing homes, and what’s going wrong now in our failed vaccination efforts.
The attorney general’s report is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Whether it happens at the state or federal level, we will continue to demand an independent investigation, because that’s what New Yorkers deserve.
Robert Ortt (R) is the minority leader in the New York state Senate.
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