Cuomo apologizes for 'void' in information, not for nursing home decision

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. | AP Photo/Hans Pennink, Pool

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declined to apologize for his administration’s decision to let Covid-19 patients into nursing homes during a briefing on Monday, his first public comments since a top aide said last week that the governor’s office “froze” when asked to deliver data on nursing home deaths.

The governor, who seemed far more morose than usual and choked up several times, did say he was sorry his administration did not prioritize the release of complete information about the spread of Covid-19 in nursing facilities. He repeatedly said that inaction created a “void” of accurate information that was filled by political opponents.

But when prompted by reporters’ questions, he declined to deliver an apology for the March order to have nursing homes accept patients with coronavirus.

“Apologize? Look I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void,” Cuomo said. “The void allowed misinformation and conspiracy, and now people are left with the thought of ‘Did my loved one have to die?’ And that is a brutal, brutal question to pose to a person. And I want everyone to know everything was done — everything was done — by the best minds in the best interest, and the last thing that we wanted to do, the last thing that I wanted to do, was to aggravate a terrible situation.”

Here’s a summary of how Cuomo defended himself on an issue that has besieged his administration in recent weeks:

On the initial order:

Decisions like the one his administration made to send some patients from hospitals to nursing homes should not be considered “political decisions,” he said. “They’re all made on the best information the medical professionals have at the time. … Nobody’s been here before.”

“Patients, particularly senior citizens, should not remain in hospitals longer than necessary, because they can get a secondary infection. …. At the time, remember what was going on in March, the experts were projecting that our problem and our critical need was hospitals’ capacity.”

There’s no evidence that the decision was actually responsible for the high death rate in group facilities, argued Cuomo, who pointed to charts showing the percentage of Covid fatalities in New York that occurred in such locations was lower than in other states.

“We have 613 nursing homes in the state — 365 received a person from the hospital. Of the 365 who received a person from this March 25 guidance, 98 percent of those 365 already had Covid in their facility. Covid did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals. Covid got into the hospitals by staff walking into the nursing home when they didn’t even know they had Covid.”

On what he might have done differently:

“Most of all, the void we created allowed disinformation, and that created more anxieties for the families of loved ones,” he said.

“It was horrific. And then the void in information that we created started misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and now people have to hear that and they don’t know what is the truth. The truth is everybody did everything they could. The truth is you had the best medical professionals and advice on the globe. The truth is it was in the middle of a terrible pandemic. The truth is Covid attacks senior citizens. The truth is with all we know, people still die in nursing homes today.”

On the U.S. Justice Dpartment probe:

A New York Post report last week claimed that top staffer Melissa DeRosa told legislators that the administration had not released data on nursing home deaths because they were trying to shield it from federal prosecutors. The administration has since said that the quotes used to back up this idea were misrepresented, an idea on which Cuomo elaborated.

“Last August, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Democratic governors. … The New York State Legislature also sent a letter asking for information on nursing homes. We paused the state legislators’ request while we were finishing the DOJ request. We told both houses, the Assembly and the Senate, that we had a DOJ request for information and we were prioritizing that.”

The DOJ request was “replied to fully,” Cuomo said.

But legislators have said in recent days that Cuomo told them no such thing. “Other than what was reported in the news, the Speaker had no knowledge of an official Department of Justice inquiry,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s office said in a Friday statement.

That’s due to failures of legislative staffers, Cuomo said on Monday.

“The staff of the Assembly and Senate were told that we were responding to the DOJ. … Who the staff told on their staff, I don’t know. … Legislative staff was told by my staff. OK? Legislative staff was told. Top legislative staff was told. … We did tell the houses and I’m sure there was a breakdown.”

On calls to investigate his administration:

“There is nothing to investigate.”

On his emergency powers:

The Post story prompted numerous state legislators to announced their support for efforts to weaken Cuomo’s emergency powers, which let him suspend or enact state laws by executive order because of the pandemic.

“Emergency powers have nothing to do with nursing homes,” Cuomo noted.

(The March decision was a directive from the Department of Health, which could have been issued even in normal times.)

He also made the case that he’s much better situated to handle things like shutdown orders than legislators.

“These are public health decisions, they’re not local political decisions, and they have to be made on a public health basis. This virus is serious. And I understand these decisions are difficult politically. … If you made theses decisions via a poll, none of them would happen, and more people would die.”

The Daily News reported on Sunday that some legislators have proposed using the emergency powers and the possibility of subpoenas as bargaining chips in upcoming budget talks.

“You can’t use … an investigation to leverage a person in another matter,” said Cuomo, who agreed to shut down a Moreland Commission that was investigating corruption in the Legislature in order to get some campaign finance reforms into the 2014 budget. “You can’t use the subpoena or the threat of a subpoena or the threat of an investigation to leverage a person to do something else. That’s illegal.”

On his staff:

DeRosa, whose conversation with legislators prompted the recent fury over nursing homes, was notably silent during Monday’s briefing. She usually participates more than anybody but the governor.

Cuomo did, however, take time to praise state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

“If we had to pay him what he was worth we couldn’t afford it, and he gave his best advice with the information he had at the time,” he said. “I would trust Dr. Zucker with my mother’s care. That’s why I trust him with your mother’s care. I wouldn’t have anyone as the health commissioner who I wouldn’t trust with my mother, and that’s why I trust him with your mother.”

On what’s next:

“Our focus is going to be on the for-profit nursing homes. … I have long believed that there’s a tension in for-profit nursing home because those institutions are trying to make money. If you’re trying to make profit, it’s too easy to sacrifice patient care,” he said.

He will propose mandates such as “how much profit you can make” as a nursing home owner in his forthcoming budget amendments, he said.

Response to Monday’s briefing:

“The Governor seems incapable of comprehending that it was his Administration at fault, and nobody else. He continues to shift the blame anywhere but upon himself and his top officials,” Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt said in a statement.

“Governor Cuomo is right — a ‘void’ has caused a problem,” said Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro, a Republican. “It is a void of leadership, a void of honesty, a void of compassion, decency and a complete and utter void of respect for the people of New York. His rambling, lying, incoherent finger-pointing press conference was just the latest chapter in his failed administration.”

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