NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was joined by his health commissioner Friday in denouncing a critical report from the state attorney general’s office that alleged severe under-counting of nursing home COVID-19 deaths.
“The bottom line is, the number doesn’t change,” Cuomo said, referencing the total number of state deaths from SARS CoV2, which has killed more than 40,000 New Yorkers as of Friday.
However by Friday evening, the Department of Health updated its numbers related to nursing home patients who died from COVID-19 after contracting the virus at their health facilities.
The updated data reveals more than 12,700 residents who’d been living in nursing homes died from the virus, many of them succumbing to the illness in hospitals. That’s an increase of 40% from the previous figure of 8,700.
“Ninety-six percent of the people who died are older people with comorbidities, which happens to be people in nursing homes,” Cuomo added.
Cuomo’s top assistant, Melissa DeRosa, said the state has been as transparent as possible.
“I would argue New York puts out more data on deaths than any other state in the country,” she said.
After speaking for 45 minutes on multiple matters relating to COVID-19, including reopening some indoor dining in New York City, questions about the nursing home report dominated the question and answer period for nearly an hour.
When a reporter asked about conflicts in numbers between nursing home and hospital deaths, Cuomo asked Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to respond.
“When they say there’s undercounting, that’s just factually inaccurate,” Zucker said.
Cuomo’s team said a decision was made early on to count deaths in the hospital as hospital deaths, even if the sick patient had been infected with novel coronavirus in a nursing home.
The governor blamed Michael Caputo — former President Donald Trump’s Health and Human Services spokesman whom Cuomo called a protege of political operative Roger Stone — for the criticism he and Democratic leaders in other states have faced.
“The state Department of Health followed federal guidance,” he said.
Cuomo said New York has less nursing home deaths than many other states, percentage-wise.
“That is the curse of COVID. Can you protect old people with comorbidities totally from COVID? No,” he said.
DeRosa said 37,500 nursing home staff members got infected with COVID-19 between March and June 2020.
The governor pointed out many workers could have been asymptomatic when they infected vulnerable patients.
And he returned to blaming the federal government for not getting a quick hold of the emerging pandemic.
“How did COVID come here for three months and no one knew?” he asked. “All these federal watchdogs and nobody knew. To play politics the way they did, that was mean,” Cuomo insisted.
The governor also said he knew what it was like to lose a beloved parent, referring to his own father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
“I feel the anguish and I feel the pain,” he said.
Mario Cuomo died of a heart condition in 2015.
Dexter Wilson, a middle school teacher from Brooklyn, argued Cuomo couldn’t quite understand what he went through with his father, Delroy. Delroy was a stroke victim who died from COVID-19 after getting sick at Atrium Rehab in Canarsie last spring.
“My condolences to him, but my situation was different,” Wilson said. “I saw my father on a Wednesday and on Thursday, he was gone.”
“I saw him virtually… and the next time I saw him was when I was laying his body to rest.”
The report from Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat like Cuomo, also criticized a legal “liability shield” that was instituted by the state as the COVID-19 emergency began, which prevents most families from suing nursing homes.
A number of state lawmakers believe that shield allowed the owners of “for-profit” nursing homes to save money by not buying enough personal protective equipment for staff.
There’s now a bill being introduced in the Legislature calling for that law to be repealed, and Attorney General James said the liability shield restrictions should be “loosened.”
Dexter Wilson said he thinks many nursing homes had agendas.
“It was more about the profits being made, in keeping the numbers low,” he said.