Cuomo Administration Faces Federal Probe Over Nursing Home Deaths

WINDSOR TERRACE — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is under federal investigation for its handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

On Feb. 17, the Albany Times Union reported that the F.B.I. and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York have launched a probe that is focused, at least in part, on the actions senior members of Cuomo’s coronavirus task force took in the pandemic.

A spokesperson for the governor stated that the Cuomo Administration is cooperating with the investigation.

The governor’s troubles appear to be mounting on the political front as well.

The situation has grown so tense that even after the governor spoke at a Feb. 15 briefing and attempted to clarify his administration’s actions, several elected officials blasted him and charged him with a cover-up.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the State Legislature are calling for investigations into why the Cuomo Administration apparently under-reported the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes around the state when elected officials had demanded accurate figures.

Elected officials are also calling for the governor to be stripped of the sweeping emergency powers the legislature voted to grant him in March 2020 to enable him to address the pandemic.

Cuomo has come under fire for his efforts to fight back against the criticism.

Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Democrat representing Flushing who has been outspoken in his criticism of the governor’s handling of nursing home situation, charged that Cuomo called him on his cell phone last week, berated him and threatened to destroy his career. A spokesman for Cuomo denied  the allegation and accused Kim of lying. Other state lawmakers quickly jumped to Kim’s defense.

There have been calls by Republican Party leaders for Cuomo to resign or be impeached. The State Constitution outlines a process by which a governor can be impeached. The process is similar to a president’s impeachment, with the State Assembly filing articles of impeachment and a trial held in the State Senate. New York State has no mechanism to recall a governor through a public vote.

The Cuomo controversy escalated when it was learned that Melissa DeRosa, a top aide to the New York governor, told Democratic lawmakers in a private virtual meeting that the state withheld the figures out of fear that the numbers would be used as a “political football” by the Trump Administration, which was then in power. “We froze,” DeRosa told lawmakers, according to an audio recording of the meeting obtained by the New York Post.

However, Cuomo denied a cover-up, saying Monday that his administration gave the data to the federal government first and then provided it to state lawmakers.

“We made a mistake,” Cuomo said at the briefing.

But the governor also defended his administration’s actions, saying that the accurate numbers were eventually released and that the mixup was due to the figures being placed into different categories. 

Cuomo also said the delay in releasing the data was also due to the fact that his administration was tied up trying to get a handle on the pandemic.

Kim was not impressed.

“If there’s nothing to hide, why didn’t they hand over the information when we asked for it? The information was available. They could have just disclosed it. But they chose not to do it, so there’s a distrust among the public right now,” Kim told Fox News on Feb. 16.

In January, New York State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report detailing how the state’s Department of Health under-counted the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by approximately 50 percent. The report stated that the undercount was primarily due to the agency not including the number of COVID-19 patients who died in hospitals after being transferred from nursing homes in the figures it released to the public.

The Associated Press also reported on Feb. 11 that 9,056 recovering COVID-19 patients were sent to hundreds of nursing homes during the spring of 2020. According to reports obtained by the AP, this number is more than 40 percent higher than what New York State’s Department of Health (DOH) previously released.

As of Feb. 1, there have been 9,244 confirmed and presumed reported COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, which includes nursing homes and adult care facilities. Of the 9,244 reported deaths, 9,025 have been attributed to those in nursing homes. However, the DOH has only recorded the number of seniors who have passed away in nursing homes — excluding deaths outside those facilities, such as the hospitals they were transferred to.

Republican State Senator Jim Tedisco of Glenville released a statement calling the latest developments “disgusting and shameful.” 

State Senator Julia Salazar, a Democrat representing Bushwick, tweeted out a response to Cuomo’s remarks.

“The Governor keeps trying to evade responsibility for his misjudgment (an understatement) in concealing the number of nursing home deaths by claiming that he’d informed the legislature,” she tweeted. “But this contradicts the point of his administration’s private call with legislators last week.”

A brief history

Cuomo issued an executive order on March 25, 2020, that mandated nursing homes had to admit recovering COVID-19 patients returning from hospitals. The order, which was reversed on May 10, intended to free up hospital beds, as hundreds were dying every day during the height of the pandemic.

In July 2020, the DOH reported that 6,327 recovering patients from hospitals had been allowed to return to nursing homes by the time the directive was reversed — as well as that a majority of the 310 nursing homes that admitted such patients already had one confirmed or suspected case among residents or staff members. 

In its July report, the department also said that patients sent to nursing homes posed little danger to residents because they had spent an average of nine days at the hospitals — consistent with federal guidance at the time about how long it took for people to stop being contagious.

“At least 98 person of nursing home facilities in the state had COVID in their facility before their first admission or readmission, and as we’ve seen across the nation, the major driver of infections appears to be from asymptomatic staff through no fault of their own,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker told the AP in a statement. 

Editor’s note: Staff Writer Erin DeGregorio contributed to this story.