15,000 deaths, a cover up and impeachment talks: the latest on the NY nursing home scandal

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Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, left, is joined by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo as she speaks to reporters during a news conference, Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, in New York. After a night of unusual silence, Cuomo made his first public remarks following his victory in Thursday’s Democratic primary, appearing at his office in Manhattan to talk about hurricane readiness and President Donald Trump — and, after prodding by reporters, his big win over Cynthia Nixon.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The fallout following Attorney General Letitia James’ report into New York State’s reporting of nursing home deaths continues. In January, the Attorney General’s Office claimed deaths in nursing homes had been under-reported by as much as 50%.

Alongside the misleading data, the report also included allegations of:

  • Insufficient testing of residents and staff at the beginning of the pandemic
  • A lack of personal protection equipment (PPE)
  • Admittance of COVID-19 positive patients to nursing facilities
  • Facility non-compliance

The report drew a swift reaction from lawmakers, with Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt calling for the resignation of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. The condemnation was bipartisan, with Democrat Senator James Skoufis describing Dr. Zucker’s response to the Legislature’s questions as “insulting and unacceptable.”

Dr Zucker denied there was any undercount and is due to testify before Lawmakers in February.

Lawsuit against the Department of Health

With the full death count still unknown, litigation soon followed with The Empire Center for Public Policy and Senator Jim Tedisco filing a lawsuit against the Department of Health. The Center and the Senator had filed an initial Freedom of Information request seeking the release of Health Emergency Response Data System (HERDS) data in early August, 2020.

On February 3, the New York State Supreme Court ruled Governor Cuomo had five days to respond to the request.

Following the data’s release, the Empire Center for Public Policy compiled the information in a spreadsheet which outlines: nursing home deaths by facility, county, date of death, and whether the death was in-facility or out-of-facility death, and COVID confirmed or COVID presumed.

The center also criticized the data provided, claiming it falls short of what was requested. It claims the figures released:

“Do not fully account for the deaths of some 600 residents that occurred outside of the long-term care facilities, most often in hospitals, in which the COVID-19 diagnosis was presumed rather than confirmed. “

The data also lacks the dates on which the deaths happened.

Proposed law changes

Beyond the controversy around how nursing home deaths were recorded, lawmakers have also reacted to the suggestion the homes themselves mishandled their COVID-19 response.

A number of bills aimed at making long-term care facilities safer are currently at the committee stage. The bills aim to tackle a number of issues including: oversight of nursing homes, transparency, communication with residents and their families about what’s been going on in nursing homes, infection control and PPE usage.

This doesn’t mean the reporting of data has been overlooked by lawmakers, with one of the bills requiring the reporting of deaths of nursing home residents, even if they died in hospital. The bill in question would be retroactive to March of 2020.

Over 9,000 coronavirus patients, 40% more than initially reported, ‘sent into nursing homes’

New data suggests nursing home deaths may not be the only area where the State Health Department has underreported figures.

The Associated Press has reported over 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients were sent into nursing homes during the early stages of the pandemic. This figure is more than 40% higher than the number the DOH initially reported.

The policy was scrapped amid criticism it was accelerating outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

Governor Cuomo’s office continues to refute allegations his March 25 directive helped spread sickness and death among residents.

Cover-up allegations

A transcript of a closed-door meeting in which top Democratic legislators and Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa discussed the nursing home death undercount has emerged.

The transcript appears to show DeRosa saying they “froze” out of fear that the true numbers would be “used against them” by federal prosecutors.

It is alleged fears of a federal probe launched by the Trump administration led to the under-reporting of nursing home deaths.

Several lawmakers, including Senators Jim Tedisco and Daphne Jordan responded, citing the transcript as evidence of a cover-up by the Cuomo administration.

DeRosa issued a statement in response to the leaked transcript. She said:

“I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature’s request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout. As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”

Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi also tweeted a number of responses on Twitter, one of which claimed: the “Trump administration was in the midst of a politically motivated effort to blame democratic states for COVID deaths.”

Republicans push for Federal investigation

The contents of the transcript have led Republican lawmakers to push for a U.S. Department of Justice and State Attorney General investigation into the Cuomo Administration’s handling on COVID-19 nursing home policies and data.

“Everyone involved has to be held accountable, investigated and prosecuted if necessary,” said Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt.

In early February, Congressman Tom Reed sent a letter Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson. The letter requested the Department of Justice open an investigation into Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration over COVID-19 nursing home policies and deaths.

The actions are drawing bi-partisan support, with Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins criticizing the withholding of “crucial information” and a growing number of democrats joining the Republican push to strip Governor Cuomo of his emergency powers.

Democratic Assembly Member Patricia Fahy is amongst those calling for the Governor’s emergency powers to be reassessed:

“New Yorkers expect their state government to function on basic, bedrock principles – including transparency. Rather than pointing fingers and continuing to politicize what has been a tragic number of lives lost, the state legislature and the Governor must work together to restore New Yorkers’ faith in openness and more broadly, good government at the state level.

Like most New Yorkers, I appreciated the Governor’s leadership at the height of the pandemic given an absence of leadership from the White House.

That said, the state legislature needs to revisit the emergency authorities granted when the pandemic began, and I support the efforts to restore the balance of power.”

Assemblymember Patricia Fahy

President Joe Biden’s press secretary was asked if he would support a federal investigation into COVID-19 nursing home resident deaths and responded by saying it would be up to the Department of Justice to decide on any investigation

Calls for resignation or impeachment

A number of organizations and political figures are now calling for the resignation or impeachment of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy is calling for prosecution and impeachment discussions to begin right away:

“The second most powerful person in state government and top aide to Governor Cuomo admitted on video to the premeditated and willful violation of state laws and what clearly amounts to federal obstruction of justice. Andrew Cuomo has abused his power and destroyed the trust placed in the office of governor. Prosecution and impeachment discussions must begin right away.”

New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy

Senator Jim Tedisco has called for a state and federal investigation into the matter. The Senator says if the allegations are true, the Governor should resign or be impeached and removed.

“This obstruction of justice must be investigated on the federal and state levels and my colleagues in the majority should finally use their subpoena power to get the truth under oath.

The Legislature should immediately revoke the Governor’s emergency powers as my Senate Republican colleagues and I have put forth amendments to do so for the past 14 session days so we can bring balance back to state government.

The legislature needs to pass stronger penalties to hold officials accountable for violating open government and the Freedom of Information Law, which I am drafting.

If this information that’s been reported is accurate, then Governor Cuomo has totally lost the trust of the people he represents and has violated his oath of office. He should then resign or face impeachment and removal from office.”

Senator Jim Tedisco

Schoharie Assemblyman Chris Tague has accused Governor Cuomo of “trying to hide what are now over 13,000 nursing home deaths from the public eye for the sake of protecting his political reputation and celebrity.” He says “discussions of prosecution and impeachment must begin immediately.”

“This report directly confirms what many of us had feared for months, that the Governor has been trying to hide what are now over 13,000 nursing home deaths from the public eye for the sake of protecting his political reputation and celebrity.

The Governor has put politics over human lives, and at this point discussions of prosecution and impeachment must begin immediately. If the governor lied about something this serious, we can only imagine what else he’s hidden from us during his career. With all of the talk of unity in our country’s political discourse, this is a moment for all of us in government to put aside our partisanship and stand up for the thousands of families who will never see their loved ones again.”

Assemblyman Chris Tague

The Green Party claim the Governors actions have led to the deaths of over 15,000 New Yorkers in long-term care and described the alleged cover up as “unacceptable, and it is a breach of governing duty and ethics.” They are calling for Cuomo’s impeachment.

“Gov. Cuomo’s actions last year led to the deaths of over 15,000 New Yorkers in long-term care facilities, which state Attn. General James’ report last month revealed was undercounted by 50%. Just yesterday the Associated Press reported over 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients were sent to nursing homes, which surely accelerated the mass death in those spaces.

Now we hear from Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s chief aide, that the Governor’s administration deliberately lied to the public for political gain. This is unacceptable, and it is a breach of governing duty and ethics. It is now long past time for the Legislature to initiate impeachment proceedings against Gov. Cuomo,”

Green Party Chair Gloria Mattera

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