Gov. Andrew Cuomo is once again in hot water over how his administration has handled nursing homes during the pandemic and how the state reported COVID-19 deaths among elderly residents. In the latest development, reporting has revealed that members of the Cuomo administration edited out a higher nursing home death toll from a July report on COVID-19 in nursing homes. It’s the earliest example of action taken by Cuomo and his aides in what many see as a coverup of the true toll of COVID-19 on nursing homes.
The controversy has evolved into a full-fledged scandal for Cuomo, drawing nationwide scrutiny. The scandal really began to pick up steam after new numbers showed some 15,000 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19, up from the under 10,000 previously reported. It grew wider after the governor’s top aide effectively admitted to stonewalling state lawmakers who sought data and Cuomo attacked a fellow Democratic lawmaker for criticizing him. The administration now faces probes from the Department of Justice, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and the FBI.
So much has happened with the state’s handling of nursing homes between the start of the pandemic and this latest bombshell news that it can be hard to keep track of it all. So City & State reviewed events, statements, directives and press reports from the past 11 months to piece together how the state got here, what was said when and when information came to light.
March 25: The state Department of Health issues a directive to nursing homes instructing them to accept coronavirus-positive residents returning from hospitals if they are medically stable. At the time, many hospitals – particularly in New York City – were overwhelmed with patients and were looking for ways to free up beds. The directive states that “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the (nursing home) solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”
March 26: The Wall Street Journal first reports on the directive.
April 3: Cuomo signs the state budget, which included sweeping new immunity protections for nursing homes, a provision buried in the massive spending bills that most legislators were not aware of until after the fact.
April 9: The operator of one nursing home in Brooklyn asked the administration if it could transfer residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases to the Javits Center, which had been set up as a federally-run coronavirus field hospital, or the USS Comfort, which had docked in Manhattan for the same reason. Both emergency facilities remained mostly empty the entire time they were open. The state denied the request.
April 17: The state for the first time releases data on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes broken down by facility.
April 20: Cuomo indicates that he is not aware of his own health department’s directive about admitting residents who test positive for the coronavirus. Health Commissioner Howard Zucker reiterates that nursing homes should accept those residents and that “the necessary precautions will be taken” to protect the residents.
April 23: Cuomo says that nursing homes “don’t have the right to object” to the state directive, adding that if they can’t properly isolate COVID-19-positive residents, they must transfer those residents to another facility or ask the state Department of Health for assistance. The directive does not reference a nursing home’s ability to contact the state or transfer residents to another facility if they cannot isolate them. Zucker says he is not aware of the state having received any such requests.
April 29:The New York Post reports that the state allowed staff in an upstate nursing home who tested positive for COVID-19 but were asymptomatic to continue to come into work. The same day, the state Department of Health issues a directive to nursing homes that any asymptomatic staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 must wait 14 days before returning to work. It’s unclear if until that point, staff who tested positive but were asymptomatic regularly returned to work at other nursing homes in the state. Reporting by Spectrum News seemed to indicate that the policy may have been more widespread than a single nursing home. The DOH also writes a letter to nursing homes telling them they “must only accept and retain those residents for whom the facility can provide adequate care” and informing them to reach out to the state if they have residents they can’t care for or properly isolate and cannot transfer them elsewhere. If a home does not adhere to coronavirus regulations, “admission must be suspended to the facility.”
May 5: The state updates how it counts COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes to include presumed cases in addition to confirmed cases, increasing the total at the time by 1,700.
May 10: Under intense pressure, Cuomo rescinds the nursing home directive with an executive order and replaces it with a policy that states that nursing homes cannot accept residents without a negative COVID-19 test.
Mid-May: The federal government begins requiring nursing homes to provide data on COVID-19 deaths, both within their facilities and for residents who died after getting sent to a hospital. Making retroactive data available, from when New York was at the peak of its outbreak, was optional, which likely led to a lower federal total tally than what the state was reporting.
May 20: Cuomo says that the state was following federal CDC guidance when it issued the March 25 directive. It’s a claim that Cuomo and his surrogates will repeat many times and one that Politifact has deemed “mostly false.” On or before this date, the state removed the March 25 directive from the Department of Health website.
May 22: The Associated Press reports that about 4,500 COVID-19 patients were sent from hospitals to nursing homes, a number based on the outlet’s own tally after the state declined to release that information.
July 6: The state issues a report analyzing COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, attributing the high death toll to asymptomatic staff and visitors rather than from COVID-19-positive patients transferring into homes under the state’s former directive. According to the report, about 6,300 residents were transferred out of hospitals under the original March directive. At the time, the state reported that about 6,200 nursing home residents had died of COVID-19.
July 24: Cuomo said New York is 35th in the country in terms of nursing home deaths as a percentage of total COVID-19 deaths in the state. The governor will repeatedly tout a low percentage compared to other states.
Aug. 3: The state Legislature holds a hearing on nursing homes where lawmakers grilled Zucker about COVID-19 deaths in the facility. Zucker refused to provide the full tally of coronavirus deaths, saying the state was still auditing that information. On the same day, the Empire Center for Public Policy submits a FOIL request seeking nursing home coronavirus death data. This is also the day that the state partially rolled back increased immunity for nursing home operators.
Aug. 12:The Associated Press reports that the state’s true nursing home death total could be over 11,000, much higher than the 6,600 the state was reporting at the time, if the state accounted for nursing home residents who died in hospitals, which every other state does.
Aug. 20: Cuomo dismisses concerns about a nursing home death undercount, saying during a radio interview, “If you die in the nursing home, it’s a nursing home death. If you die in the hospital, it’s called a hospital death.” The same day, state lawmakers send a letter requesting answers to questions that remained unanswered after the Aug. 3 hearing.
Aug. 26: The federal Department of Justice requests data on nursing homes during the pandemic from New York, along with other states that had issued directives that may have contributed to their nursing home COVID-19 death totals.
September: The Cuomo administration asks legislative leaders for more time to respond to their letter seeking data.
Sept. 3: Then-President Donald Trump attacks Cuomo for the state’s nursing home death count, citing the 11,000 number reported by the Associated Press the month before.
Sept. 18: The Empire Center sues for the release of nursing home death data alleging the state failed to provide the information in a timely manner after the think tank filed a FOIL request.
Sep. 30: Cuomo accuses those criticizing how the state handled nursing homes during the pandemic of politicizing people’s deaths.
Oct. 12: When asked about the full nursing home death tally lawmakers and others sought, Zucker reiterated that the state would release the information once “all the data is accurate.”
Oct. 28: DOJ announces that it is expanding its inquiry into New York because the state is the only in the country not to include as part of its nursing home COVID-19 death totals residents who had transferred to hospitals.
Jan. 28: State Attorney General Letitia James releases a report on nursing homes during the pandemic that estimates that the state is undercounting COVID-19 deaths among nursing home and long-term care facility residents by as much as 50%. That evening, Zucker releases a statement about the report that reveals that the state’s nursing home death tally is 12,473 when the deaths of residents transferred to hospitals are included. The state at the time had reported 8,700 deaths on the Department of Health website.
Feb. 3: A state judge rules that the state illegally withheld nursing home data that the Empire Center sought through a FOIL request.
Feb 6: The state DOH website updates to reflect nursing home deaths that occured in hospitals, which is then 13,163.
Feb. 10: The Cuomo administration meets with Democratic lawmakers behind closed doors, who later release the letter the administration gave them that provided answers to the questions legislators sent back in August. The letter raised the total COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes and other adult-care facilities to 15,049 through Feb 9.
Feb 11: The New York Post reports that at the Feb. 10 meeting with lawmakers, Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa apologized for stonewalling Democratic legislators, attributing the delay in providing information to the DOJ probe. She said the administration “froze” when it received the inquiry letter and that they feared that releasing the information would be “used against us.”
Feb. 12: DeRosa releases a transcript of her remarks that were reported the night before and a statement defending them, in which she writes, “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.”
Feb. 15: Cuomo directly addresses the scandal for the first time since the Post story broke, admitting that his administration created an information “void” by not releasing nursing home death data more quickly. But he did not actually apologize for any action his administration did or did not take.
Feb. 16: Several Assembly members circulate a letter seeking to strip Cuomo of his emergency powers and accusing him of obstruction of justice. The Post writes about the letter and the obstruction of justice accusations, and quotes Assembly Member Ron Kim, who has been a frequent critic of Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
Feb. 17: Cuomo attacks Kim, as well as the Post, during a press conference, referencing both the story from the day before and the story breaking the news of DeRosa’s comments. The governor accuses Kim of past pay-to-play corruption and dismisses his criticisms as part of a yearslong political vendetta. Later that day, CNN reports that Kim accused the governor of threatening him in a phone call after the Post reported on DeRosa’s comments to lawmakers. The Cuomo administration releases the full transcript of the Feb. 10 Zoom call with Democratic lawmakers. The Times Union first reports that federal prosecutors in Brooklyn and the FBI are investigating Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Reporting later revealed that the federal prosecutors did not open their investigation until after DeRosa’s comments to lawmakers leaked. Democrats in the state Senate also say they will pass legislation to curtail Cuomo’s emergency pandemic powers.
Feb. 22: A handful of state Democratic Committee members introduce a resolution to formally censure Cuomo over his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic and for allegedly covering up the true number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19.
March 4:The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times report that Cuomo’s aides edited the July report on nursing home deaths to remove the higher death toll included in the first draft. Originally, the authors of the report from the Department of Health included out-of-facility fatalities, like if a resident had been transferred to a hospital. This is well before a federal request for data that Cuomo aides in part faulted for the delay in making that information available. Members of Cuomo’s COVID-19 task force took out those numbers, which would have made the death toll in nursing homes far higher than Cuomo stated publicly. Health officials also said administration members made changes to downplay the impact of the March 25 directive on nursing home deaths. His administration said in the response that the data could not be “adequately verified,” so it was removed, but that the change did not impact the overall conclusions of the report.