NEW YORK — Under fire over his management of the coronavirus' lethal path through New York's nursing homes, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday the state didn't cover up deaths but should have moved faster to release some information sought by lawmakers, the public and the press.
"All the deaths in the nursing homes and hospitals were always fully, publicly and accurately reported," the Democratic governor said, weeks after the state was forced to acknowledge that its count of nursing home deaths excluded thousands of residents who perished after being taken to hospitals. He explained the matter Monday as a difference of "categorization," with the state counting where deaths occurred and others seeking total deaths of nursing home residents, regardless of the location.
"We should have done a better job of providing as much information as we could as quickly as we could," he said at a virtual news conference. "No excuses: I accept responsibility for that."
Cuomo, who has seen his image as a pandemic-taming leader dented by a series of disclosures involving nursing homes in recent weeks, said he would propose reforms involving nursing homes and hospitals in the upcoming state budget, without giving details.
But he continued to blame a "toxic political environment," and "disinformation" for much of the complaints surrounding his administration's handling of the issue.
The governor's comments didn't satisfy state Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat and outspoken critic of the administration's approach to nursing homes during the pandemic. Kim's uncle died of a presumed case of COVID-19 in a New York nursing home in April.
"I didn't think it was much of an apology," Kim said. "It doesn't pass the smell test."
"But what gets lost, ultimately, is: If they were transparent, if they did disclose everything in real time, we could have had different policies … and that would have had a different outcome in how we protected our communities."
The head of a major association of New York nursing homes said the state erred by focusing too much on hospitals early in the pandemic and leaving nursing homes "scrambling to safeguard their residents and staff."
"Policymakers and legislators must stop the blame game" and work more closely with nursing homes, said Stephen Hanse, CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and New York State Center for Assisted Living.
State lawmakers have been calling for investigations, stripping Cuomo of his emergency powers and even his resignation after new details emerged this week about why certain nursing home data wasn't disclosed for months, despite requests from lawmakers and others.
First, a report late last month from Democratic state Attorney General Letitia James examined the administration's failure to tally nursing home residents' deaths at hospitals. The state then acknowledged the total number of long-term care residents' deaths is nearly 15,000, up from the 8,500 previously disclosed.
Next, in reply to a Freedom of Information request from the Associated Press, the state Health Department released records this week showing that more than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients in New York were released from hospitals into nursing homes in the pandemic's early months — over 40% higher than the state had said previously, because it wasn't counting residents who returned from hospitals to homes where they already had lived.
Cuomo and his administration have maintained that the hospital patients didn't drive nursing home outbreaks, saying the patients likely weren't contagious anymore and virtually all the homes that admitted them had cases already. Still, the governor stopped allowing such admissions in May.
Late this week, it emerged that top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa had told Democratic lawmakers that the tally of nursing home residents' deaths at hospitals — data that legislators had sought since August — was delayed because officials worried that the information was "going to be used against us" by the Trump administration's Department of Justice.
Echoing an explanation DeRosa gave Friday, Cuomo said the state was slow to respond to the lawmakers because officials prioritized dealing with requests from the Justice Department and were busy dealing with the work of the pandemic: "It's not like people were in the South of France," he said.
"When we didn't provide information, it allowed press, people, cynics, politicians, to fill the void," he said, and "it created confusion and cynicism and pain for the families."
"The truth is: Everybody did everything they could."
But nursing home residents' advocate Richard Mollot said the state has fallen short for years on overseeing nursing home care.
"The governor has the power to take the steps necessary to ensure that nursing homes dedicate the resources needed to ensure safety," said Mollot, the executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition. "Every day of delay is another day of unnecessary suffering."