Gov. Andrew Cuomo defended his administration’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic a day after Attorney General Letitia James’s office released a report that found the state undercounted the death toll of nursing home residents during the crisis.
“Whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home — people died,” Cuomo said, adding, “Everyone did the best they could.”
On one hand, Cuomo once again said the criticism was generated by his Republican critics while also suggesting deaths of elderly people living in congregate settings would be inevitable during the pandemic.
“It’s continuing today even with all the testing that we’re doing,” Cuomo said on Friday at a news conference. “If you look at New York state we have a lower percentage of deaths in nursing homes than other states. A third of all deaths in this nation are from nursing homes. New York state we’re only at 28%, but we’re below the naitonal average in nursing homes. But who cares — 33, 28 — died in a hospital, died in a nursing home. They died.”
James, a Democrat, released a report that in turn led state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to reveal hours later the death toll of those who have died in nursing homes and residents who later died in hospitals.
At the same time, the report suggested deaths may have been caused by a March 25 state order that required nursing homes to take in COVID-19 positive patients if they were able to. The report also backed up assertions Cuomo has made in public before: The order followed a federal guidance.
“This became a political football,” Cuomo said. “Whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home — people died. People died.”
Republicans in the state Legislature have called for Zucker’s resignation and members of both parties are pushing for the commissioner to appear before them. Zucker is scheduled to do so next month.
Lawmakers had been pushing since at least the summer for a more complete accounting of nursing home deaths and where they occurred. Health officials this week said an “audit” of the death toll was continuing.
“When I saw the attorney general report, decide that we need to finish that up quickly, and get those numbers out in real time,” Zucker said on Friday.
Zucker also again disputed New York officials under counted deaths in nursing homes overall.
“That total number has not changed,” he said. “We wanted to be sure those numbers were accurate.”
Still, it’s not clear what the report will mean for the long term and whether it would have an impact on the state’s nursing home policies going forward in the pandemic. The investigation also identified a lack of personal protective equipment and staffing as factors that led to the death toll in the facilities.
Family members of nursing home residents who have died, meanwhile, continued to press for answers this week on what happened in the early months of the pandemic. Cuomo said he understood their anguish.
“It’s a tragedy. I understand maybe the instinct or the blame or some relief for the pain that you’re feeling. it’s a tragedy,” Cuomo said.
“I understand the pain. I understand the search for answers. I feel the anguish and I feel the pain. I get the anger. My father died,” he said, referring the late Gov. Mario Cuomo who died in 2015. “I wish I had someone to blame. It would make me feel better, maybe.”