Emerging criticism of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s transparency in his handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic grew louder Thursday when it was reported that Cuomo’s staff took out the true nursing home death toll in a July 2020 report, a move that significantly underplayed the virus’s impact on nursing home residents. The state health department report, which specifically examined the spread of the virus in nursing homes, omitted, at the Cuomo administration’s behest, the deaths of nursing home residents who fell sick at their care home but died in the hospital, lowering the death toll at long-term-care facilities by a third, from more than 9,000 to 6,432.
The overall death toll in New York remained the same, so why would this subset of the data matter so much to Cuomo and his team? The nursing home death toll in New York was a sore spot for Cuomo, in part because it was indeed high: More than 50 percent greater than the next highest state, neighboring New Jersey, which had recorded 6,150 nursing home facility deaths. The bigger internal problem at the time, however, was concern that the number of deaths was the direct result of an early Cuomo policy. “The tension over the death count dated to the early weeks of the pandemic when Mr. Cuomo issued an order preventing nursing homes from turning away people discharged from the hospital after being treated for Covid-19,” the New York Times notes. “The order was similar to ones issued in other states aimed at preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.”
Cuomo’s team has claimed that the numbers weren’t verified, but that seems convenient. They’ve also responded to criticism of his administration’s lack of transparency, saying it was concerned that the Trump administration would use any missteps—or even the appearance of a misstep—was a political weapon against Cuomo, who was at the time garnering praise for his straight-talking pandemic press conferences. The Times, however, notes that Cuomo and his team tightly guarded the state’s data almost from the outset. When it comes to nursing home fatalities, “by late spring, Republicans were suggesting that the order had caused a deadly spread of the virus in nursing homes,” the Times reports. “Mr. Cuomo disputed that it had. Still, critics and others seized on the way the state was publicly reporting deaths: Unlike other states, New York excluded residents who had been transferred to hospitals and died there, effectively cloaking how many nursing home residents had died of Covid-19.”
The likely answer to why Cuomo cared so much about what amounted to a mere subset of the mound of data, was that he popular at the time, uniquely so, for the three-term governor that has never been a fan favorite even among his own party. Suddenly, Cuomo was a straight-talking truth-teller at the very moment that that’s exactly what the country—or much of it—was searching for. Cuomo was making tough calls and relaying hard truths, or at least that’s how it appeared, and people responded. Out of nowhere, on the back of his blunt coronavirus fireside chats, pundits were musing about how he should join the presidential race. Cuomo, the Times, notes was already at work on a book, just months into the pandemic and before the nursing home report dropped, about his coronavirus achievements. So, let’s be honest about what looks to have happened here: Cuomo liked being popular! For, of all things, being himself. Or, as it turned out, a lightly edited version of himself—and reality. A small distinction, a numbers fudge, but one that makes all the difference.
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