S1: Hayzlett podcast listeners help us make a better slate by answering our survey. It’s only going to take a few minutes and you can find it at Slate Dotcom Survey. And if you’re a slate plus member, we would especially love for you to chime in. Tell us how to make Slate plus indispensable go to sleep dotcom survey. Jimmy Vehle kind covers New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for The Wall Street Journal, and for the past year, he’s been showing up at the state capitol in Albany for the governor’s press conferences.
S2: They happen usually in what’s called the red room of the state capitol. And this is the governor’s ceremonial office. It’s where Franklin Roosevelt worked. It’s where the governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, worked.
S3: Good morning. Happy Friday. For the first half of the pandemic, these junkets would happen every day. Ostensibly, the governor was there to give an update on the state’s coronavirus response, but he would also dole out dad jokes, show off his pension for graphic design. He reportedly makes his own PowerPoint slides. One day, the governor rolled out a giant Styrofoam mountain range that his staff had crafted. It was a visual metaphor for the coronavirus surge in his home state.
S4: This is the mountain that New Yorkers fly. You know, I keep showing the curve. This is the curve.
S2: One of the things that was interesting about this pandemic is that people not just in New York but around the world got to see some of the works of Andrew Cuomo.
S4: This was the trajectory of covid in our state.
S2: We don’t want to climb this mountain again, he sort of has a creative energy that comes out weird ways he’s known for quoting an imaginary person, something he took from his father, a guy named E.J. Parkinsonian, who doesn’t exist.
S5: I feel like I know so much about Governor Cuomo. I didn’t know about the imaginary friend Jay Parkinson.
S2: Yeah. Whenever they wanted, like a truism, like if you’re if you’re going through hell, keep going. They just attribute it to like AJ Parkinson.
S1: This quirkiness became part of a lovable public persona for the governor during a time of crisis. But Jimmy says there’s this other side to the governor, a side that has not been on display quite as publicly over the last year.
S6: Cuomo his aides have previously said that, you know, yeah, he can be a bully, but he gets stuff done. In fact, one of the governor’s longtime confidantes again, and Steve Cohen said during his eighteen re-election campaign, your boy is my champion.
S1: The governor’s bullying side, it started creeping back into view as the pandemic ground on. Cuomo called Jimmy himself obnoxious when he got too inquisitive at a presser back in November. And last week, a state legislator, Ron Kim, went on The View to say Cuomo is an abuser after a phone call in which he claims the governor threatened his job as governor.
S7: Cuomo made threats of retaliation like this before. To your knowledge, and why do you think it was so long for people to finally come to this story? Yeah, Cómo is an abuser?
S8: He has abused his powers, you know, abusers, more powers and he is, quote, in trouble. Chromeo in trouble. That’s a good question.
S6: Cuomo calls people he does this. You can use polite language, you can call it intense tactics. You can say it’s a full court press. If you want to make a basketball analogy or if you’re someone like Ron Kim, you could say that he’s a bully. He calls people up and he threatens them. He yells at them, he screams, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
S2: And that’s not new. What’s happening, though, is the bloom is coming off the rose in the eyes of voters and in the eyes of officials and lawmakers about his pandemic response.
S3: Today on the show, Democrats in New York had been congratulating Governor Cuomo, calling him a pandemic hero. Now they are calling the governor out. So how did Cuomo fortunes change so drastically? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: It’s criticism of New York State’s coronavirus response that’s irritated Governor Cuomo to the point of lashing out, specifically criticism of how the governor’s office has been counting the deaths of covid patients in nursing homes. So I asked Jimmy Vehle kind to take me back and explain how this data error could lead the governor to reveal a less savory side of his personality, a side of himself he’s managed to keep under wraps, at least for the last few months. It turns out this data error, it’s tangled up in some policy decisions the Cuomo administration made about nursing homes way back at the beginning of the pandemic.
S2: Think you have to start in the first weeks of March where there were really. Lots of unknowns, far more of what was not known than was known, and Governor Cuomo had just sort of presided over a slow glide shut down of the state. It finally came to pass on March 20.
S5: It took him a while to make the decision.
S2: There was a week of sort of incremental closures. Different people debated whether or not he could have or should have acted faster. But that’s sort of was his decision. Point number one. Decision point number two was concern about hospital capacity, concern that this virus had already spread pretty widely. More people are getting infected. And Governor Cuomo talked time and time again about images that he saw from Italy where hospitals were overrun, where patients were outside on gurneys or stuffed into hallways and people were essentially being turned away. And he said so often that that was his biggest fear. So in that environment, hospital executive is talked to the governor’s team and said, we have a problem. We have patients who no longer need to be hospitalized, but they’re sitting in our beds because we have no place to discharge them. They normally would get discharged to nursing homes either for some kind of recovery or for a long term residence. But the nursing homes were saying, we’re really scared. We don’t want these covid positive patients. And so you have this tension between nursing homes and hospitals and what New York State did was it it basically. Listen to the concerns of hospitals, so on March twenty fifth, the State Health Department issued a directive which said that a nursing home could not refuse to admit a patient, which it would otherwise be able to care for solely on the basis of being positive for covid-19. Now, nursing home operators said this was effectively an order to take these patients in, some of them immediately objected. They immediately said, hey, we’re concerned this is going to exacerbate the spread of covid-19 in our facilities. But the order stood.
S5: Was there evidence that it did exacerbate the spread in their facilities?
S2: Well, this is where it gets tricky. We know that thousands of patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes around the state between March 20 fifth and May 10, when this health department directive was remodify rescinded, reversed. You can you can pick your verb. So. The question is, did the coronavirus come to nursing homes as a result of this? In July, the State Health Department put out a report which looked at the data and it looked at the dates of death, the dates of first positive cases in nursing homes around the state. Its conclusion was that in most nursing homes, the first introduction of coronavirus happened before any of these patients were transferred. Before the directive was issued on March twenty fifth, it was staffers bringing it in. They concluded that it was staff training because the correlation, because the infection rates in nursing homes correlated with the surrounding community. Obviously, a nursing home doesn’t exist in a bubble. People who work there go somewhere else to live and. The health department said this was actually the factor, even though nursing home operators said from the beginning, hey, this order, it’s not helping, it’s only hurting. And to this day, there are operators who say that they believe it contributed to the spread, if not in some instances, was the primary cause of the spread.
S1: It’s unclear even now whether this policy forcing nursing homes to take in covid positive patients affected New York’s total death toll. That’s because of a pretty grim calculus. It’s possible that additional deaths in nursing homes were actually offset because freeing up hospital beds allowed more coronavirus patients to be treated. What we do know now, at least, is that covid deaths in nursing homes were not being tallied correctly. That’s because if a patient became so sick, they were transferred back to a hospital. That death was counted as a hospital death, making it nearly impossible to understand just how much the virus was ravaging long term care facilities.
S2: What I can say, we’ll say, is this kind of thing doesn’t come up in the regular course of life. Not until there was a pandemic. Did did did the state think about reporting causes of death. Cross referencing records with hospitals, cross referencing records with other facilities to figure out who died from what, who lived where initially. And so what the state did was in order to get just accurate statistics about how many people were passing away from the coronavirus, which was a sad but important measure of the the spread of the pandemic before there was a lot of testing in place in New York. They just wanted to know who was dying. And so the easiest way to do that was where did this person die, who’s reporting it? And that basically came down to hospitals and nursing homes. And so instead of trying to reconcile those data sets at the outset when little was known and when they were building these reporting systems on the fly, state officials said, look, this is just this is this is the quickest, easiest way to do this.
S1: But maybe not the most illuminating. Maybe not. This data just didn’t make sense to a lot of people. Lawmakers in Albany asked to take a look. So did a public policy shop called the Empire Center. They filed a Freedom of Information request. The governor’s office kept those requests at bay. But meanwhile, New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, she was investigating to do so by the end of the year.
S2: You have the Cuomo administration in this pattern where they’ve refused the request from lawmakers, they’ve refused public records, requests from the Empire Center and others. And they’re just sort of in this holding pattern at the same time as a larger chorus of people is calling for these data to be released.
S9: And Attorney General James is wrapping up on her report. So things really start moving again on January twenty eighth when Attorney General Letitia James issued a report which says, hey, we’ve been looking at the numbers of nursing homes, looking at the state numbers. We think that your official recorded tally here is about 50 per low. So what that prompted the health department to do was to finally release these data that people have been asking for for months. And the result was that, yeah, it was between forty five to 50 percent low in that close to four thousand people died in hospitals or out of facilities after they were found to have covid-19 and transferred out of a long term care facility.
S5: What was the governor’s reaction as this report came out from his attorney general?
S2: He at first said that this confirms what we’ve said and confirmed our figures were true. They said that the number of deaths was always accurate. It’s just how they were reported and where they were attributed.
S5: He literally said, who cares? Right. Like they died.
S2: That’s right. His point was that whether someone’s death was recorded as happening in a hospital or whether it was recorded and attributed to a nursing home didn’t matter. And yeah, he did say, who cares? They died. And then he talked about losing his own father on New Year’s Day in twenty fifteen to show that he, too, understands what it’s like to lose an elder loved one.
S10: But who cares. Thirty three twenty eight died in a hospital, died in a nursing home. They died.
S2: And a lot of people really reacted negatively to sort of his tone and what some describe to me as dismissiveness and a flippancy. And it only seemed to steal his critics. So flash forward two weeks legislators who had requested that data. They finally got a meeting with some top aides to the governor, including Dr. Zucker, the health commissioner, and Melissa DeRosa, who is essentially the governor’s chief of staff. And in that meeting, according to a report first in The New York Post that was confirmed by a transcript, the state released, she told lawmakers that the Cuomo administration didn’t release the data that they were looking for because they were busy responding to the federal probe. And also they were concerned that if they put out the data, then it would be politicized by Donald Trump, who had been attacking the governor and other Democratic governors in tweets in August. And they essentially said that they didn’t want to. To give him fuel for his fire.
S5: After that, reporting came out that Como’s chief of staff had, you know, basically said there were political reasons for this decision, it seems like the governor, he changed his tone a little bit. Is that is that fair?
S2: Yes, the reaction to that was was a bit it was to borrow from our president, it was a BFD and New York politics. And on February 15th, the governor said he he he he didn’t say, I’m sorry, you didn’t say I apologize. He said that the data should have been released sooner. And he also said that everybody involved in the response had done the best that they could, that they were all working hard, they were all in uncharted territory, and that they did the best they could.
S5: I’m glad you said he didn’t apologize.
S2: He didn’t apologize. And he was even asked point blank, do you have anything to apologize for? And he said, apologize, apologize.
S10: Look, I have said repeatedly. We made a mistake in creating the void. We made a mistake in creating the void.
S2: You know, it’s interesting that there are some people for whom this is not a big deal and they didn’t think any apology was necessary. There are other people, including many who lost loved ones as a result of this pandemic, who just kind of shook their heads and said this is yet more evidence that Governor Cuomo doesn’t get it. I talked to several people, lawmakers, political observers, who said, you know, all of that has to happen here. Is is is for the cameras to say, look, in the heat of an unprecedented pandemic, we made this decision and it had consequences and maybe it wasn’t the best decision. We’re sorry. We’re learning from it. Moving forward, here’s how we’re going to make it right and make sure that it doesn’t impact anyone again. But that is not what the state has said. And in fact, people who know Governor Cuomo, some, including some of his critics, say he’s just not ever going to say anything like that is sort of constitutionally incapable of making a statement like that.
S3: When we come back, the governor shows just how constitutionally incapable of apology he is.
S1: The pressure on Governor Cuomo is not going away at the end of last week, it was reported that federal prosecutors have opened up an investigation into the data reporting mess. And lawmakers who went to that meeting for Cuomo as chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, admitted politics had gotten in the way of accurate reporting. They have started speaking out. This is the point at which Governor Cuomo seemed to go from simply brushing off criticism to trying to quash his naysayers.
S6: What we’ve seen in the last few days is continued questions about why was this data not released earlier? What was the delay? And we’ve also seen tactics that the Cuomo administration has used since Governor Cuomo took office in 2011, sort of bursting into public view. Assemblyman Ron Kim, one of the leading critics here, he recounted a phone call that he had with Governor Cuomo in which, according to King, the governor threatened him to ruin his political career, according to Cuomo. Those threats were not made, but the governor did say that he had talked to can talk to him about issuing a statement about what happened in that private meeting with Melissa DeRosa.
S1: I mean, Ron Kim called Cuomo a bully.
S6: You call them an abuser on The View, right. And that’s not new. That has been sort of true in New York politics for a long time. But, you know, the world is the world is changing. This this kind of behavior in all kinds of different forms is not as easily excused as it as it once was.
S2: So Republicans started talking about possibly impeaching the governor, members of the Democratic Party. They were talking about sort of stripping away some of the authority they delegated to Cuomo in March to handle the pandemic.
S6: And it sounds like Democrats who control the state Senate are going to act coming up this week.
S1: How would the governor, losing his emergency powers impact New York’s coronavirus response moving forward?
S6: That’s an open question at this point. The sort of days of commanding schools to shut down with 48 hours notice and closing bars and bowling alleys, those are those are generally behind us. So it seems that this action is largely symbolic. People close to the governor and others have noted that the nursing home situation had nothing to do with his emergency powers from the get go.
S5: So I guess I’m trying to figure out, looking at how this is played out, how much of what’s going on. It’s a PR problem for the governor and how much of it is a real problem for constituents like the number of deaths in nursing homes in New York. Is it notable, like with this new data, does New York stand out among other states?
S2: Governor Cuomo talks about the share of pandemic deaths in nursing homes versus other facilities and how New York’s share is actually lower than some other states horse. That statistic is of no comfort to someone whose loved one passed away. They don’t care about what the curve is with other states. What some political observers have said is that it’s a cliche, but that the cover up is worse than the underlying action. And so the fact that Governor Cuomo and the state delayed the release of this data for so long that they had to be forced to release the data for so long and that their explanations for the delay changed over time. Basically have led people to conclude, in the words of the Republican leader in the state assembly, that the governor put public relations ahead of public health. And I think that that is why this is coming to the fore now in a very significant way.
S5: I wonder if you think Cuomo is going to be remembered as a successful executive when it comes to covid, I think it’s far too early to to say.
S6: We already saw one preliminary poll which showed that Andrew Cuomo, whose job approval had slipped since January, we’ll have to see what happens in the next poll now that there’s been more information about how he’s acted and what’s going on. But he’s not going to face voters until in a primary election in June of twenty two. A lot can happen and we all know that voters memories are short.
S11: Jimmy Vehle, and thank you so much for joining me.
S2: It was really a pleasure. Thanks for having.
S11: Jimmy Vehle kind covers New York state government for The Wall Street Journal. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Alaina Schwartz, Danielle Hewitt and Davis Land, Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery help us make this thing better every day. And I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.