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New York’s governor faces backlash after revelations on nursing home deaths

From the earliest days of the pandemic when New York was an epicenter of COVID, Gov. Andrew Cuomo often has been in the spotlight. But increasingly, there are questions about whether his administration was transparent enough about disclosing how many nursing home residents died. Jesse McKinley, Albany bureau chief for The New York Times, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the backlash against Cuomo.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    From the earliest days of the pandemic, when New York was an epicenter of COVID, Governor Andrew Cuomo often has been in the spotlight.

    That's partially because of the very public manner in which he first addressed the crisis. But, increasingly, there are questions about whether his administration was transparent enough about disclosing how many nursing home residents died.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, the governor is now at the center of significant criticism.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the governor admitted yesterday that he made mistakes when it came to not disclosing key data.

    Nationwide, by some estimates, more than 160,000 residents of long-term care facilities have died from COVID-related issues. That's about a third of all COVID deaths. About 15,000 of those were in New York state. But just a few weeks ago, Cuomo's administration reported only about 8,500 of them, meaning thousands of nursing home residents who died in hospitals were not included in that nursing home tally.

    Jesse McKinley is the Albany bureau chief for The New York Times. He has been covering this story and the fallout. And he joins me now.

    Jesse, welcome to the "NewsHour," and thanks for making the time.

    Let's just start with why we're learning about this right now. What led to these revelations?

  • Jesse McKinley:

    This actually dates back to a report from the state attorney general, Letitia James, about three weeks ago, which showed the Cuomo administration had been undercounting nursing home deaths by about 50 percent.

    After the state was kind of shamed by this report, they began to release thousands of more deaths, which raised the death toll here in New York from about 8,500 to over 15,000, which is where we're sitting right now.

    Now, the Cuomo administration has said, of course, that they — the reason they were slow to put out this data was that they were worried about an investigation from the Trump DOJ, which they thought was politically motivated. But lawmakers here in Albany have been a little bit skeptical of that, in part because the Cuomo administration had responded to that request back in September, but then didn't actually give up data here until February.

    So, there's been a lot of skepticism about that explanation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Of course, Governor Cuomo has been facing a lot of questions since that revelation. He addressed some of this in a press conference yesterday for the first time.

    Here is just part of what he said:

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo:

    I am in charge. I take responsibility. We should have provided more information faster.

    We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment. And we did not do a good enough job in providing information. I take total responsibility for that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jesse, the governor there, of course, taking responsibility, notably stopping short of apologizing, even when he was explicitly asked to.

    Just among New Yorkers, how is that response going over?

  • Jesse McKinley:

    Well, I think, amongst common New Yorkers, it would be tough to say.

    But I will tell you, here in Albany, amongst lawmakers, the response has not been a slam dunk. I don't think the governor probably went far enough for many lawmakers' taste, considering that he had basically stonewalled them for months and months and months on this data.

    Similarly, Republicans here in New York, who are a minority, of course, are outraged by this, have been calling for investigations, have been calling for resignations. And even on the Democratic side, there are similar calls.

    I mean, a lot of people at the kind of elected official level are quite upset about this. And I don't think the governor went far enough yesterday to kind of quell that sort of anger.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What about reaction from people who lost family members in nursing homes or long-term care facilities? Any reaction from them so far?

  • Jesse McKinley:

    Well, I think particularly, that is — that's really where the rubber meets the road, because, keep in mind, this wasn't just data for data's sake. People were making decisions for their loved ones depending on whether or not they felt that nursing homes were safe, that the death rates, if they were being suppressed artificially, by the data not being up to date or not being complete, could have affected someone's decision whether or not to put their mother or father or grandparents into a nursing home.

    And so those sorts of reactions from people who either advocate for the elderly or have elderly parents, there has been a lot of upset about the way the governor has handled this since the very beginning.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jesse, there was this early policy that Cuomo faced a lot of criticism for, which was to send nursing home residents who's been — who'd been hospitalized with COVID-19 back into nursing homes.

    There's now accusations that he was maybe intentionally misrepresenting the data or suppressing those numbers to deflect attention from that policy. Is there any evidence of that?

  • Jesse McKinley:

    Well, since the very beginning, that policy, which was instituted in a March 25 memo from the state Department of Health, has been controversial.

    The governor has pushed back on it and said, look, we were just following federal guidelines. Other states did this.

    Now, the problem is, is that because the data has now been shown to have been withheld, to have been incomplete, a lot of people took that as an admission of guilt. And the governor suggested as much yesterday that he had failed, that his major failing was in not batting back those sorts of reports, in creating a void, is the way he presented it, which then allowed these other theories to be represented.

    Now, keep in mind, more data has come out. Our publication and other publications will be looking very carefully at whether or not there was a spike as a result of that March 25 memo. And I think those reports will continue as the weeks — weeks to come.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's worth reminding people, early in the pandemic, New York was the nation's epicenter when it came to the pandemic. We saw again and again hospitals overwhelmed, health care workers overwhelmed.

    And Governor Cuomo was held up as sort of a pandemic hero. He held those daily briefings that got a lot of attention. He was hailed for his response back then. He wrote a book about it.

    What do these revelations now — what kind of impact do they have on all that?

  • Jesse McKinley:

    Well, I will tell you, as someone who was at most of their briefings early on, he was getting an enormously great reviews from a lot of people, saying that he was handling the situation in a way that the federal administration was not, that he was being forthright, that he was being honest, that he was following the data, that he was following the science, when the Trump administration sometimes wasn't doing that.

    Now, however, with these revelations, that sort of no-nonsense, straight shooter kind of political brand that he had built up through this — the early stages of the pandemic, that's really taken a hit, because, at its core, what we were — have been looking at is a government, a state government, that was not willing to be straight with the people who elected it or the people that cover it, like myself, or the — or its lawmakers, by telling them the truth about how many people died in these homes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Jesse McKinley, Albany bureau chief for The New York Times, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Jesse McKinley:

    Of course.

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