Pressed on Nursing-Home Deaths, Cuomo Sticks to the Script That Made Him a Media Darling

Governor Andrew Cuomo wears a mask as he arrives to speak during a daily coronavirus briefing in New York, July 13, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Why shift gears now, when Cuomo's refusal to engage with critics has yielded months of laudatory coverage?

Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to apologize after his own attorney general found that his administration undercounted nursing-home COVID-19 deaths — a fact confirmed by his health commissioner Thursday in a 1,700-word statement noting the actual death toll was 43 percent higher than Cuomo’s official tally.

Asked about the report on Friday, Cuomo stuck to the strategy he’s employed for months: dismissing any and all questions about the unreliable death count as the product of a political hit job orchestrated by the evil Trump administration. “Who cares — 33 [percent of deaths], 28 [percent of deaths], died in a hospital, died in a nursing home — they died,” he remarked at one point.

And why should Cuomo shift gears now, when his refusal to engage his many critics has yielded months of laudatory media coverage casting the Emmy-award winner as the sober, no-nonsense alternative to President Trump’s recklessness?

In the words of his many media fans, Cuomo was “the control freak we need right now” (New York Times), a “social media superstar” (Politico), “the leader the Democratic Party and nation desperately need” (Washington Post). The governor also graced the cover of Rolling Stone; he was treated to articles describing his flirtatious fans — “Cuomosexuals” — and commentators explained “what a difference a pandemic” made in turning around his flagging popularity.

And it’s not as if the pundits’ celebration of all things Cuomo can be excused by an appeal to ignorance; it was clear as early as mid-May that his administration’s nursing-home death count was badly skewed.

But, as CNN’s Chris Cillizza observed, the rash of friendly coverage had its intended effect: making Cuomo possibly “the single most popular politician in America.” (After the AG report, Cillizza came to the conclusion that Cuomo’s performance was perhaps “less stellar” than originally thought.)

It started on March 2, when Cuomo said that the “reality” of the oncoming pandemic should cause New Yorkers to “relax.”

“This is not our first rodeo,” he stated. But a March 25 executive order issued to the state’s nursing homes, which ruled that “no resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to a nursing home solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” set off quite a storm.

In April, as deaths began to climb, Cuomo said he was not aware of his own nursing home policy, though New York’s Department of Health admitted to the Daily Caller that it had begun omitting the deaths of long-term care facility residents who contracted COVID-19 but ended up dying in a hospital — in stark contrast to other states with large numbers of nursing-home deaths.

Cuomo ultimately reversed the executive order on May 10 and tried to shift blame to the Trump administration, saying “don’t criticize the state for following the president’s policy.” He then blamed the nursing homes themselves, saying that “if you can’t provide adequate care, you can’t have the patient in your facility and that’s your basic fiduciary obligation . . . ethical obligation, and it’s also your legal obligation.”

While the CDC’s directive said that nursing homes should only readmit COVID patients “as long as the facility can follow CDC guidance for Transmission-Based Precautions,” Cuomo’s original order barred nursing homes from even testing patients returning from the hospital. Luckily, the state DOH had already wiped the original order from its website by the time critics came calling.

On June 22, Cuomo implied “the federal government” was mainly at fault for his state’s nursing home fiasco.

“We had more people die in nursing homes than anywhere else because we had more people die,” he said during an appearance on MSNBC. “Because the federal government missed the boat and never told us that this virus was coming from Europe and not from China.”

Two days later, in his eleventh primetime pandemic interview with little brother Chris on CNN, Cuomo was finally asked about the nursing-home controversy, only to shrug it off.

“Several statements that are not correct, but that’s okay. It’s your show, you say whatever you want to say,” he quipped.

New York admitted in July that Cuomo’s March order resulted in 6,300 recovering coronavirus patients’ being sent back to nursing homes. But according to the DOH, the “facts” showed “that nursing home admissions from hospitals were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities,” and that it was infected employees instead. Never mind that such a sweeping claim was panned by epidemiologists across the country.

“Would this get published in an academic journal? No,” one said.

Cuomo then refused calls for an independent investigation into the state’s nursing homes, saying in August that “I think you’d have to be blind to realize it’s not political.”

One day later, the Associated Press noted that New York’s revised policy was paying off, as federal data from early June to mid July showed the official statistics lagged what state nursing homes had actually reported by 65 percent.

Per a New York Times tracker, the discrepancy allowed New York to post one of the lowest nursing-home shares of COVID fatalities in the country, despite the fact that the state ranked near the top in total deaths.

Cuomo has repeatedly cited his state’s position relative to others as a defense. “Go talk to 34 other states first. Go talk to the Republican states now — Florida, Texas, Arizona — ask them what is happening in nursing homes. It’s all politics,” he said in July after citing New York’s skewed 35th-in-the-country ranking.

In October, the governor turned his pandemic performance into an autobiography — praised in the pages of the Washington Post as “an impressive road map to dealing with a crisis” — and called the scrutiny “an orchestrated strategy and a Fox News drumbeat.”

He then told Morning Joe that “I hate to get technical with you, but sometimes these things are technical — there was never a directive that said we will send COVID-positive people back to nursing homes.”

Memory-holing complete. Cuomo earned that Emmy after all.


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