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‘Like fire through dry grass’

Documenting the Cuomo administration's cover-up of a nursing home nightmare

by Bill Hammond from the Empire Center

August 17, 2021


Quick Links: Introduction | Background | Correcting the Record | What the Data Revealed | Conclusion | Recommendations | End Notes

INTRODUCTION

Governor Cuomo’s resignation over sexual harassment charges – and the subsequent suspension of Assembly impeachment proceedings – have left other serious allegations of wrongdoing by the governor unresolved.

Of particular concern are questions surrounding the Cuomo administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in nursing homes – including a March 25, 2020, directive that compelled homes to admit COVID-positive patients and a months-long effort to conceal the fallout of that policy.

The exact impact of the original policy on nursing home residents remains uncertain, in large part because the Cuomo administration succeeded in clouding the picture.

The ensuing cover-up, however, is clearly documented by a close review of the public record – in the form of briefing transcripts, official documents, hearing testimony, media reports and belatedly released government data.

More details about these actions may yet come to light – from a pending report by the Assembly Judiciary Committee or from an investigation by federal prosecutors in Brooklyn. Still, enough is known already to tell a disturbing story.

It began with a fateful decision in late spring of last year, when the pandemic’s first wave was sweeping into New York.

Desperate to clear space in rapidly filling hospitals, the Health Department issued a memo directing nursing homes to promptly accept discharged patients who were known or suspected to be infected with the virus.

No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the [nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” the department’s directive said in underlined type. It also barred homes from waiting on results of tests before letting patients move in.

Even in those early days, the risk being taken was clear. A nursing home near Seattle had been the epicenter of the nation’s first major outbreak a month before. As Governor Cuomo memorably said in late March, “Coronavirus in a nursing home can be like a fire through dry grass.”

Soon, nursing home residents were dying by the thousands, and Governor Cuomo found himself answering for a policy that had effectively shipped the virus into facilities full of the state’s most vulnerable citizens. The hospital transfers were not the only source of infections in nursing homes, but they most likely contributed to what became a horrific situation.

As public concern about that decision mounted, the governor and his aides made another fateful choice – to hide the truth about what was happening in nursing homes.

The result was months of turmoil: protests by family members of residents who died, tussles with legislators and the press, a legal battle over public records, a whistle-blowing report from the attorney general, a federal investigation, an impeachment inquiry and bipartisan calls for the governor’s resignation.

The record shows that the governor and his aides:

· misstated how the March 25 directive worked and where it came from;

· omitted thousands of victims from official death counts;

· rewrote and falsified a Health Department report;

· knowingly disseminated skewed and misleading statistics;

· stonewalled legislative inquiries; and

· withheld public records in defiance of the Freedom of Information Law.

An array of high-ranking state officials participated in the cover-up, including several of the governor’s closest advisers, the health commissioner, the superintendent of financial services and a longtime aide later elevated to be SUNY chancellor.

As a result of their combined efforts, the true scale of the pandemic in New York’s nursing homes remained secret for months – until the attorney general’s office faulted the Cuomo administration for under-reporting and the Empire Center won a court order compelling release of complete data. The death toll in long-term care facilities turned out to be more than 6,000 higher than the state had acknowledged – a disparity shocking enough to make national headlines.

The original directive grew out of a moment of genuine crisis, when a deadly but poorly understood virus was spreading with fearsome speed.

Once the worst had passed, however, the governor and his aides had an opportunity to reassess their decision-making without the pressure of an emergency. They could have led an honest discussion of the decision they made – by describing the policy accurately, proactively sharing relevant data and engaging in good-faith debate to draw lessons for the future.

Instead, they led what amounted to a disinformation campaign – one that continues to cloud understanding of a major public health disaster.

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BACKGROUND

New York confirmed its first known case of COVID-19 on March 1, 2020, but it’s clear in retrospect the novel coronavirus had already been spreading for weeks.[i]

After initially downplaying the threat, Governor Cuomo – exercising his newly enhanced emergency powers – responded with increasingly dramatic measures as the days went by and case counts mushroomed.