Cuomo and Nursing Homes: A Tale of Too Much Power

From the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been a reliable beacon of hope and reassurance for Americans across the country. However, recent information regarding Governor Cuomo’s concealment of nursing home deaths not only calls into question the nursing home policy itself, but also his integrity. Although the extent of the damage created by his nursing home policy is not yet known, one thing is certain: he tried to hide it.

On March 25, less than a month after the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York, Governor Cuomo sent out a memo instructing nursing homes to admit and readmit COVID-19 positive patients. The justification for the directive is understandable; hospitals were incredibly overwhelmed, and other governors made similar decisions in order to simply find healthcare facilities to house COVID-19 patients. Still, the memo was incredibly controversial, as it put the most vulnerable demographic-the elderly-at risk. Even worse, it is unlikely that Governor Cuomo carried out the proper risk analyses necessary to truly understand the potential consequences of the directive. While the pandemic made quick decision-making an essential process, Carmel Shachar, the executive director of Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics argued: “it was ultimately Cuomo’s responsibility to ensure his staff was analyzing potential consequences.” There is no evidence that he or his staff reached out to nursing home experts or executives for their input or criticism. In fact, Jim Clyne, the CEO and President of LeadingAge New York which represents nonprofit nursing homes, claims he was shocked to find out about the memo after its release. Governor Cuomo did not take crucial steps to limit the negative impact of the nursing home directive which caused immense harm for residents and their families who suffered from exposure directly caused by his actions.

The real controversy of the nursing home fiasco, though, lies in the Cuomo administration’s suppression of data. Governor Cuomo bragged repeatedly about New York’s low amount of nursing home deaths compared to other states with similar policies. However, on January 28th, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report investigating Governor Cuomo’s nursing home directive in which she accused the administration of undercounting COVID-19 deaths in such facilities. Afterwards, one of his top aides Melissa DeRosa admitted that “the administration had purposely withheld the data in the face of an investigation by the Trump Justice Department”, claiming they did not want the matter to be politicized. Governor Cuomo then publicly acknowledged his suppression of the data, which specifically left out deaths of nursing home patients who were transferred to hospitals. Prior to Attorney General James’ report, the state of New York published a total of 8,500 nursing home deaths. Afterwards, the number shot up to over 15,000 and continues to rise. 

Andrew Cuomo’s intentional suppression of COVID-19-related nursing home deaths boosted his popularity temporarily (by portraying inaccurately low figures), the decision may now lead to his downfall. In response to the unsettling developments, New York State Legislators recently moved to strip Governor Cuomo of the extensive power provided to him during the pandemic. State Senate leaders have moved to pass a bill limiting Governor Cuomo’s “ability to supersede state laws to combat the pandemic” as well as establishing a 10-person commission “to evaluate any future pandemic-related directives by Mr. Governor Cuomo.” It has also been discovered that the FBI and US Attorney for the Eastern District of NY have opened an early-stage inquiry into the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Above all, the State Senate’s actions have revealed underlying tensions due to Governor Cuomo’s increasing power along with reports of bullying and even sexual harassment allegedly conducted by Cuomo and his administration. All of the recent development regarding Andrew Cuomo’s conduct poses the question: have his mistakes ensured his fall from grace, or will his popularity protect him?