"People value the truth," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week during an interview on MSNBC. "Incompetent government kills people. More people died than needed to die in COVID."
He punctuated his remarks with a phrase he recycled multiple times throughout the conversation: "And that's the truth," he said.
No objections there. But it appears the irony was lost on Cuomo, whose comments were directed at former President Donald Trump's federal response—the likes of which were certainly rife with shortcomings. But the New York governor can also examine the state he oversees for another master class: both in the perils of government incompetence and the detriment of lying to the public you serve.
One need not look far for a poignant example of both. A report released today by New York Attorney General Letitia James argues that the Cuomo administration seriously misrepresented the amount of nursing home deaths in the state—a toll that Cuomo has been accused of worsening early in the pandemic with his own policies.
The data "suggests that COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes in New York state appear to be undercounted by DOH [the Department of Health] by approximately 50 percent," concludes the report. According to the investigation, Cuomo's administration omitted the deaths of patients who had been transferred out of a nursing home to die in a hospital.
An example: At one facility, DOH noted seven COVID-19 deaths—one confirmed and six suspected—as of August 3. But by just April 18, that same facility had reported 31 suspected coronavirus-related deaths to the Office of the Attorney General.
Cuomo weathered heat during much of the spring and summer for a directive that many say directly contributed to the state's stratospheric number of nursing home deaths. Guidance issued by his administration in late March ordered those facilities to accept patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 so long as they were deemed "medically stable." He amended the directive in May to specify that they needed to test negative for 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 advisory originally said.
New York's nursing home death toll currently sits around 8,700, though that's obviously a questionable statistic. In July, the DOH said that number was around 6,500—which, even with the undercounting, was more than most states' total death tolls. Cuomo says that facilities were free to turn away patients if they couldn't care for them, but his own guidance largely prohibited providers from doing just that.
No federal, state, or local leader can shoulder all of the blame for the results of a crisis. Doing so gives them far too much credit. Indeed, there are a litany of moving parts and complex factors impacting any event, large and small. When the U.S. outbreak was still in relatively nascent stages, New York City—the most dense cosmopolitan area in the country—was, to some extent, a natural epicenter. But Cuomo has forcefully skirted accountability for any impact his decision-making may have had, both in his regular press conferences and in official government documents. His DOH in July disregarded the criticisms in its own report and instead laid blame on the nursing homes themselves, positing that it was the employees who spread the virus.
The governor, a self-declared foe of government incompetence, also presented medical providers with the vaccine edition of Sophie's Choice. Earlier this month, he announced that hospitals that failed to use all of their vaccines would face up to a $100,000 fine; those that vaccinated anyone out of the state-approved order of operations would face up to a $1 million fine. The kicker: Cuomo created a rigorous hierarchy of who was allowed to receive the vaccine at what point, meaning hospitals had no choice but to throw away expiring doses instead of finding willing vaccine recipients. Better to lose $100,000 than $1 million, I guess.
More than 7,000 people in New York have reportedly died from COVID-19 since the vaccine rollout in mid-December—some of whom may have been spared had one of those trashed doses found its way into their arms. And that, Gov. Cuomo, is the truth.