Ducking for political cover

The Albany Times-Union

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is in a political firestorm entirely of his own making. Had he not been so worried about the political repercussions of transparency, he would not be mired in the repercussions of a political cover-up.

But it isn’t the governor’s political woes that ought to be a concern here. In fact, what his Republican opponents say about him is irrelevant. Officials of a party loyal to an ex-president who extravagantly and continually lied for four years in office are now shocked — shocked! — that Mr. Cuomo was less than forthright about COVID-19 nursing home deaths. That should be seen for the opportunistic, overwrought hand-wringing that it is. Ignore it.

What matters, though, is Mr. Cuomo’s months-long effort to hide complete information on COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents from the Legislature and the public. Now we know why: politics.

To be clear, as far as we know, the administration didn’t underestimate the overall number of COVID-19 deaths. But in not revealing how many deaths attributed to hospitals were actually the result of infections in nursing homes, the death rate among nursing home residents looked lower than it actually was.

This distinction came to the fore as a result of an executive order by Mr. Cuomo that barred nursing homes from denying admission or readmission of medically stable people solely on the basis of a COVID-19 infection. The governor issued the order in an effort to free up hospital beds for acute cases, then rescinded the order in May amid concerns that it was contributing to COVID-19 infections (which the state still insists was not the case).

When the Legislature in August asked how many hospital deaths included people who had been nursing home residents, the administration clammed up. And not because the answers were hard to get, as it long claimed. Rather, as Mr. Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, explained privately to Democratic lawmakers, the administration was scared that the data might be used against it by the U.S. Justice Department.

Now that a court has ordered the administration to release the numbers, we learn that the real tally is about 77 percent higher than reported last month. And the state’s rate of nursing home deaths compared with its general population is above the national average, though lower than 19 other states.

This bears not just on whether the March order resulted in more infections in nursing homes, but on whether nursing homes were and are taking proper precautions to avoid infection and transmission, whether state oversight of nursing homes is adequate to ensure elderly New Yorkers are well cared for, and whether the for-profit nursing home model should be reconsidered.

The situation demands a full and independent investigation, perhaps by the state comptroller or attorney general. And it requires that Mr. Cuomo come to terms with the harm that he can cause by insisting on total control and secrecy when good government demands transparency.

This was not just a vague “void” that Mr. Cuomo now laments his political foes have seized upon. It was a waste of six months of vital time, only for the sake of a governor ducking for political cover.

By Patricia Older