Gov. Cuomo withheld nursing home COVID data over Trump fears, office confirms

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NEW YORK (WABC) -- The office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo confirmed Friday the contents of a recording that shows the governor and his team withheld the nursing home coronavirus death toll from state legislators out of fear it could be used against them by the Trump administration.

The governor's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, confirmed the contents of the recording obtained by the New York Post, in which she is overheard admitting the governor's office withheld the numbers because of the concern they would "be used against us" by the Department of Justice.

"He starts tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes," DeRosa is heard on the recording. "He starts going after (New Jersey Gov. Phil) Murphy, starts going after (California Gov. Gavin) Newsom, starts going after (Michigan Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer."

DeRosa issued a statement Friday.

"I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature's request to deal with the federal request first," she said. "We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout. As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfil their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share to same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic."

Republicans immediately seized on the admission, and even some Democrats were calling for Cuomo to be stripped of his emergency powers.

State Assembly Democrats met to discuss whether to strip Cuomo of some of his emergency powers or allow them to expire April 30, but they were unable to reach a consensus. State Senate Democrats met on Friday as well, and 14 of them have already said they would like to revoke Cuomo's executive powers.

"I think leaderships of both houses are discussing what could be done to make sure that we have an equal branch of the government moving forward," Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) said.

Kim said he would not support an extension of Cuomo's executive privileges.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie's spokesman confirmed Cuomo's office asked for more time last year in compiling nursing home data after an August request.

Amid criticism it accelerated outbreaks, Cuomo reversed a decision early in the pandemic to release recovering coronavirus patients from hospitals into nursing homes.

That initial guidance to admit COVID-19 patients into nursing homes "may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities," New York Attorney General Tish James said in a report last month.

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The AG's office also found that a larger number of nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than the New York State Department of Health's published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50%.

"Crucial information should never be withheld from entities that are empowered to pursue oversight," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. "This was always about getting the truth and allowing information to guide our response. That is why we had multiple hearings and another hearing scheduled for this month, and why we requested this information in the first place. Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic and our responses to it must be led by policy not politics. As always, we will be discussing next steps as a conference."

Vivian Zayas, whose mother Ana Martinez, died at Our Lady of Consolation Nursing and Rehabilitative Care Center in West Islip, said she is not surprised at the newly released numbers.

"Our seniors deserve justice, and that requires an independent investigation with subpoena powers," she said.

New York State Senate Republican leader Robert Ortt (R-Lockport) echoed Zayas' request on Friday, calling for a federal and state investigation into Cuomo and his administration and their withholding of the nursing home data.

"It's an absolute dereliction of duty and breach of public trust and everyone involved must be held accountable," he said.

Many other statements flooded in, with Republicans calling for a DOJ investigation all the way to Cuomo being forced to resign or removed.

Records obtained by the Associated Press Thursday showed that more than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients in New York state were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic, under the controversial directive that was scrapped amid criticism it accelerated outbreaks.

RELATED | Over 9,000 COVID patients sent into New York nursing homes, AP reports

The new number of 9,056 recovering patients sent to hundreds of nursing homes is more than 40% higher than what the state health department previously released, and it raises new questions as to whether a March 25 directive from Cuomo's administration helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge the state disputes.

"The lack of transparency and the meting out of bits of important data has undermined our ability to both recognize the scope and severity of what's going on" and address it, said Richard Mollot, the executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a residents advocacy group.

The Cuomo administration's March 25 directive barred nursing homes from refusing people just because they had COVID-19, and it was intended to free up space in hospitals swamped in the early days of the pandemic.

It came under criticism from advocates for nursing home residents and their relatives, who said it had the potential to spread the virus in a state that at the time already had the nation's highest nursing home death toll.

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