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New York Governor Defends Temporarily Withholding Nursing Home Coronavirus Data

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to reporters during a news conference at a COVID-19 pop-up vaccination site in Brooklyn on Jan. 23. Cuomo has defended the state's reporting of nursing home deaths.
Mary Altaffer
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to reporters during a news conference at a COVID-19 pop-up vaccination site in Brooklyn on Jan. 23. Cuomo has defended the state's reporting of nursing home deaths.

Facing allegations that the state under-reported the number of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday that everything reported was accurate — albeit delayed.

"All the deaths in the nursing homes and in the hospitals were always fully, publicly and accurately reported," Cuomo said. "The numbers were the numbers. Always."

A report by the state attorney general last month found the death toll was much higher than officials had disclosed — perhaps as much as 50% higher. That's in part because New York Department of Health figures didn't include many people who died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes.

Within hours of the report's release, the state came out with new data that showed an additional 3,800 deaths — nursing home residents who died in hospitals. More than 15,000 people have died from coronavirus in the state's nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Cuomo said Monday that the state had released the numbers it had immediate access to at the time; requests for information beyond the place of death took longer to respond to.

"We paused the state legislature's request while we were finishing the DOJ request," Cuomo said.

That delay was in part due to the state's dealing with a federal inquiry by the Department of Justice, Cuomo said. Health officials decided to focus on that data request before responding to state lawmakers' request for more information.

"Everyone was busy," Cuomo said. "We're in the midst of managing a pandemic. There was a delay in providing the press and the public all that additional information."

Not immediately giving the state the data it requested created a "void" of facts, Cuomo said, which allowed misinformation to thrive.

"In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests? In my opinion, yes, and I think that's what created the void," he said. "But do I understand the pressure everyone was under? Yes."

A top aide to Cuomo, Melissa DeRosa, had told state lawmakers that "we froze" when asked for the true number of nursing home deaths, worrying they would be "used against us" by a hostile White House administration, the New York Post reported. The governor's office later confirmed that report.

Cuomo has also faced criticism in recent days after an Associated Press report found that, in the early days of the pandemic, New York sent more than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients from hospitals back into nursing homes.

A report by the New York DOH argued that the readmissions couldn't have contributed to the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes. "These patients could not have been responsible for introducing COVID into their nursing home, as they had COVID prior to going to the hospital for treatment and before being readmitted," the report said.

Additionally, the report said, "most patients" readmitted to nursing homes were likely no longer infectious at that point.

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Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").