For much of the past year, the mainstream media and Democrats have largely blamed former president Donald Trump and his administration for most of America’s COVID-19 deaths. Trump did indeed fail in certain aspects of coordination, messaging, and inserting politics into the parts of the process where it didn’t belong. He deserves credit, however, for Operation Warp Speed, the initiative that (ultimately successfully) fostered the development of coronavirus vaccines, one of the most successful public-private ventures in modern history. But Trump’s overbearing personality tended to absorb all the attention, leaving little room for real debate on the successes and failures of other politicians, except when the media found time to criticize Republican governors. But serious criticism of Democrats in this period was rare.
Last week, New York attorney general Letitia James, a Democrat, released a long-awaited report on the state of New York’s response to the coronavirus outbreak as led by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Her findings were stunning in their demonstration of both gross incompetence and outright malfeasance, and were recently reinforced by a New York Times report this week on Cuomo’s leadership failures and staffing troubles during the coronavirus period. The Times now reports that nine leading health-care experts for the state of New York resigned during the last summer and through the fall, all of whom complained that Cuomo had politicized health-care decisions and was ignoring the experts on long-standing plans for the pandemic, including regarding vaccinations.
It is important not to dismiss a critical fact here: James herself is a longtime Cuomo political progeny. He supported her attorney general campaign. That someone who for years has been closely aligned with Cuomo released this report is damning in and of itself. Yet the evidence it contains is even worse than the report itself suggests. If anything, the media response to it has been an underreaction.
The 76-page report relates, in great detail, the state’s irresponsible reaction to COVID raging through extended-care centers, primarily nursing homes. James and her team went straight to nursing homes to obtain the data, bypassing the state’s own data-collection entities. They took a random data sampling from 62 nursing homes around the state and found that 1,914 of their residents had died from COVID, 56 percent more than the 1,229 the state reported. If that sample is truly representative of the total for New York, the state’s nursing-home deaths total more than 13,000, where the state tallies just 8,711. (Overall New York COVID deaths remain unchanged.)
Why the discrepancy? First, the state refused to count those patients who were transferred to, and later died at, hospitals. Why this loophole? Nobody has ever provided a good answer. Every other state in the country counts these deaths in the nursing-home numbers, because that is the practical and commonsense way to count it. New York specifically chose to be an outlier.
The real failure, however, was New York’s unwillingness to be transparent with the data after the fact. For many who analyzed the data in April and May, it quickly became apparent that the state was not being fully transparent on nursing-home deaths. Many individuals were reporting that their family members died at the hospital, but only after getting severely ill at their extended-care facilities first. But somehow the numbers did not appear to bear that out.
An objective observer might be willing to give anyone in charge during such horrific events the benefit of the doubt. New York was at the time the worldwide center of COVID deaths, and it continued in this manner all through the spring. The vast majority of the more than 40,000 deaths in the state occurred during a horrific twelve-week period, when hospitals and health professionals faced war-like situations as patients died left and right.
But amid such carnage, why not be honest about the deaths? The answer is that, from the earliest moments of the pandemic’s arrival to the United States, Governor Andrew Cuomo was playing political games. It has become even more apparent in hindsight. At this point, there is no question that some of his early decisions during the pandemic led to many of these deaths, and worsened the situation in nursing homes. From the AG report:
On March 25, DOH issued guidance providing that “[n]o resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the nursing home solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. Nursing homes are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or re-admission.” The guidance was rescinded on May 10 in Executive Order 202.30. From March 25 to May 8, 6,326 hospital patients were admitted to 310 nursing homes. The peak of these admissions was the week of April 14. The peak single day in reported resident COVID-19 deaths was April 8, with 4,000 reported deaths occurring after that date.
This was likely the worst possible decision Cuomo could have made. First, although many feared the hospitals would be overwhelmed, field hospitals and military-hospital ships quickly became available, but were underutilized. As for COVID itself, we now know that patients needed around ten days to be totally free of the virus. Furthermore, some patients who were never symptomatic were nonetheless infectious, and they were still returned to nursing-home facilities. There, they could quietly infect other patients and staff. We may never know the true number of people who were infected, or even died, from the governor’s orders.
This too, could have been excused, if Andrew Cuomo had simply been forthcoming and admitted it was a mistake. But if he had done that, he wouldn’t be Andrew Cuomo. In July, his own New York State Health Department report denied any wrongdoing relating to its March 25 order that homes be forced to accept COVID-positive patients — though 323 facilities had no reported infections until they took in such patients from hospitals. Even worse, this report still didn’t provide statewide data on the matter. The report was a clear attempt to hide data and whitewash the repercussions of Cuomo’s ill-considered order. This has led to outside groups, such as the Empire Center for Public Policy, to file lawsuits demanding the Health Department release these data.
The simple reality is that the governor’s orders led to more deaths. How many can be argued, and likely will be an area of vigorous debate in public-health-policy academic circles for decades to come. But Cuomo then compounded his mistake by purposefully lying and deceiving the public about it, all the while having the machinery of the New York state government cover for him as well.
This negligence by the government of New York is certainly awful enough. But it’s more awful still that national and local New York media, whose primary responsibility has always been to tell the truth and to hold those in power to account, have been covering for Cuomo from the beginning. Local reporters failed to ask these questions for months, as the governor held his much-praised daily press briefings about the pandemic. There were literally hundreds of hours of Cuomo press conferences in the first half of 2020 where not a single question was asked about nursing homes. All the while, Cuomo got free national airtime to voice his lies. Even during the few occasions when such questions were raised, Cuomo attacked the press, and the answer was lost in the muddle. Cuomo was lauded as a hero, and received not only a large book contract (proclaiming his expertise in reacting to the pandemic no less!) but also an international Emmy award for his “masterful” COVID press conferences, which we now know were made up at least somewhat of lies that resulted in thousands of deaths. But the worst media actors in this affair are likely those at CNN. CNN employs Cuomo’s younger brother Chris as a primetime host. The “Laurel and Hardy” act the two brothers put on for months looks even worse in retrospect. Questions went unanswered about the governor’s honesty over thousands of deaths, while the governor and his brother comically bantered about their family dynamic.
In earlier times, we as a nation would simply allow the voters to deal with Cuomo’s future, and they could decide the repercussions he deserved. But these are not normal times. So what should the justice system do with a governor whose actions contributed to 12 percent of all New York nursing-home residents dying from the COVID-19 virus, with an unknown number of other deaths and infections? Because of Andrew Cuomo’s lies, we can only guess how many of those were because of his own ill-conceived policies. But we know for certain that the governor was hiding data that showed his culpability.
The pandemic made fools out of many of us: scientific and medical experts, media, politicians. And that failure itself is not enough to indict Cuomo. But his persistence in trying to lie and obfuscate the facts of the COVID pandemic, and even worse, his trying to make himself some exalted national hero or beacon of science to emulate, make him one of the great villains of this episode in American history. To fail is human. But to lie about it, when tens of thousands of your fellow citizens died from the illness, is a level of moral depravity and social disregard that this country should not stand for.