Last summer, state lawmakers were probing what went wrong in nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic and some of the responses by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during an Aug. 3 public hearing left them unsatisfied. Later that month they requested more information from the Department of Health.
Less than a week later, the Department of Justice signaled an inquiry into nursing home deaths in New York and several Democratic-led states. The Legislature's request was set aside as state officials also began to contend with a vaccine rollout and resurgent COVID-19 cases. That's the timeline laid out by Melissa DeRosa in a statement to Spectrum News as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration faces questions over its handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
The New York Post first reported Thursday a call between DeRosa, Cuomo's top aide, and state lawmakers in which she said the Legislature's request for a fuller picture of deaths of nursing home residents was delayed because of the Department of Justice's request.
“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," DeRosa said in a statement. "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 fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic.”
A timeline for disclosure is potentially crucial for the Cuomo administration amid a series of escalating reports over the deaths of residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities over the last 11 months.
In January, state Attorney General Letitia James released a report finding New York likely undercounted the number of people living in these facilities who have died during the crisis as the state's publicly reported numbers did not reflect those who died in hospitals.
An updated tally released this week from the Department of Health showed more than 15,000 nursing home and long term care residents have died either due to COVID-19 or are suspected of having died of the virus, either in a facility or outside of one.
The Empire Center, a right-leaning think tank, won a lawsuit to trigger the disclosure of more granular data on the death toll.
And on Thursday, the Associated Press reported 9,000 COVID-positive patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes in the later winter and early spring of 2020 during the first surge of the pandemic.
The New York Post reported DeRosa told lawmakers nursing home data was withheld over concerns the Department of Justice would use the information against the Cuomo administration. At the time, the governor's office contended the DOJ inquiry was a politically motivated review by the Trump administration amid a challenging election year.
And Cuomo's office defended how the data was rolled out and disclosed, essentially pointing to a busy six months.
The timeline is this:
- Aug. 3: Health Commissioner Howard Zucker testifies to a joint Assembly-Senate panel on nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
- Aug. 20: The state Senate and Assembly each send additional follow-up questions for Zucker, including a more complete tally of deaths among residents of these facilities during the pandemic.
- Aug. 26: The Department of Justice sends a request letter seeking more information about nursing home fatalities in state-run facilities. At the time, the Cuomo administration blasted the request, pointing to the letters being sent to states with Democratic governors, including New Jersey and Michigan.
- September: The Cuomo administration requested to top lawmakers in the state Legislature that its response time to the August questions be paused so it can answer the inquiry from the Department of Justice.
- Oct. 28: The Department of Justice sent an additional letter of inquiry about nursing homes.
- November/December: A second surge in COVID-19 cases was building.
- Dec. 11: First vaccine approved.
The Cuomo administration has contended nursing home and long-term care facility data surrounding deaths of residents was a mess and the thousands of fatalities that occurred in different locations has been difficult to accurately reconcile into one number.
DeRosa has been a prominent and trusted advisor to Cuomo since taking on the role of secretary to the governor in 2017, the equivalent of a president's chief of staff. She has been a near-constant presence during the governor's closely watched briefings and has played key roles during the state's response to the pandemic.
Whether this will satisfy state lawmakers is not yet clear. Republicans are fuming. But Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature and would navigate the response.
Sen. Liz Krueger, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, raised the possibility of scaling back the governor's power to respond to the pandemic first granted last year.
Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, are not pleased.
"Because of your decisions, thousands of people died who did not have to die," wrote Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat, on Twitter on Thursday. "We’re not 'offended', Melissa, we’re furious - with extremely good reason."