Top aides to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo were alarmed: A report written by state health officials had just landed, and it included a count of how many nursing home residents in New York had died in the pandemic.
The number — more than 9,000 by that point in June — was not public, and the governor’s most senior aides wanted to keep it that way. They rewrote the report to take it out, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The New York Times.
The extraordinary intervention, which came just as Mr. Cuomo was starting to write a book on his pandemic achievements, was the earliest act yet known in what critics have called a monthslong effort by the governor and his aides to obscure the full scope of nursing home deaths.
After the state attorney general revealed earlier this year that thousands of deaths of nursing home residents had been undercounted, Mr. Cuomo finally released the complete data, saying he had withheld it out of concern that the Trump administration might pursue a politically motivated inquiry into the state’s handling of the outbreak in nursing homes.
But Mr. Cuomo and his aides actually began concealing the numbers months earlier, as his aides were battling their own top health officials, and well before requests for data arrived from federal authorities, according to documents and interviews with six people with direct knowledge of the discussions, who requested anonymity to describe the closed-door debates.
The central role played by the governor’s top aides reflected the lengths to which Mr. Cuomo has gone in the middle of a deadly pandemic to control data, brush aside public health expertise and bolster his position as a national leader in the fight against the coronavirus.
As the nursing home report was being written, the New York State Health Department’s data — contained in a chart reviewed by The Times that was included in a draft — put the death toll roughly 50 percent higher than the figure then being cited publicly by the Cuomo administration.
The Health Department worked on the report with McKinsey, a consulting firm hired by Mr. Cuomo to help with the pandemic response. The chart they created compared nursing home deaths in New York with other states. New York’s total of 9,250 deaths far exceeded that of the next-highest state, New Jersey, which had 6,150 at the time.
In the past week, Mr. Cuomo’s once seemingly unshakable grip on power has been buffeted by a wave of scandal. Three women have accused the governor of inappropriate conduct, including workplace sexual harassment. On Wednesday, he publicly apologized for his actions, which are soon to be subjected to an independent investigation overseen by the state attorney general.
The crisis over Mr. Cuomo’s behavior with women came just as his administration had been dealing with political turmoil over nursing homes. Lawmakers moved to strip him of the emergency powers he had been granted during the pandemic, and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn opened a separate investigation.
But by late spring, Republicans were suggesting that the order had caused a deadly spread of the virus in nursing homes. Mr. Cuomo disputed that it had. Still, critics and others seized on the way the state was publicly reporting deaths: Unlike other states, New York excluded residents who had been transferred to hospitals and died there, effectively cloaking how many nursing home residents had died of Covid-19.
The 33-page report, which was issued in July by the state Health Department, found Mr. Cuomo’s policies were not to blame, but it became a turning point in the Albany debate over the governor’s policies.
The day after the report was published, legislators began calling for hearings and requesting complete data. Public health officials criticized its approach. A think tank began seeking the data the next month, as did the Justice Department.
Health officials, nursing home operators and even some of Mr. Cuomo’s aides expressed bafflement at the governor’s apparent insistence on delaying the release of the data for so long, as none of the information released so far has changed the overall number of Covid-19 deaths in New York — now more than 47,000, including more than 15,000 nursing home residents.
But the July report allowed Mr. Cuomo to treat the nursing home issue as resolved last year, paving the way for him to focus on touting New York’s success in controlling the virus.
Written by J. David Goodman & Danny Hakim, New York Times
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