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N.Y. Gov. Cuomo Defends Delay In Releasing Nursing Home COVID-19 Data

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The early image of New York state's heroic fight against the pandemic turns out to have been incomplete. Governor Andrew Cuomo faced criticism last year for the spread of the virus in nursing homes. Legislators asked how many people died and couldn't find out. Now, one of Cuomo's aides admits the administration withheld the numbers.

Sydney Pereira of our member station WNYC is covering the story. Good morning.

SYDNEY PEREIRA, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So what are the numbers that the state withheld?

PEREIRA: Well, we now know more than 15,000 nursing home and adult care facility residents have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic. That number was much higher than the figure of 8,500 who died who the Cuomo administration was reporting as recently as last month. The discrepancy between those two tallies - and this is key here - was that residents who were transferred to hospitals and then died were not included in the nursing home deaths until recently.

INSKEEP: OK, so you can understand how the error happened, but still a gigantic error. And they seem to have known it was an error for a while before they admitted it. How did state lawmakers react to that news?

PEREIRA: Unsurprisingly, they weren't happy about it. Some Democrats and Republicans were talking about revoking emergency powers granted to the governor in the early days of the pandemic, and some New York Republicans were calling for him to resign.

INSKEEP: Well, what's Cuomo say about that?

PEREIRA: Yesterday, he held a press conference to discuss some of these revelations, and he blamed a toxic political environment for the controversy. And he did admit that information should have been provided sooner, so a reporter asked if he would apologize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: Apologize? Look, I have said repeatedly, we made a mistake in creating the void. We made a mistake in creating the void. When we didn't provide information, it allowed press, people, cynics, politicians to fill the void.

PEREIRA: In effect, the governor was blaming politics for making the political decision to withhold the full number of deaths and saying that a federal Justice Department request for information would take precedence over what state lawmakers were asking for. He also claimed that the state legislature knew about these priorities last summer, which lawmakers were already calling a lie by Monday evening.

INSKEEP: Well, Sydney, Governor Cuomo's whole image in the pandemic has been of the guy who gave daily press briefings and was being real about the pandemic at a time when the president was not being real. So what happens now?

PEREIRA: Steve, this is a big deal. Public information shouldn't be withheld over some kind of political backlash. The reasons for the delay in getting this information contradict how the governor was perceived at the beginning of the pandemic when he came in for an awful lot of praise. He wrote a book about his administration's response to the pandemic, and he drew national attention and even won an Emmy for his press briefings and was at one point considered a candidate as the U.S. attorney general.

The handling of these deaths among nursing home residents is prompting a re-evaluation of his administration's response. In Albany, this is playing out at a political level. Asked if he thought there should be an investigation into his administration's response, he said there's nothing to investigate. But the leaders of the state legislature are going to be the ones to decide what happens next. One of them, state Senator Jessica Ramos, has said his administration should be subpoenaed for more details and a full investigation should be launched.

INSKEEP: Sydney Pereira of our member station WNYC in New York City. Thanks so much.

PEREIRA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "BECOMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.