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New York Governor Under Fire For Data On Nursing Home Infections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the early days of the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed to emerge as a voice of reason and transparency. At a time when the Trump administration was actively downplaying the severity of the disease, millions of Americans followed Cuomo's daily public briefings. Now he's facing tough questions about decisions he made back then regarding nursing homes, and a recent report from the state's attorney general is adding to the criticism. Gwynne Hogan of member station WNYC is covering the story and joins us now. Hi there.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: First, tell us what this attorney general's report said and why it's become such an issue for the governor.

HOGAN: Right. So two weeks ago, this report came out. And it confirmed what we had known for many months now, which is that the death toll inside nursing homes was actually 50% greater than the number New York state had been reporting up until that point. And that's because New York was one of the only states that we know of intentionally excluding the deaths of nursing home residents who died in hospitals. That's - rather, they were just counting people who had actually died in nursing homes themselves. Now we know more than 15,000 New Yorkers died of COVID in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities since the start of the pandemic, which includes about 6,000 deaths that were not previously included in those totals.

SHAPIRO: So Cuomo built this reputation for transparency through his briefings early in the pandemic. Then he actually released a book underlining that point and celebrating his leadership. Is the accusation now that he may have actually concealed information that made the state's response look worse than it was?

HOGAN: Right. And actually, we learned a little bit more of this concealing last week when a conversation that his top aides had with Democratic lawmakers was leaked to news reports. Basically, she had admitted to these Democratic lawmakers that they intentionally withheld the full death toll because of the Trump Justice Department probe into their handling of the situation. And this leaked reports of this phone call seem to have angered the governor. And we know this because yesterday he spent more than 20 minutes critiquing a lawmaker who has been critical of him, Assembly Member Ron Kim. And Kim came out further saying that he actually received personal phone calls where he felt threatened by the governor. Now lawmakers of both parties are coming to Assembly Member Kim's defense. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON KIM: I have endless colleagues, you know, issuing statements, calling me, letting me know the same kind of threats that they've experienced. And they're all saying, enough is enough. We are a coequal branch of the government, and we can't be punished for doing our jobs.

HOGAN: Kim chairs the state's aging committee, and he actually lost his own uncle to COVID in a nursing home last spring.

SHAPIRO: So briefly, what impact is all of this having on Governor Cuomo's reputation in the state of New York?

HOGAN: Well, it seems that the halo that the governor enjoyed in the early months of the pandemic is beginning to fade away. We have reports of an FBI and Justice Department probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing homes. Governor Cuomo defends his handling of the pandemic, but he said earlier this week that he does regret withholding this nursing home death toll because it created what he calls a void of information. He is quick to dismiss criticism as politically motivated, but he is facing an increasingly hostile state legislature controlled by members of his own party. Right now, they are moving to strip him away of emergency powers he was granted at the start of the pandemic, which would be a real symbolic rebuke of the governor's leadership.

SHAPIRO: Gwynne Hogan is a reporter with member station WNYC in New York. Thank you so much.

HOGAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.