Andrew Cuomo Needs to Own Nursing Home COVID Deaths | Opinion

Governor Andrew Cuomo was looking to defuse rather than to stoke the anger of New Yorkers when he was asked this past Sunday whether someone should be "prosecuted" for what has happened in the state's nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic. As far as Cuomo was concerned, the quest for justice on the part of bereaved relatives of residents in the homes was not productive. After all, the governor reasoned, "we can't keep everyone alive" during a pandemic that is particularly dangerous for the elderly. As far as he was concerned, "nobody" should be hauled into court to account for the catastrophic death rate in such facilities.

But what he failed to mention was more pertinent than his philosophic musings about mortality. Because if anybody deserves some blame for what occurred in New York's nursing homes, it is Andrew Cuomo.

The pandemic turned the three-term governor into a media star. Cuomo's ability to show empathy for victims while demonstrating that he was in charge during the crisis turned his daily pressers into must-see TV. The contrast between the governor's sensitive performances and President Donald Trump's press briefings—which provided a mix of boasts and hand-to-hand combat with a hostile press—was widely noted. Heretofore largely dismissed as something of a political thug who lacked his famous father Mario's erudition and grace, speculation about him replacing former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential nominee emerged as a popular topic of conversation.

But lost amid the adulation has been one troubling fact. It was an order from Cuomo's Department of Health—backed up in public by the governor—that was directly responsible for a large share of the massive death rate in facilities that cater to the elderly. The March 25 order handed down by Cuomo's Health Department mandating that those recovering from the illness could not be rejected by nursing homes set in motion the events that inflated the state's death COVID-19 death tolls.

The implication of this rule, which was apparently strictly enforced, was that facilities had no choice but to admit carriers of the contagion. The results of this blunder were as brutal as they were predictable.

By early May, statistics showed that, nationwide, approximately one out of every three COVID-19 fatalities were either residents or workers in nursing homes. The toll was especially heavy in New York, largely because the homes were forbidden from rejecting those who had already come down with the illness and likely to help its spread. But as late as April 26, Cuomo was still doubling down on the order: During a press conference, he said again that nursing homes had no right to challenge the state order despite what he acknowledged was a "feeding frenzy" of virus deaths.

By contrast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who was widely pilloried for a response to the pandemic that was allegedly both too little and too late, allowed nursing homes in his state to refuse to admit virus victims. As a result, the death toll in nursing homes in a state with a bigger and elderly population was estimated this week to be approximately 875—a lot less than the approximately 5,000 estimated deaths in New York nursing homes by the middle of May.

New York state's order was motivated by fears that those who had survived the illness might be rendered homeless if facilities had the freedom to keep them out. But the proper response was not to deny facilities the option to protect their residents. Governor Phil Murphy repeated the same mistake in New Jersey with similar results.

The problem was compounded by a policy of secrecy. Families of the elderly were not informed that their loved ones were being put in harm's way. But while Cuomo conceded at one point that he "wouldn't put [his] mother in a nursing home right now," he was at the same time backing up his administration's decision. It took six weeks after the state issued its order for New York to finally back down and reverse the ruling. In the meantime, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives were lost.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Al Bello/Getty Images

Due to budget problems, especially in private facilities that were exploited as profit centers by owners, many of the homes in question were already failing to provide adequate care to patients even before the pandemic hit. But there's no denying that Cuomo's order helped turn a bad problem into a full-fledged disaster.

It is in that context that Cuomo's willingness to spike any effort to hold someone accountable for what happened in his state's nursing homes must be seen. It is a tribute to his party's iron-fisted control of the New York state legislature that no one in Albany is speaking out to demand justice for victims. And with most of the media obsessed with trying to demonstrate that Trump has "blood on his hands" for his pandemic missteps, there appears to be little appetite for rebuking Cuomo.

Cuomo was right that many of the elderly victims might have died from some other cause this year. It's also true that he didn't consciously will their deaths. But, fortunately for him, the partisan nature of the nation's reaction to the pandemic and the obsession with Trump' perceived failures will ensure that he gets a pass for a deadly mistake that would have sunk him if he were a Republican rather than a Democrat.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.