NY state governor embroiled in controversy about nursing homes

Reports of Covid-19 fatality data manipulation dog Andrew Cuomo

New York governor Andrew Cuomo: Allegations of understating nursing home deaths may undermine his political career.  Photograph: Timothy A Clary

New York governor Andrew Cuomo: Allegations of understating nursing home deaths may undermine his political career. Photograph: Timothy A Clary

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During the height of New York’s coronavirus crisis last year, the daily briefings of state governor Andrew Cuomo became must-watch TV.

New York had borne the brunt of the crisis in the late spring, and the state initiated a war-like effort to try to flatten the curve. To many Americans, Cuomo’s straight-talking, no-nonsense approach was an antidote to the chaotic briefings coming from Donald Trump at the White House.

Cuomo told it how it was, interspersing his stern advice to the public with anecdotes from his personal life. His daughter’s new boyfriend, who was spending lockdown time in the Cuomo household, made a cameo appearance at the press conferences.

“We like the boyfriend,” he said in a faux-serious tone. The governor even won an Emmy award for his televised press conferences – “in recognition of his leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic and his masterful use of TV to inform and calm people around the world”.

Less than three months later, things are very different for one of the US’s most high-profile governors.

Cuomo (63) finds himself at the centre of a controversy that threatens to undermine his political career. A damning report by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, said Cuomo and his team likely underreported the number of nursing home deaths last year.

Admission scrutiny

The state health department also provided data showing that thousands of people who had died in hospital were originally nursing home patients and should have been recorded as such. An aide to Cuomo also reportedly told state lawmakers that his administration deliberately withheld the nursing home numbers because they were worried they would be used against him.

As well as an alleged cover-up over hiding nursing home data, Cuomo’s decision to instruct nursing homes to admit patients with Covid-19 last year has come under scrutiny. There are now concerns that the governor willingly let Covid-19 patients into nursing homes to alleviate hospital overcrowding, exacerbating the spread of coronavirus within nursing homes.

Cuomo held a 90-minute press conference in the state capital of Albany this week to address the controversy, but stopped short of apologising. It was not enough for the state lawmakers – even from his own party.

Democratic leaders of New York’s state senate are drawing up a resolution that could be put to the chamber next week, seeking to strip Cuomo of the emergency powers he was granted by lawmakers last year to handle the pandemic. Democrat Ron Kim, a member of New York’s state assembly, said Cuomo threatened to “destroy” him during a phone call last week as he sought to shore-up support for his increasingly precarious position.

Presidential potential

More worrying for the governor, the FBI and federal investigators have opened an inquiry into his state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.

The current crisis could damage the political career of a figure who has been touted as a possible Democratic presidential candidate.

Now in his third term as governor, he is up for re-election in 2022. The combative Italian-American is well-known in political circles. The son of Mario Cuomo, who served three terms as governor, he is also the older brother of CNN host Chris Cuomo.

The younger Cuomo invited the governor on his show several times during the spring, an editorial decision that raised eyebrows at the time and has now left the network open to accusations of bias. Fox News spent much airtime this week accusing the “liberal” CNN channel of not covering the Cuomo story.

Andrew Cuomo is well used to controversy. New York’s media has chronicled his clashes with other officials, including his very public disagreements with the head of the other power centre of New York politics – New York city mayor Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio made it clear where he stands on the Cuomo controversy this week, calling for an investigation. He also said he believed assembly member Kim’s account of the phone call. “That’s classic Andrew Cuomo. A lot of people in New York state have received those phone calls. The bullying is nothing new.”

As Cuomo faces the fight of his political career, he will hope that many of his allies in New York will rally round him as he seeks to ride out the storm.

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