NEW YORK — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo took "total responsibility" Monday for "creating a void in information" about the number of COVID-19 deaths that were linked to nursing homes.
"No excuses," Cuomo said during an afternoon press briefing, the first he's held since a damaging story broke last Thursday concerning his top aide, Melissa DeRosa.
"We should have done a better job of providing information," Cuomo said. "I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge."
"We didn't provide all the information that was requested. That created a void...and allowed conspiracy theories to fester," he said.
Cuomo stopped short of apologizing for holding back information from the state legislature last August, when lawmakers requested a breakdown on the total number of COVID deaths that could be linked to nursing home infections.
Cuomo repeated DeRosa's contention that his office had to deal with a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry first. DOJ was initially seeking information on deaths in state-run nursing homes.
"We paused the state legislative request while we were dealing with the DOJ request," Cuomo said.
Last summer, during state hearings, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, said "he wasn't prepared" to provide a breakdown on the numbers. At the time, the state said about 6,000 residents had died in nursing homes from COVID-19.
It was only after a scathing report was released by New York State Attorney General Letitia James in January this year that Zucker's agency started publicly amending the numbers.
The nursing home death rate went from 8,700 on the morning of James' report on Jan. 28 to 12,700 that evening. Cuomo said Monday the number of COVID deaths linked to nursing homes now stands at 13,382.
Last week, death rates were added from assisted living facilities and adult homes. The number shot past 15,000 COVID-19 fatalities.
Cuomo rigorously defended his Health Commissioner Howard Zucker but didn't say a word about his secretary, Melissa DeRosa, who was recorded during a video conference with state lawmakers last week.
The New York Post reported that DeRosa said she and the Cuomo Administration "froze" when the Department of Justice sought information about the nursing home deaths, amid concern the numbers "would be used against us."
Trying to do damage control, Cuomo noted that New York ranks No. 34 nationally in the number of nursing home deaths. He said that 30 percent of New York's 40,000 plus COVID deaths were linked to nursing homes
But he added "there is much distortion" around the Department of Health memo that was sent March 25 last year.
Cuomo said after consulting with the CDC, the belief was that nursing home "residents leaving the hospitals were not likely to be contagious because the viral load was low." He added that senior citizens who remained in a hospital could get a secondary infection.
"The nursing homes had to agree that they could care for this person," Cuomo said about patients returning to facilities.
He cited his own concerns that the state might need 140,000 hospital beds for COVID patients, while we only had 50,000 available. He pointed to the hospital systems that were crashing in Italy and China due to the weight of patient demands.
Cuomo said 98 percent of the nursing homes that received a COVID-treated patient from the hospital already had the virus in their facilities.
"COVID did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals," Cuomo insisted. "COVID came into nursing homes by staff walking in."
He defended Dr. Zucker's decision-making during the crisis, pointing to his Harvard education and work at the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.
"I would trust Dr. Zucker with my mother's care," Cuomo said, "and that's why I trust him with your mother's care."
"To be clear, all the deaths in nursing homes were always fully and accurately reported," the governor said.
But many people didn't agree with that assessment last year, noting that many patients who got sick in nursing homes were initially listed as hospital deaths.
Cuomo also took aim at "for profit" nursing homes, which have been criticized for not investing in PPE, personal protective equipment, for their staff early in the crisis.
"Those institutions are trying to make money. It's too easy to sacrifice patient care," Cuomo said. "We have to implement reform."
The governor was not questioned this time about the liability shield he provided to nursing homes during the crisis, which would prevent them from getting sued, in most cases, for poor patient care during the COVID emergency.
He also tried to show more empathy to the families of the dead, who couldn't be with their loved ones in their final. hours.
"Loved ones died alone. It was horrific," Cuomo said. "The void in information we created started misinformation."
"The truth is: Everyone did everything they could."
He noted "you would have to hermetically seal a nursing home" to keep COVID out.
Cuomo bristled when reporters asked about his emergency powers being rescinded, or possibly being used as a bartering tool by state legislators, who will have budget requests before April 1.
"You can't use a subpoena to leverage a person," Cuomo said. "That's criminal."
As the press briefing came to an end, Cuomo recalled of the 2020 crisis that's continued into 2021.
"You're in the middle of hell," he said.
But he repeated again, "I take total responsibility," saying the delay in providing information "created confusion, cynicism, and pain, and I feel very badly."
This article was written by Mary Murphy for WPIX.