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New York Gov. Cuomo facing calls to apologize for undercounting Covid-19 nursing home deaths

The popular Democrat's poll numbers are starting to slip, according to a new Siena poll.
Governor Cuomo Holds Press Briefing
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference in New York City on Oct. 5.Jeenah Moon / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Hard-charging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has often found it hard to say I'm sorry, but he may have to apologize after news that his office deliberately withheld data about Covid-19 nursing home deaths from state lawmakers and the public, Democratic Party insiders said Tuesday.

"He needs to make a sincere apology to the families of the victims," said a longtime Democratic Party strategist, who asked not to be identified by name. "I know it's hard for him to apologize, but he just has to. It's the right thing to do, and the Republicans have made this a cause célèbre to go after him."

Another party insider, who also asked not to be identified by name, said Cuomo "presented himself as a truth-teller."

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"This is a dagger in the heart of that narrative," the insider said.

The dagger was delivered last month by state Attorney General Letitia James, who released a damning report that said the state Health Department underreported the Covid-19 death toll at nursing homes by as much as 50 percent.

Fanning the flames further was the admission last week by Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa, first reported by the New York Post, that the state held off on releasing the fuller death count in August because of fears that President Donald Trump would use the information against Cuomo.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers are now reported to be reconsidering their decision to grant Cuomo emergency powers to contend with the Covid-19 crisis.

Cuomo conceded Monday that "things should have been done differently" and insisted that "lessons were learned."

"In retrospect, should we have given more priority to fulfilling information requests? In my opinion, yes. And that's what created the void," Cuomo said. "I just want to make sure people know these are the facts: Everything that could have been done was done."

But Cuomo didn't apologize.

The Democratic insider said that not only was that a missed opportunity for Cuomo but that it also handed more ammunition to Republicans still smarting over his stealing the leadership spotlight from Trump by giving daily briefings that drew a national audience and widespread praise.

"Andrew Cuomo presented a juxtaposition to President Trump during the pandemic, and many Americans felt it was a master class in leadership and decisiveness," the party insider said. "Many Americans looked to Gov. Cuomo for answers, not to the president."

But James' report "completely undermines that narrative," he said.

It's also starting to be reflected in Cuomo's poll numbers. Since November, his approval rating has slipped from 56 percent to 51 percent, according to a new Siena College poll.

The pollsters found that majorities approved of Cuomo's job in addressing the pandemic (61 percent) and gave him high marks for communicating with New Yorkers about the crisis (67 percent). But 55 percent of New Yorkers gave him a negative grade for reporting the Covid-19 nursing home deaths.

"New Yorkers saw with their own two eyes how Gov. Cuomo worked day and night to get us on the other side of this pandemic," said Rich Azzopardi, a senior advisor for the governor. "There are politics and then there are facts, and the facts in this poll shows the governor's favorability is rock solid and virtually unchanged and, nearly a year in, an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers approve of his handling of the pandemic."

Evan Stavisky, a longtime political consultant with The Parkside Group, said he doesn't think Cuomo needs to worry just yet.

"New York is a very blue state, and New Yorkers are, by and large, happy with the governor," he said. "There's no human being that's without fault ... but I think the reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated."

In addition, he said, Democratic voters don't expect Cuomo to apologize.

"Does he have the right tone? He's always had this style," Stavisky said. "It's baked into the voters' perception of him. He's not going to suddenly change his style now. ... At this point, I'd rather be Andrew Cuomo than anybody else trying to challenge him."

New York was hit hard in the early days of the pandemic, and until recently the state led the country in Covid-19 deaths. It had recorded 47,177 as of Tuesday, second only to California's 47,277 deaths, according to the most recent NBC News data.

Most of New York's deaths came in the early days of the pandemic, when public health officials were trying to figure out how the coronavirus was spreading.

Cuomo was criticized for having waited until May to reverse a state policy that required long-term care facilities to accept recovering patients who might still test positive for the virus.

Then Cuomo insisted that it was up to the nursing homes to alert state health officials if they weren't equipped to take care of infected residents. And a report issued by the state in July blamed the more than 8,500 deaths of seniors on staffers who unwittingly infected residents.

James, who is also a Democrat, launched her investigation last spring after whistleblowers reported that residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus were being "intermingled" with healthy residents, that the nursing homes were failing to adequately test workers for the virus and that they were making "sick employees continue to work and care for residents or face retaliation or termination."

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Soon, investigators began noticing discrepancies between the numbers of Covid-19 nursing home deaths they were seeing and the numbers being reported by the Cuomo-controlled state Health Department.

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, insisted in a statement after James' report became public that there was no "undercount."

"The word 'undercount' implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong," Zucker said. "The OAG's report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died. The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals."

Within hours, Republicans led by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., a staunch Trump supporter, were calling for Cuomo and Zucker to resign.