Cuomo Must Acknowledge Nursing Home Scandal


Gov. Cuomo received backlash after misreporting deaths in New York City nursing homes. (Courtesy of Twitter)

When the COVID-19 pandemic overtook New York in March 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo emerged as a strong leader, a bright star among the dismal responses on both the state and federal level. Where other states were overwhelmed with the virus, Cuomo was able to bring down cases and contain the virus, with New York having one of the lowest rates of positive cases in the United States. Cuomo has received national praise for his work and even has a book about his response and leadership during the pandemic coming out this year. Despite this praise, Cuomo’s administration and COVID-19 response remain flawed. 


Among the complaints, one stood out: Cuomo’s policies surrounding nursing homes. On Jan. 28, Attorney General Letitia James, in direct conflict with her political party, released information that Cuomo and his health department vastly undercounted deaths in nursing homes, with over 40% of deaths not being counted in nursing home populations.


While Cuomo’s issues with nursing home policies were already problematic, more questions have been raised about his choices during the early stages of the pandemic and about who is to blame for this massive loss.


In mid-March 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, Gov. Cuomo’s health department issued a directive for nursing homes, stating that they would be required to accept patients who were infected or suspected to be infected with COVID-19 once they were discharged from hospitals. The decision was met with immediate criticism from nursing home officials. American Medical Directors Association (AMDA), a group of doctors who work in nursing homes, said upon the announcement of the directive that “admitting patients who were dealing with suspected or documented COVID-19 infections represents a clear and present danger to all of the residents of a nursing home.” 


Two months later, after continued scrutiny, Cuomo and his administration chose to undo the decision, but the damage was already done. At the time of the reversal, the reported number of nursing home deaths was 5,398, and after looking at Attorney General James’s report, this number could reach up to 10,000 deaths. Who is to blame for this deadly disaster?


Initially, when Gov. Cuomo announced the directive on hospital transfers, he said that it would reduce the burden on hospitals and provide more beds in a time of need. However, Cuomo and his administration directly ignored criticism from affected nursing homes, focusing instead on hospital availability. Cuomo’s administration remained focused on the general population and hospitals. This focus isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but by overlooking the effects on the nursing home population and ignoring dual issues of a lack of proper PPE and adequate testing, Cuomo created a perfect place for COVID-19 to spread among the state’s most vulnerable citizens. 


It is easy to look at the situation and place all of the blame on Gov. Cuomo, but some blame passes to others who decided to recommend the directive in an unusual state of crisis. New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker recommended the directive without looking at the opposing side or discussing the issue with nursing home residents and staff members. Zucker, who has been open about the error, said that the decision came from a “scramble to provide more hospital beds.”


Looking back on the choices that New York officials made, it’s easy to see what should have been done differently. Some choices can be made now to prevent more deaths. In the attorney general’s report, she recommended public reporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, requiring staffing levels at nursing homes and repealing a liability shield covering nursing home operators. Using these steps, New York can work to overcome this controversy and fix this issue for the rest of this pandemic. They may not be able to bring back the lives lost because of this devastating error, but they can work to make sure this doesn’t happen to any other nursing home residents. 


This cannot happen if New York officials do not accept their faults for what happened in the past. In a press conference this past Friday, Gov. Cuomo said, in comparison to other states, “We’re below the national average of deaths in nursing homes [33% national average, 28% New York average], but who cares? 3,328 died in a hospital, 3,000 died in a nursing home — they died.” This blatant disregard for both his error and the lives that were lost shows Cuomo’s inability to admit his fault and failures both personally and on behalf of his administration. Gov. Cuomo needs to stand up for his choices, admit his faults in the scandal and work to create better policy for nursing homes and their vulnerable populations.


Samantha Scott, FCRH ’24, is an international political economy major from Columbus, Ohio.