ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top aide told Democratic lawmakers that the administration took months to release data on the coronavirus death toll among nursing home residents because officials "froze" over worries the information was "going to be used against us."
Republicans who term the comment admission of a "cover-up" are now calling for investigations into and the resignations of both Cuomo and the aide, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa. And a growing number of Democrats are joining calls to rescind Cuomo's emergency executive powers, blasting the administration's defense of its secrecy.
"To continual defenders of NY Gov. Cuomo how is this ok?" New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, tweeted. "How is it not #Trump like? And when FORCED into admission, the most you get is a sorry we got caught...and not even directly from him or to the families."
The disclosure of DeRosa's comments, made on a Wednesday conference call with Democratic legislative leaders, came as the Democratic governor — a third-term Democrat who says he'll run again in 2022 and penned a book touting his handling of the pandemic — and his administration were already facing backlash over their handling and reporting of outbreaks in nursing homes.
Cuomo refused for months to release data on how the pandemic has hit nursing home residents, instead pointing to figures more favorable to his administration. Experts say the release of more — and accurate — data can shape policy to help save people’s lives.
"These are people’s parents and grandparents," Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer said. "They’re people. We should be more specific. Cooking the books on the data isn’t just about nursing homes, it’s about numbers of people infected and possibly dead."
In recent weeks, a court order and state attorney general report has forced the state to acknowledge the nursing home resident death toll is nearly 15,000, when it previously reported 8,500 — a number that excluded residents who died after being taken to hospitals. The new toll amounts to about one-seventh of the people living in nursing homes as of 2019 in New York.
Since last spring, news outlets, lawmakers and the public have asked the Cuomo administration for data about COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents. On Aug. 3, lawmakers asked state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker for the number of nursing home residents who died in hospitals.
By mid-August, then-President Donald Trump began retweeting comments criticizing Cuomo for his administration's response on nursing home deaths. On Aug. 26, the Department of Justice gave Cuomo's administration 14 days to provide data on nursing home deaths.
"Basically, we froze because then we were in a position where we weren't sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys and what we start saying was going to be used against us, and we weren't sure if there was going to be an investigation," DeRosa told the Democratic leaders in comments were first reported by The New York Post.
"That played a very large role into this," she added, saying the administration had asked legislative leaders whether it could "pause on getting back to everybody until we get through this period and we know what's what with the DOJ."
DeRosa didn't directly respond to a question from the AP about whether New York was withholding data from state lawmakers to avoid it being used in any Justice Department investigation.
DeRosa issued a statement Friday saying the administration told legislative leaders in September that it had to set aside lawmakers' August request to deal with the Justice Department's request first. Cuomo's office didn't immediately say Friday when it fulfilled the federal data request.
"We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout," the news release said, adding that the administration was "committed to being better partners going forward."
Cuomo administration officials have also said they needed months to verify deaths outside nursing homes.
Still, it remains unclear why New York couldn't provide data that nearly every other state publishes to state lawmakers and the Justice Department at the same time, and later correct it if needed.
The state Department of Health initially released data about all deaths of nursing home residents, regardless of location. The administration stopped as of May 3, when New York became one of at least two states to only release the number of deaths that took place at nursing homes.
Lawmakers at Wednesday's conference call said they still don't buy the Cuomo's administrations' reasons for delay. They spent the first hour of the call taking state health officials to task for the delay, according to Assemblymember Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat.
"We were all frustrated at the excuses; there was one after another," Kim said.
Richard Gottfried, the Assembly health chair representing Manhattan who also attended Wednesday's meeting, said he and other lawmakers also requested nursing home data in June. He called the entire meeting, including DeRosa's comments, "very disturbing."
"They weren’t releasing data from the investigation," he said. "It’s not the sort of thing they would make up. I don't think the state’s explanation is acceptable."
When asked whether lawmakers would subpoena the Cuomo administration, he said, "I don’t think the New York Legislature is well organized for conducting investigations."
He noted state Attorney General Letitia James' team has done a good job in an ongoing investigation that, among other things, correctly estimated that far more nursing home residents died of COVID-19.
James' office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Kim called for legislative action to protect vulnerable residents, including repealing immunity for nursing homes, launching a victims compensation fund and authorizing a bipartisan commission with subpoena power to investigate COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care homes.
"If you make a mistake, issue a public apology for a change, that would make a big difference," Kim said.
Kim said after DeRosa's comments, staffers and lawmakers listening in on the call began texting each other asking: "Oh crap, did she just incriminate herself?"
But Kim said while he supports reducing Cuomo's executive powers, he doesn't back ousting DeRosa because it wouldn't "resolve the institutional problems the administration caused over the last 10 months."
"There was a lot of trust that was lost," Kim said.