Eleven months ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was hailed as one of most effective US leaders in confronting the coronavirus, idolized in online fan videos and lionized in the pages of the New York Times.
But Cuomo’s pandemic performance – and his career more broadly – has suddenly come under harsh review with the revelation that as recently as last month, New York state was underreporting deaths from Covid-19 in nursing homes by as much as half.
Deepening the crisis, a top Cuomo aide admitted to fellow Democrats in a private call obtained by the Times that the state withheld the data out of political concerns – specifically that Donald Trump’s justice department would open an investigation.
Cuomo has dismissed accusations of a cover-up but he admitted on Monday that the state had held back nursing home data, telling reporters: “There was a delay.”
While Cuomo appeared secure in his post, state legislators on both sides of the aisle have called for an investigation. Antonio Delgado, a Democrat from an upstate district, called the episode “beyond troubling”.
As the scandal continued to build, Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, came under attack from his own party and faced calls that he be stripped of emergency powers.
“The governor is not entitled to his own facts or alternate timeline of events,” tweeted Carolina Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Democrats in the state senate. The New York Post, a Rupert Murdoch tabloid, slapped Cuomo on its cover under the headline: “Tailspin”.
Wherever the crisis lands, it has seen a steep fall for the son of a political dynasty whose tangles with progressives in New York City and reputation for ruthlessness were temporarily set aside last spring as the city faced the world’s worst surge in Covid-19 cases.
Early last April, New York state passed 162,000 confirmed cases, more at the time than any country outside the US. Hospitals in New York City were overwhelmed, morgues rented freezer trucks to store bodies and public applause for healthcare workers each evening was replaced by the sound of ambulance sirens running through the night.
Cuomo’s leadership was held up as exemplary. In daily news conferences delivered with a frank tone, he summarized data on total cases and hospital capacity and offered blunt projections about the course of the outbreak. To his clear advantage, he was cast as a foil to Trump, whose incoherent news conferences projected a vacuum of leadership.
But by April, New York state had taken an ominous decision, with fallout just now becoming clear. With Cuomo’s approval, the state ordered more than 600 nursing homes to readmit residents who had been sent to hospital with Covid-19, as long as they were judged to be “medically stable”.
The policy was meant to relieve overcrowding in hospitals. But nursing home residents and senior advocates expressed alarm that returning Covid patients to elder-care centers would produce terrible outbreaks.
It was not until late last month that the state attorney general, Letitia James, revealed just how bad the situation became – and how misleadingly the state handled it.
Based on a sample survey of 10% of nursing homes in the state, James’s office announced that “nursing home resident deaths appear to be undercounted by [the state department of health] by approximately 50%”.
After the announcement, the state immediately updated its public count of nursing home deaths, which went from 8,500 in late January – a few weeks ago – to more than 15,000 on Tuesday, or about a third of all confirmed Covid deaths in New York state.
In the leaked call with Democrats, the top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa explained that when the Trump justice department requested updated data last summer, “basically, we froze”. State lawmakers also requested the data, but were stonewalled.
Cuomo’s office has said the figures were under audit and denied untoward motivations for the delay in their release.
“These decisions are not political decisions,” the governor said.
That language stood in sharp contrast with his earlier prideful tone about how New York handled the pandemic. In a hastily published memoir, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the Covid-19 Pandemic, the son of former governor Mario Cuomo who became the US housing secretary under Bill Clinton ticked off steps taken that even his critics conceded had distinguished New York’s coronavirus response.
Under Cuomo’s leadership, the state rolled out the nation’s most extensive testing regime, implemented social distancing and mandatory masking policies, shifted healthcare workers and patients to spread out hospital capacity, took an incremental approach to shutdown and stay-at-home orders and set a global standard for communicating with the public.
Even Cuomo’s critics on the left, from teachers’ unions to tenants’ associations, who in the past had grated at the governor’s unaccommodating political style, admitted his effectiveness amid the crisis.
“In ordinary times, Mr Cuomo’s relentlessness and bullying drive New Yorkers crazy,” the Times summarized. “In the age of the coronavirus, they soothe our battered nerves.”
But for progressives who have battled Cuomo for years over quality of life in prisons, subway fares and maintenance, tenant laws, fiscal policy, his aborted plan to drop an Amazon factory in Queens or his infamous reference to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as “a fluke”, the nursing home scandal is merely a reminder of the bad old days.
Despite such intra-party fractures, Cuomo was invited to address the Democratic national convention last summer, as a representative of what good leadership on the coronavirus looked like.
“We climbed the impossible mountain, and right now we are on the other side,” he said.
Depends who’s counting.