Washington (CNN)Some top aides for New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo allegedly rewrote a June nursing home report from state health officials to hide the higher Covid-19 death toll among the state’s nursing home residents, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported Thursday night.
In its reporting, the New York Times cites documents and interviews with six people with direct knowledge of the discussions who requested anonymity.
Both the Times and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that some of Cuomo’s senior aides were involved in rewriting the report to lower the death toll in nursing homes, cutting it by nearly half.
The controversy stems from a report last summer from the state’s health department focusing on Covid deaths in long-term care facilities.
The original report — which was not public at the time — listed the number of nursing home deaths at nearly 10,000, according to the Journal. But it was later revealed in a state attorney general investigation that the state was not counting nursing home deaths if those people had been transferred to hospitals as their conditions worsened — and died there.
Beth Garvey, the governor’s special counsel and senior adviser, said that the “out of facility data was omitted after DOH could not confirm it had been adequately verified.”
“This did not change the conclusion of the report, which was and is that the March 25 order was ‘not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities,'” Garvey said in a statement Thursday provided to the Times, CNN and other media outlets, referring to a directive requiring the readmission of residents recovering from Covid-19 into nursing homes.
The reported involvement of Cuomo’s aides demonstrates how far the governor’s office appears to have gone to obscure damaging data to maintain his reputation of a leader during the pandemic. Cuomo now faces accusations of a cover-up, bipartisan calls for an investigation and limitations on his executive powers.
In addition, he is simultaneously facing calls for his resignation following two allegations of sexual harassment and an accusation that he made unwanted advances on another woman at a 2019 wedding. Cuomo has denied any intentional wrongdoing and apologized, saying, “I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable.”
The alleged intervention by Cuomo’s office in June is the earliest action currently known to delay the release of the data of nursing home deaths and happened as the Democratic governor was starting to write a book about his experience leading New York through the Covid-19 pandemic, the Times reported.
State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report in late January finding that the New York State Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by approximately 50%, essentially by leaving out deaths of residents who had been transferred to hospitals.
But the report also said the overall number of deaths did not change.
The attorney general also found that some nursing homes throughout the state failed to take proper infection control measures and did not isolate Covid-19 patients in nursing homes. Some nursing homes did not report Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes to the Department of Health, according to the report, and in one facility alone, underreported by as many as 29 deaths.
The Department of Health’s March 25 directive “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities,” the report found. Cuomo has said he was following federal guidelines, which said that with a doctor’s consent, Covid-19 patients could be returned to nursing homes if nursing homes were equipped to safely handle patients.
In February, his top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted in a call with state lawmakers that the Cuomo administration delayed the release of Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities over concerns about a Justice Department preliminary inquiry into their handling of the virus in nursing homes, at a time when former President Donald Trump was attacking Cuomo.
During a news conference a few days later, Cuomo claimed that the Department of Health had “paused” state lawmakers’ request for the Covid-19 death data because his administration chose to focus on the DOJ inquiry and deal with the immediate pandemic crisis.
Cuomo has said he regrets the way this was handled and should have done a better job in handling the information.
“I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge. I take responsibility,” he said last month.
“We should have provided more information faster. We were too focused on doing the job and addressing the crisis of the moment,” he said.
The Times reported, however, that Cuomo’s aides were fighting with top health officials about the nursing home data and concealing the numbers months before the Justice Department in August requested Covid-19 information from New York and three other Democratic-led states.
The changes to the 33-page report that Cuomo’s aides pushed for resulted in a bitter conflict with the health officials who worked on the summary, according to the Times.
The Department of Health showed the death toll about 50% higher than the figure being cited publicly at the time by the Cuomo administration.
In February, Health officials released data showing more than 15,000 confirmed and presumed Covid-19 deaths among New York nursing homes and other adult care facilities, such as assisted living residences. The publicly available death toll was roughly more than 8,700 before the state publicly released data on deaths of residents who died after being transported out of a facility.
“COVID Task Force officials did not request that the report conclude the March 25 order played no role; in fact Task Force Members, knowing the report needed to withstand rigorous public scrutiny were very cautious to not overstate the statistical analysis presented in the report. Overall, ensuring public confidence in the conclusion was the ultimate goal of DOH and the COVID Task Force in issuing the report,” Garvey said.
Her statement did not address the Times’ reporting about friction between the Covid-19 task force and Department of Health health officials.
But New York Department of Health spokesperson Gary Holmes said that the June report was a “collaborative process” between the Department of Health and the Covid-19 task force, and that the report’s purpose was to “ensure the public had a clear non-political evaluation for how COVID entered nursing homes at the height of the pandemic.”
“DOH was comfortable with the final report and believes fully in its conclusion that the primary driver that introduced COVID into the nursing homes was spread brought in by staff,” Holmes said in a statement Thursday.
“While early versions of the report included out of facility deaths, the COVID task force was not satisfied that the data had been verified against hospital data and so the final report used only data for in facility deaths, which was disclosed in the report. While the out of facility deaths were held aside for verification, the conclusions were supported by both data sets. “
He claimed that the report establishes that the Department of Health’s March 25 advisory “was not a driver of nursing home deaths.”
Regarding his book and the timing of the Health Department’s report, Cuomo said he “referred to the July Department of Health report saying it showed the virus was brought in by staff before we knew of asymptomatic spread. That has been proven even more accurate over time.”
CNN’s Rob Frehse, Mark Morales, Lauren del Valle, Eric Levenson, Dakin Andone, Paul LeBlanc and Elizabeth Joseph contributed to this report.