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Cuomo Unmasked

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Cuomo Unmasked

The New York governor’s long-running media celebration was largely based on a fiction—his dramatic understatement of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes. February 12, 2021
Covid-19
New York
Politics and law

News emerged late last month that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office had radically understated the number of Covid-19 deaths that occurred in New York State nursing homes in March and April of 2020. These deaths were a sore point for Cuomo, whose daily pandemic briefings last year elevated him to national prominence as a straight-talking teller of home truths. But now it turns out that the governor—while basking in media adulation as a hero of the pandemic—covered up the extent of the problem specifically because, according to reporting from the New York Post, his office didn’t want President Trump to “turn this into a giant political football” by instructing the Department of Justice to investigate Cuomo’s handling of the situation. In other words, Cuomo buried evidence and impeded a federal investigation, hoping that a new administration would leave him alone.

Late last March, Cuomo’s state health commissioner Howard Zucker signed a decree ordering nursing homes to admit or readmit Covid patients released from hospitals, even if they remained infectious. The decision was made when the primary fear of rising contagion was that hospital emergency rooms and intensive-care units would be overrun by the desperately sick; moving stabilized patients into care facilities appeared to be the least bad option.

Cuomo cannot in good faith be faulted for initially making this determination, though it allowed the virus to spread like fire throughout the state’s nursing homes, infecting and killing the elderly and immune-compromised in droves. But he can be held to account for not rescinding the statewide order until May 10, well after it was obvious that hospitals were not being swamped by patients requiring intubation and that the policy was causing massive death in the nursing homes.

Cuomo ducked press demands for nursing-home mortality data throughout 2020, even as every other state made the information public. While New York admitted to about 7,000 nursing home deaths, informed estimates put the real count at around 12,000; the state refused to confirm the numbers. Last month, Attorney General Letitia James released a report acknowledging that the real death toll was close to 13,000. In reaction to this news, Cuomo snapped, “Who cares? 33 [percent], 28 [percent]. Died in a hospital. Died in a nursing home. They died.”

What this episode reveals is Andrew Cuomo’s massive egotism. He was elevated by a fawning national media into a preposterously salvific role last spring and summer. Throughout the course of the pandemic, the governor gave daily televised briefings in which he hailed his own performance as a beacon of leadership. Cuomo delivered such apothegms as, “It’s going to be hard, there is no doubt. But at the same time it is going to be OK.” He also made a point, continuously, of calling the novel coronavirus the “European virus,” presumably in counterpoint to Trump’s calling it the “China virus,” though it is widely recognized that the virus originated in China, even if some infected people may have caught it in Italy before bringing it to America.

The media swooned. His “competence is captivating,” said the New York Times. Reporter Carl Bernstein praised Cuomo’s “real leadership,” and actor and prominent Democrat Mark Ruffalo said that “New Yorkers are lucky to have a leader like Governor Cuomo in this crisis.” In April, at the peak of the epidemic, Cuomo appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s popular television show to announce that he approved of the use of the word “Cuomosexual,” embraced by DeGeneres and her fellow talk show hosts Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, to describe people who love him.

Cuomo also appeared almost every night on his brother Chris Cuomo’s show on CNN. The two brothers frequently bantered about whose nose was bigger, who was more devoted to their mother in faithfully reproducing her recipe for sauce, and how well the “Luv Guv,” in journalist Chris Cuomo’s words, had done in serving the state of New York. “Obviously I love you as a brother, obviously I’ll never be objective, obviously I think you’re the best politician in the country,” enthused the award-winning news analyst.

In November 2020, Governor Cuomo was presented with his own special Emmy for his television appearances. Bruce Paisner, the CEO of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, presented the award to Cuomo:

Last spring, when the virus was new and out of control, and the people of New York were frightened at its relentless spread, one man took it upon himself to use technology to spread reliable information and tell citizens what to do. Governor Cuomo’s daily press conferences were a whole new dimension in public education. He informed, he demanded, and he calmed people down.

Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s top personal aide, now admits that her boss intentionally stonewalled in order to forestall or impede a federal investigation. Speaking to Albany Democrats, DeRosa pled for understanding and “context,” insisting that Trump was “tweeting that we killed everyone in nursing homes.”

In good news for Cuomo, however, it turns out the Biden Justice Department is not planning to pursue the matter. So thank the governor for another lesson in public education: sometimes it pays to bury evidence of your guilt.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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