Melissa DeRosa ’04 MPA ’09, secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), has worked with the Cuomo administration to conceal the accurate nursing home death toll caused by the pandemic in New York State.
On Jan. 28, Attorney General Letitia James released a report that uncovered reporting discrepancies on death rates in senior facilities. The Cuomo administration did not deny nor confirm these allegations until the New York Post acquired audio, where DeRosa admitted to the administration’s concealment of the numbers.
James’s report said COVID-related deaths in nursing homes had been underreported by 56 percent from late March to early May. In January, the Department of Health originally reported 8,500 deaths, excluding residents who died once they arrived at a hospital.
Newly released numbers report over 15,000 confirmed nursing home resident deaths, a far greater number than James’s report anticipated.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Cuomo issued a March 25 directive, which ordered nursing homes to accept and readmit COVID-positive patients. This action has garnered controversy, as many believe the order to have contributed to the high death toll.
DeRosa explained the decision to withhold the numbers on a Feb. 10 conference call with Democratic legislative leaders, stating that the Cuomo administration made its decision as former President Trump criticized the coronavirus responses of various governors, including Phil Murphy (D-N.J.), Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.) and Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.).
Former President Trump’s move to have the Department of Justice investigate the administration’s nursing home order also influenced the administration’s decision.
When Trump initially accused the Cuomo administration of underreporting the number of nursing home deaths in a tweet on Sep. 3, Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior advisor, called such accusations “lies and conspiracies.”
DeRosa explained over the conference call that the administration was unsure what information they would provide to the DOJ and their fellow state legislatures, and whether their statements would be used against them in a DOJ investigation.
In that same call, New York Democratic assembly member Ron Kim told DeRosa to hold the appropriate people accountable for mixing COVID-positive and negative nursing home residents.
DeRosa responded by explaining that even before the pandemic, state laws have allowed nursing homes to get away with transgressions for many years. “I think that we all share the same goal, which is to hold them accountable,” DeRosa said.
It explained their concerns about backlash from the Trump Administration’s effort in blaming Democratic states for COVID-related deaths. “We were cooperating with Federal document productions and that was the priority and now that it is over we can address the state legislature,” Azzopardi wrote.
A number of state legislatures commented on the scandal.
New York State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi tweeted: “You’re only sorry that you all got caught. Because of your decisions, thousands of people died who did not have to die.”
Demands for Cuomo and his administration to be investigated and for the governor to be stripped of his emergency powers were made by New York State Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt.
Republican New York State Sen. Tom O’Mara, whose district includes Tompkins County, said, “Top legislative Democrats going behind closed doors with the Cuomo administration to discuss the nursing homes scandal is another stonewalling session that has nothing to do with revealing the truth.”
On Monday, Gov. Cuomo said his decisions are not political, but are instead related to matters of public health.
The Governor was granted expanded powers back in March to better manage the pandemic, but it remains a source of contention among state legislators, some voicing concerns over the creation of an imbalance of power.
CNN reported that a bill to remove Cuomo’s powers will likely be introduced this week and voted on early next week.