ALBANY — Federal Department of Justice investigators are prodding Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the governors of three other states to turn over data relating to the spread of COVID-19 in public nursing homes.
The Justice Department demanded that Cuomo and the governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan turn over the information within 14 days, noting the investigators are looking into possible violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
In Albany, Cuomo has been roundly criticized by many Republicans some Democrats for a controversial March 25 directive state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker issued, requiring nursing homes to accept patients who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Virus-related fatalities rose sharply in the weeks after that order was issued. Cuomo has rejected calls in New York for an independent probe into nursing home deaths. A review by the state Health Department, an agency controlled by Cuomo, concluded that the contagion in nursing homes was likely introduced by infected staffers.
In announcing its inquiry, the Justice Department highlighted the fact that New York has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the nation, with 32,592 victims, many of them elderly, citing information collected by the Centers for Disease Control.
New York's death rate from the virus is second in the nation, with 1,680 death per million people, trailing only New Jersey.
“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in explaining the review. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”
The Justice Department, in its announcement, also included the text of Zucker's March 25 order: “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to [a nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. [Nursing homes] are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a joint statement Wednesday evening accusing the Trump Justice Department of engaging in a political vendetta; all four states that are the focus of the inquiry have Democrats as governors.
“This is nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention," Cuomo and Whitmer said in a joint statement.
But some Albany lawmakers applauded the involvement of federal lawyers in trying to wrest COVID-19 death data from New York after Zucker sidestepped questions about the availability of nursing home death statistics at a recent legislative hearing.
"It’s no coincidence the moment the Trump administration is caught weakening the CDC’s COVID-19 testing guidelines to artificially lower the number of positive cases, they launched this nakedly partisan deflection,” Cuomo and Whitmer said.
State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, who has proposed the creation of an independent commission to examine New York nursing home deaths, welcomed the probe, saying he hopes it will break through the Cuomo administration's efforts to stonewall repeated requests for the data.
"This is a situation that brings to mind the adage, "The cover-up is always worse than the actions that led to the cover-up,'" Tedisco told CNHI.
He also said it is "embarrassing" that the federal government stepped in to seek data lawmakers could have gleaned had influential Democrats in Albany simply used their subpoena power to demand documents from the Health Department.
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, is among those who have been sharply critical of Cuomo's nursing home directive and subsequent Health Department report.
"After today’s announcement by the Department of Justice, I have spoken directly with constituents and New Yorkers who have shed tears and gratitude that they will finally be given answers," she said in a statement.
William Hammond, health policy director for the Empire Center for Public Policy, suggested the federal review may be limited in scope because just 30 out of 622 homes in New York are public facilities.
Earlier Wednesday, the governor chided the CDC for suggesting in newly updated virus guidance that people who have come in contact with an infected person "do not necessarily need a test."
"I consider it political propaganda," said Cuomo, a frequent critic of President Donald Trump. He said New York will refuse to follow the new CDC guidance.
But it was not immediately clear if Cuomo will provide the data the federal government is now seeking.
The governor, though, has emphasized the importance of having reliable data to shape pandemic policy.
On May 14, when his administration was calibrating the phases of reopening businesses, Cuomo tweeted: "Follow the data. Follow the science. Follow the metrics."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org