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Telling the truth shouldn't be a last resort

According to reporting from The New York Times

According to reporting from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the higher nursing home death figures included by New York State health officials in a report were changed by political officials. Credit: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

In June, a draft of a report from state health officials made its way to top members of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration. Titled "Factors Associated with Nursing Home Infections and Fatalities in New York State During the COVID-19 Global Health Crisis," the draft said the pandemic had, by that time, killed 9,250 nursing home residents in the state.

But when the final version was released, it said that the pandemic had been responsible for the deaths of 6,432 nursing home residents. The statistic eliminated those nursing home residents who were confirmed as having COVID-19 but died in hospitals or other locations. The deaths were included in the overall death total in the report.

According to reporting from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, the higher nursing home death figures included by health officials were changed by political officials after acrimonious argument. And the administration’s explanation for the change — that the nursing home residents who expired of COVID-19 in hospitals during the early months of the pandemic were not confirmed COVID-19 deaths — is weak.

All the Cuomo administration needed to do was affix the word "probable" to those nursing home residents who died in hospitals. That would have properly communicated the truth that some of those patients may have died of other causes while battling COVID-19.

Excluding those deaths from the total nursing home death figure hid that truth.

The importance of the exclusion is heightened by context. Cuomo’s administration has been besieged since issuing a March order that nursing homes had to allow their residents who were in the hospital and had tested positive for COVID to come back to those nursing homes. Cuomo says the order, issued to alleviate a potential shortage of hospital beds during the worst days of the pandemic, was in line with CDC guidance. For months, the media demanded those numbers but it wasn’t until January when state Attorney General Letitia James released a report saying the state might have undercounted nursing home deaths by 50%, that the Cuomo administration quickly added 3,800 deaths to the total after previously claiming it did not have the information.

The administration is also under federal investigation after top aide Melissa DeRosa in February told state legislators the administration withheld nursing-home death totals from the federal government for fear they would be politicized by former President Donald Trump’s administration.

Throughout the pandemic Cuomo’s administration has released as little information as possible when it seemed that information might cause political damage. Now he has more trouble. The State Legislature Friday voted to take away Cuomo’s power to issue new emergency directives.

And the governor is under fire because of the sexual harassment claims of three women, two of them former state employees. Cuomo’s own apology concedes his behavior was wrong even as he says he never touched any of them inappropriately. The probe of the claims, and the administration’s response to them, will be overseen by James.

The truth should have been the administration’s first move, not a last resort.

— The editorial board