The world of political commentary is in a state of shock today. At least, the world of political commentary is pretending to be shocked, albeit unconvincingly.
The scandalous revelations emerging from the New York State attorney general’s office, which has alleged that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration may have underestimated the state’s official COVID-related death toll in nursing homes by as much as 55 percent, has forced some to reevaluate their positive impression of the governor’s leadership. But the accusations emerging from Attorney General Letitia James’s office came as no surprise to anyone who had been paying the slightest attention to New York’s handling of the COVID crisis.
The accusations in James’s report, which involve not just the undercounting of deaths but the “guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes” that put long-term care facility residents “at increased risk of harm” are well known to the press. We can at least assume this because these charges were first were reported in the press.
“New York’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes, already among the highest in the nation, could actually be a significant undercount,” the Associated Press reported as far back as August of last year. This, the AP speculated, could be a function of the fact that the state deliberately declined to count long-term facility residents who died of COVID outside of nursing homes—in ambulances and hospitals, for example—as nursing-home deaths. The discrepancy between observed deaths and the state’s statistics was so glaring that it could not be ignored, but Cuomo somehow blustered his way through the scandal. “You look at where New York is as a percentage of nursing home deaths,” he barked at reporters who attended his semi-regular briefings. “It’s all the way at the bottom of the list.”
That investigation was one of many that outlined in detail the managerial failures that contributed to New York’s notorious mishandling of the pandemic.
A June 2020 Wall Street Journal investigation found that the governor’s obsessive need to contradict and undermine the authority of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “contributed to an uncoordinated effort” to combat the virus in state and city hospitals. Information sharing between Albany and New York City broke down and life-saving medical equipment in state stockpiles was found to be “faulty or inadequate.”
A ProPublica investigation published in May 2020 found that officials in Albany deliberately choked off the flow of information from the state Health Department to New York City officials. “It’s like they have been ordered not to talk to us,” one unnamed city official told reporters. And while the mayor was hardly the model of competence during this crisis and the city has every reason to shift blame for its failures onto Cuomo’s administration, ProPublica’s conclusions suggest there is plenty of blame to go around.
And while it is important to be charitable when evaluating the performance of leaders operating under pressure and in an imperfect information environment amid a crisis, it’s not as if we do not have counterexamples that suggest improvements could have been made.
“The more telling metric is the timing of action in relation to spread,” ProPublica’s investigation concluded. “One way to calculate that…would be deaths per million, which was about 10 times higher in New York than in California by the time officials decided to close down the state.” And when Cuomo finally informed New Yorkers that businesses would close and all “all nonessential gatherings” would be policed, he gave the public two days before the policy went into effect.
And, of course, there was the nursing-home debacle. On March 25, the governor’s office issued a directive forcing the state’s nursing homes to readmit residents who had been sent to COVID-ridden hospitals. The governor defended that policy all the way into May of last year when he tacitly confessed to his mistake by rescinding the decree. The state’s Health Department eventually conducted an investigation of itself over the carnage that policy produced and determined that it had performed just fine. But again, some counterexamples suggest there was a better way—counterexamples like those provided by Florida and Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“We drew a hard line early on,” insisted Mary Mayhew, secretary of Florida’s Agency for Healthcare Administration. As a byproduct of Medicare’s reimbursement policy, she noted, there is always pressure on public officials to move older patients in and out of hospitals as quickly as possible, but resisting that pressure was critical to keeping COVID fatalities low. “We wanted people out, not in,” one Florida official said.
Despite its elderly population, Florida’s nursing-home deaths from COVID-19 are lower than even the national average. The discrepancy between Florida’s performance and Cuomo’s was so stark that it briefly gave rise to a paranoid theory published in and broadcast by mainstream media outlets implicating Gov. DeSantis in a conspiracy to hide the bodies. But the conspiracy was hidden in plain sight all along, and it had nothing to do with Florida’s performance.
At the outset of the crisis, Cuomo was branded a hero by political journalists—“America’s governor,” “articulate, consistent, and often tinged with empathy,” possessed of a “take-charge attitude” and “comforting manner.” His presumed competence made him a useful Democratic foil to Donald Trump’s often unintelligible pronouncements and cavalier attitude toward the value of non-pharmaceutical interventions (i.e., masking). But Cuomo’s maladministration was visible for all to see. The allegations in the James report are generating a lot of attention and putting Cuomo on the defensive. Still, these charges are not new and are likely come as no surprise to the journalistic establishment. So, if they come as a surprise to you, you now know whom to blame.