As the pandemic took hold of the United States last March, upending life as Americans knew it, Trump offered little consolation. The president claimed COVID would magically disappear in a few weeks, promoted miracle cures, and dismissed any criticism of his chaotic response as a "hoax."
Americans were looking for stable leadership. And the person they found was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Beginning March 2, Cuomo held a press conference on the state of the pandemic for 111 straight days. He spoke calmly, demonstrated respect for science, and brought a bunch of charts. People were into it.
"As a host, he made you feel informed, connected, protected and entertained — when we needed it most. His direct, no-bullshit, unfiltered and often charming delivery was so pitch-perfect that I found myself yelling, ‘Yes!’ at the TV," Corin Nelson, a talk show producer, told Variety. Many people felt the same way.
Cuomo enjoyed the attention and embraced the idea that, in the midst of a historical crisis, he was a uniquely competent leader. On October 13, Cuomo published a book called "American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic."
In the book, Cuomo writes that, under his leadership, New York had "confronted and defeated" the virus, and the state had "achieved what all the experts told us was impossible." He said that he ended his press briefings on June 19 because "the immediate job at hand was done," and he wanted to project "confidence" and a "sense of accomplishment."
He speaks of the crisis in the past tense:
The virus was a perverse litmus test of what society can do. How do you vanquish the invisible enemy?... Only a strong body politic can overcome the virus, and that's what happened in New York. It's in the numbers, it's in the bending of the curve, it's in the conquering of the mountain.
Although Cuomo briefly acknowledges the possibility of a second wave, as a whole, the book was a premature victory lap. Shortly after the publication of the book on October 13, there was a massive surge of COVID cases in New York, which is only now beginning to recede.
As of February 14, there were 337 New Yorkers hospitalized per million people. That's the highest rate of hospitalization of any state or territory — including states like Florida, which Cuomo singled out in his book for incompetence.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 46,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID. That number trails only California (47,000 deaths), a state with nearly twice as many people. On a per-capita basis, New York has had more deaths than every state but New Jersey.
In recent weeks, new information has emerged about decisions made by Cuomo that likely made the pandemic much worse. And Cuomo's administration reportedly took steps to cover-up damning facts.
The truth about nursing home deaths
On March 25, the Cuomo administration issued an order prohibiting nursing homes from denying admission on the basis of COVID status. Under the order, nursing homes were also prohibited from requiring a previously hospitalized resident to get a COVID test before re-admission. Further, nursing home staff were "allowed to keep working if they tested positive but were symptom-free." The order has been taken off New York's government websites, but you can read it here.
Nursing homes have been at the center of the COVID crisis. "Less than 1% of America’s population lives in long-term care facilities, but as of February 11, 2021, this tiny fraction of the country accounts for 36% of US COVID-19 deaths," according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Some other states implemented similar policies, but "in Connecticut and Massachusetts, coronavirus patients were sent to facilities that were reserved for those with Covid-19, a strategy considered to be the safest way to halt the contagion."
A report issued January 30 by the New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) concluded that Cuomo's March 25 order "may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities."
Cuomo waives away criticism of the order in his book, claiming his actions were consistent with federal guidance and that there were "only four states with a lower percentage of nursing home deaths." He calls criticism of New York's policies on nursing homes "truly despicable."
But James uncovered evidence that the Cuomo administration was fudging the numbers. Specifically, "the state’s count only included the number of deaths at the facilities, rather than accounting for the residents who died at a hospital after being transferred there." James' investigation found that "COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes in New York state appear to be undercounted by [the New York Department of Health] by approximately 50 percent."
Shortly after the release of James' report, the Cuomo administration released "revised" numbers of nursing home deaths. The impact of the new numbers was dramatic.
Why didn't the Cuomo administration disclose these numbers earlier? The New York legislature has been asking for them since September. Melissa DeRosa — a top aide who Cuomo describes in his book as "the quarterback on my team" — said that the administration was concerned the data "was going to be used against us." She told a group of Democratic lawmakers that after the information was requested by the Department of Justice over the summer, "we froze" because "we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation."
Cuomo, who touted the low percentage of nursing home deaths in his book based on the old data, now says the percentages don't matter. "Died in a hospital, died in a nursing home? They died," Cuomo said in late-January.
The truth about nursing home immunity
James' investigation found that the large number of deaths in New York nursing homes may also be related to lax safety procedures at the facilities. James linked that to several legal changes supported by Cuomo. First, Cuomo issued an executive order on March 23, "which created limited immunity provisions for health care providers relating to COVID-19." Then on April 7, Cuomo enacted legislation that "provides immunity to health care professionals from potential liability arising from certain decisions, actions and/ or omissions related to the care of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic retroactive to Governor Cuomo’s initial emergency declaration on March 7."
James suggests that these actions may have been "interpreted" by nursing homes as "providing blanket immunity for harm to residents other than intentional harm, even if the harm was related to intentional resource and staffing allocations." James disagrees with that interpretation, but notes that legislation is frustratingly vague about the scope of the immunity conferred.
Cuomo was urged to put the immunity provisions in place by "a powerful industry group called the Greater New York Hospital Association." The group, which claimed it "drafted, advocated for the legislation and secured its inclusion into the state’s annual budget package," donated $1 million to the New York Democratic Party in 2018.
The truth about the shelter in place order
The coronavirus spreads exponentially, so actions to limit the spread of the virus early on have an outsized impact. On March 17, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio — who has a contentious relationship with Cuomo — suggested a "shelter in place" order to slow the spread of the virus. Cuomo dismissed the suggestion:
For New York City or any city or any county to take an emergency action, the state has to approve it… And I wouldn’t approve shelter in place... The fear, the panic, is a bigger problem than the virus.
Cuomo had ordered the closure of schools, gyms, restaurants, and bars. But he resisted more systemic action.
On March 19, California, which had one-third the number of cases as New York, issued its shelter in place order. It wasn't until March 22 that Cuomo ordered a "pause" — a shelter in place order by a different name. A delay of five days doesn't seem like a big deal. But "Columbia University epidemiologists later estimated that a week’s delay in March quintupled the number of deaths in the New York metro area in the pandemic’s first two months."
The truth about the role of scientific expertise
In recent months, nine top New York health officials have quit. The New York Times reports this was a result of Cuomo's decision to declare "war on his own public health bureaucracy." Several officials "said they often found out about major changes in pandemic policy only after Mr. Cuomo announced them at news conferences — and then asked them to match their health guidance to the announcements."
Cuomo became a star in the early days of the pandemic by drawing a contrast to Trump. Specifically, Cuomo emphasized his approach was guided by experts and science. Now, his approach has changed.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts. Because I don’t. Because I don’t," Cuomo said at a press conference on January 29, 2021.