When COVID-19 hit the U.S., one of the first things we learned about it was that it was most dangerous for the elderly. In fact, the first cluster of infections and deaths in the U.S. occurred at the Life Care long-term nursing facility in Kirkland, Washington, where there was an outbreak of the virus. The first in the U.S. Several residents had already died before the virus was recognized, and dozens of other residents and staff were showing symptoms. 

From the beginning, we knew it was more dangerous for the elderly, who were warned to be especially careful. So why did New York Governor Andrew Cuomo think it was a good idea to require New York nursing homes to accept patients known to have COVID-19? 

On March 25, Cuomo issued an executive order that mandated NY state nursing homes and assisted living facilities to take in active COVID-19 patients, even though these facilities did not have the capability of protecting their residents from the disease. As a result, at least one third of all the COVID-19 deaths in New York occurred in nursing homes. 

Cuomo made this decision despite the fact that a week earlier, President Trump had authorized the deployment to Manhattan of the 1000-bed hospital ship USNS Comfort, the largest hospital ship in the world. The Comfort, with its 1,200 person crew and medical staff, was meant to provide 1,000 more beds to help what Cuomo suggested would be the crush of patients that the city would not be able handle on its own. The President also helped New York City set up a second emergency treatment center at the Javits Center in Manhattan. 

But neither of these facilities were ever filled to capacity. Not even close. When the Comfort left New York at the end of April, it had treated only 182 patients, less than 20% of its capacity. Likewise, the field hospital at the Javits Convention Center was set up to receive 2,500 non-COVID-19 patients in order to lighten the expected load of coronavirus patients in NYC’s hospitals. But it never saw the masses of patients that Cuomo insisted were coming. When non-coronavirus patients didn’t show up, the Javits Center was retrofitted to a COVID-19 hospital, at considerable expense for the conversion. But the highest number of patients ever treated there was never more than 500. 

The amount of waste that Cuomo’s inflated estimates and hysterical demands to the President created was inexcusable in the middle of a pandemic in which every hospital bed, every ventilator, every nurse and doctor was in great demand and seriously overworked. 

Yet despite his panicked and highly exaggerated demands for medical support, and the President’s timely response, and despite the fact that most of these requested beds were empty, Cuomo had no qualms about forcing nursing homes, which housed the most vulnerable members of New York’s population, to take in active COVID-19 patients and risk the lives of every one of them. He called it “their “basic fiduciary obligation,” which is absolute rubbish.

In one Brooklyn nursing home, where more than 55 patients died of the coronavirus, the CEO said that he had been asking the state agencies to move some of his patients to the new wards at the Javits Center and aboard the Comfort. He was told that only patients from hospitals would be received at these sites. He was further told, despite his insistence to the contrary, that his own facility was fully capable of handling the demands of the crisis. Full stop. Only it wasn’t. And scores of its residents died as a result.

Then, one month later, instead of reversing his decision, Cuomo doubled down on it. On April 26, although he had already described nursing homes as a “feeding frenzy’’ for COVID-19, Cuomo told reporters that nursing homes will not be allowed to challenge his order forcing them to admit patients with the virus. Owners were told they could lose their licenses if they did not comply. 

As of May 5, at least 4,813 residents of nursing homes throughout the state had died from COVID-19, although, according to Cuomo’s directive, only the people who have died in the nursing home have been counted. Those who were sick enough to be transferred to a hospital and died there are not included in these numbers. And as of May 19, as far as the fudged numbers will show, at least 5,500 nursing-home residents, in 532 nursing homes throughout New York State, have died from COVID-19, including more than 2,000 in New York City alone. 

When, after Cuomo’s order, the numbers of dead shot up, he didn’t change his order, he simply changed the method of counting the dead, so that the only patients counted were the people who died in the nursing home, and not those who were transferred to the hospital to die.  

Cuomo’s Executive Order was insidious. One nursing home owner reported that his facility had been free of coronavirus until it was forced to accept COVID-19 patients by the Governor’s order. At least thirty-five residents were later reported to have died from the virus after the order was enforced.

And if that weren’t cynical enough, one Queens nursing home reported that when the first two new patients they were forced to admit with COVID-19 arrived at their facility, they also received a box containing a supply of PPE for their staff and a five body bags.

Cuomo’s excuses for his abhorrent behavior range from “We did everything we could” to “It’s not our job”, and he threatened to remove the licenses of any nursing home operator who challenged him. He even authorized the state’s attorney general to investigate them. 

On May 5, at one of his daily briefings, he was asked a direct question about his executive order, and he answered, “That’s a good question. I don’t know.” In fact, he claimed not to know anything about it and he turned to an aide for further information. 

Only the executive order was issued over his name; he signed it; and there was no way he didn’t know anything about it. Among other things, he said that the nursing home can always refuse to take the patient. “The nursing home has to make the decision,” he said. “If they don’t think they can take care of someone, all they have to do is say no.”  

Really? Well, not exactly. In fact, the order, which he signed, was very specific. The March 25 Executive Order said: “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH (nursing home) solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”  Period.

There seems to be something quite wrong with Andrew Cuomo’s attitude towards the residents of nursing homes. Why have his dictates been so harsh and downright cruel? 

Why did he intentionally mandate that nursing homes, whose residents he knew would be the most vulnerable to COVID-19, must accept coronavirus patients who could so easily infect the other residents in the home? 

And why did he forbid relatives of residents from communicating with their loved ones in the home for weeks on end, even when they were dying? 

It is estimated that more than 25,000 coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing homes and long-term care facilities around the country, and some 5,500, or more than 20% of those have been in New York alone.  The exact number of nursing home deaths is not known, thanks to Cuomo’s new accounting method. But whatever the real number is, the number of deaths is a tragedy which never should have happened. 

On May 19, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik called for an independent investigation into Cuomo’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York State. She is accusing him of purposely undercounting the number of dead in nursing homes. She has accused Cuomo of taking “a number of negative actions that cost over 5,000 lives.” And “they also didn’t fully tell the public how many seniors’ deaths there were coming from nursing homes.”

She has said unequivocally that the investigation cannot be carried out fairly by New York State officials – not by the state’s Attorney General Letitia James – so she is calling for the federal Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a thorough investigation that will explain why the vast majority of deaths in New York City have been people over the age of 75, most of whom were residents in nursing homes or long term care facilities. 

Andrew Cuomo’s decision to impose an imperative for nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients was deadly for the residents of those homes. He must have known it would be. We all did. But he did it anyway, and then defended it.

Cuomo did not protect these most vulnerable members of our society. He knowingly put them at greater risk that took many of their lives. Their blood is on his hands. 

And it is only a matter of time before a class action suit will be filed, finding him guilty of manslaughter in the death of more than 5,000 senior New Yorkers who were helpless against his thirst for uncontested power in the face of a pandemic that should have brought out the best in him, but instead it brought out the worst. And thousands of New Yorkers have paid the price. Andrew Cuomo needs to be removed from office and tried for their deaths. It was unconscionable and he must be held accountable.

Image: AP file