By Lowman S. Henry
Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal and American Radio Journal
It appears New York Governor Andrew Cuomo deserved that Emmy award after all. Not for his performance at news conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic, but for lying effectively about the number of nursing home deaths triggered by his failed policies.
The bombshell revelation that the Cuomo Administration had under-reported the number of COVID-19 related deaths in New York nursing homes by 50% and subsequent admission by a key staffer that the fudging of the figures was intentional has triggered a political firestorm in the Empire state.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Associated Press reported that records showed 9,056 COVID-positive patients were released into nursing homes last spring at the direction of the Cuomo Administration. That number is more than 40% higher than had previously been reported by the state’s health department.
It is important to note these revelations are not an exercise in partisan politics. New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat like Cuomo, has been instrumental in bringing the truth to light.
The Cuomo Administration’s disastrous directive sending COVID-19 positive patients back into nursing homes, which housed those most vulnerable to the disease, was copied by a number of other states including Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Wolf and former state health secretary Dr. Rachel Levine had stoutly defended the policy.
COVID-19-related deaths in Pennsylvania nursing homes and long-term care facilities topped 12,000 in mid-February. That is over 50% of the 23,136 deaths from COVID-19 during that time frame. Clearly, the policy has been as deadly in Pennsylvania as it has been in New York.
The question now is can we believe statistics released by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health or has there been a New York-style effort to keep the real extent of the tragedy from the public? Statistical reporting from the department has been haphazard at best. There was even one point last year where the number of deaths reported dropped, the first recorded rising from the dead in over 2,000 years.
To date Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has remained on the sidelines, failing to provide the same degree of oversight exercised by his counterpart in New York. Former Auditor General Eugene DePasquale likewise failed in his watchdog role before leaving office last month.
Making matter worse the Wolf-Fetterman Administration has operated as the least transparent administration in state history. While exercising unprecedented emergency powers the administration has worked hard to withhold information from the public at times even defying a legislative subpoena and refusing to comply with rulings from the state’s Office of Open Records.
With the state’s deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine mired in chaos and bureaucratic ineptitude Governor Wolf has embarked on a campaign of deflection. In recent weeks he has proposed a massive increase in taxes, advocated for the legalization of recreational marijuana, and touted a plan to raise the minimum wage. This, rather than keeping the spotlight on what should be the number one goal of universal vaccinations to end the pandemic.
Nursing homes, which should be a vaccination priority, are getting the short end of that stick as well. “Pennsylvania has allocated less than 20% of its vaccine supply to long-term care facilities,” said Zach Shamberg, CEO and President of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. He called the situation “both shocking and insulting.”
Checks and balances have been woefully absent from the entire state response to COVID-19. But, given recent developments in New York, the spotlight should return to the tragedy which has unfolded in nursing homes here in Penn’s Woods. The Department of Health’s statistics must be audited to determine if we have been given accurate information. The outcome of such an investigation would either give us confidence in the numbers reported or reveal any attempt at a cover-up.
Further, Tom Wolf along with Andrew Cuomo and the governors in other states whose policies of sending COVID-19 patients back into nursing homes must be held accountable for their actions. It is clear the death toll from these policies is staggering. There were warnings and red flags along the way making these governors culpable, and perhaps even criminally negligent.
It is now time for those tasked with oversight to step up and do their job.