New York’s hospitals “were never overwhelmed” at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo claimed Wednesday, continuing his apparent rewrite of history in defense of a state Health Department mandate that barred nursing homes from turning away sickly seniors.
Cuomo made the claim during an interview on CNN promoting his new memoir “American Crisis,” which touches in large part on New York’s pandemic response.
“Hospitals were never overwhelmed,” the governor told host Alisyn Camerota. “We always had excess capacity in hospitals, we always had excess capacity in emergency hospitals that we built. So we were never in a situation where we had to have a nursing home accept a COVID-positive person.”
But in the five boroughs, hospital capacity was a daily source of worry at the pandemic’s height in the spring, with Cuomo telling facilities to prepare to cram in 50 percent more patients than normal and beseeching the federal government for additional beds, including a field hospital in the Javits Center.
While the Javits Center and the USNS Comfort hospital ship sent by the feds were largely underutilized, traditional hospitals were often short on beds — and even shorter on ventilators and personal protective equipment.
As for nursing homes, the state Department of Health in March issued a mandate prohibiting the facilities from turning away patients on the basis of a positive coronavirus test, even as Cuomo publicly acknowledged that seniors are among the most susceptible to the disease.
Several homes reported interpreting the guidance as leaving them with no option but to accept sick patients.
Notably, Donny Tuchman, the CEO of Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Health Center, requested permission to transfer COVID-positive residents on April 9 to either the Javits Center or the Comfort.
Tuchman sent a desperate email to state Health Department officials on April 9, asking if there was “a way for us to send our suspected covid patients” to the hospital built inside the Javits Convention Center or the US Naval hospital ship Comfort — the under-utilized federal medical facilities on Manhattan’s West Side.
“We don’t have the ability to cohort right now based on staffing and we really want to protect our other patients,” Tuchman wrote in a chain of the emails reviewed by The Post.
That request was denied.
“I was told those facilities were only for hospitals” to send their overflow patients, Tuchman said. At the time Tuchman sent his plea, only 134 of the 1,000 beds at the Javits Center were full and the Comfort — which had just been reconfigured to treat up to 500 COVID-19 patients — had a mere 62 on board.
Adding insult to injury, the Navy hospital ship wound up treating just 179 patients before Cuomo said it was no longer needed.
Meanwhile, a total of 6,300 COVID-19 patients were transferred from hospitals into nursing homes, according to the state between March and July.
Cuomo on Wednesday — as he has before, both in briefings and in his book — blamed Republican interests for the resulting controversy, despite firmly bipartisan calls for an independent probe into what role the mandate may have played in the more than 6,500 confirmed or presumed coronavirus deaths tallied in nursing homes statewide.
“You have to separate the political propaganda from the facts here,” he told CNN. “The White House has been very good at blaming Democratic governors for deaths in nursing homes. People did die in nursing homes and it was terrible but that’s where this virus preys: On the old and the weak.”
Cuomo accused Republicans of willfully misconstruing what the DOH order actually did.
“There was never a directive in New York State that said nursing homes must accept COVID-positive patients. That’s political propaganda,” he said Wednesday. “We did follow a federal rule that said you can’t discriminate against people who have COVID, not in a hospital, not in a nursing home.”
Cuomo again stressed that the mandate was derived from a similar federal guidance, and that nursing homes always had a right, if not a responsibility, to turn away patients they couldn’t care for.
“The directive was a federal directive that said you can’t discriminate against a person because of COVID,” he said. “We never in this state told a nursing home, ‘You have to accept a COVID-positive person.’ Never happened.”
Still, an Associated Press analysis of data indicates the count provided by the state of nursing home deaths may be grossly underreported. Some 323 nursing home residents died between early June and mid-July, according to AP’s review of federal data — 65 percent higher than the 195 deaths tallied by the state in that same period.
If that rate is indicative of reporting disparities for the duration of the pandemic, it could account for thousands of additional coronavirus-linked deaths on top of the more than 6,400 the state has already confirmed or presumed in nursing homes.
Another group of numbers also suggests an undercount, AP reported. State health department surveys show 21,000 nursing home beds are lying empty this year, 13,000 more than expected — an increase of almost double the official state nursing home death tally. While some of that increase can be attributed to fewer new admissions and people pulling their loved ones out, it suggests that many others who aren’t there anymore died.
Cuomo partially repealed the order in May, but did so without conceding that issuing it in the first place may have been a potentially deadly mistake.
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