New York’s newly sworn-in governor, Kathy Hochul, added almost 12,000 deaths to the state’s official COVID-19 death count Wednesday, acknowledging a lack of transparency in her disgraced predecessor Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
The Empire State had previously downplayed deaths, only reporting those in clinical settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, and adult care facilities, and neglecting to report deaths in several other places, including at home or in state prisons. Those numbers flew in the face of a significantly higher death toll reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which included the other data sources.
“There’s a lot of things that weren’t happening and I’m going to make them happen,” Hochul, New York’s first female governor, told MSNBC, according to the Associated Press. “Transparency will be the hallmark of my administration.”
The state now reports about 55,400 deaths due to COVID-19, a sharp increase from the 43,400 that had been reported on Monday. The public acknowledgement of that change marks Hochul’s first major departure from Cuomo and his administration, something she acutely acknowledged in the MSNBC interview.
“There are presumed and confirmed deaths. People should know both,” she told NPR on Wednesday. “Also, as of yesterday, we’re using CDC numbers, which will be consistent. And so there’s no opportunity for us to mask those numbers, nor do I want to mask those numbers. The public deserves a clear, honest picture of what’s happening. And that’s whether it’s good or bad, they need to know the truth. And that’s how we restore confidence.”
Cuomo had fashioned himself as a model leader in the fight against COVID-19, going so far as to espouse a Trumpian claim that he knew more than state health experts.
“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts,” Cuomo said at a January news conference. “Because I don’t.”
That self-image imploded the following month when the New York Post reported a conversation between Melissa DeRosa and state lawmakers, in which DeRosa admitted the state underreported nursing home deaths so the numbers couldn’t “be used against us.” “Basically, we froze,” she said.
That admission followed a January state attorney general report detailing the gravity of the administration’s cover-up, alleging Cuomo underreported nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent by only counting deaths that occurred in nursing homes. Nursing home residents who died in other settings, like hospitals, were not included.
A New York Times report in April later found the Cuomo administration’s cover-up was a months-long effort, with administration officials obscuring a scientific paper, delaying the release of a completed state audit for months, and preventing state health officials from releasing an accurate death toll.
The effort coincided with the drafting of his book, American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic, which was released two months before vaccines were first approved and just as a winter COVID-19 surge started.
Cuomo’s data discrepancies ultimately led to a criminal probe from federal officials, though the Department of Justice dropped its investigation into the undercount in June. Following Cuomo’s Aug. 10 resignation, the State Assembly said it may include his data handling in its investigation into his sexual harassment allegations.