The news media isn’t waiting for the dust to settle on the coronavirus pandemic to start assessing blame for the ensuing losses. Since the moment it became apparent that the Wuhan coronavirus was going to exact a fearsome toll in the United States, the pundit class began asserting that the Trump administration had failed to safeguard the country against the threat.
As the crisis deepened and lockdowns were imposed, a different political narrative emerged that contrasted with the alleged failures of President Donald Trump. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings became must-watch television in much the same way Trump’s press conferences did, except Cuomo’s performance seemed to charm many, including the corporate media.
Cuomo’s ability to strike the right tone consistently by sounding in charge, as well as speaking in a manner that seemed comforting to those in distress, was in marked contrast with Trump’s confrontational style that may have appealed to his supporters while alienating many others. While most of the mainstream media continued to hit Trump hard by second-guessing his decision-making early in the crisis, Cuomo’s decisions escaped close scrutiny.
The Cuomo Administration’s Policy Was Lethal
That should have changed once it was clear that one of the hottest of the pandemic’s hotspots — New York’s nursing homes — were compelled by a state regulation to take in recovering coronavirus victims, many of whom were likely still contagious.
The implication of this rule — which was apparently strictly enforced and similar to the order issued by California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration — was that facilities filled with exactly the most vulnerable population had no choice but to admit carriers of the contagion. The results of this blunder were as brutal as they were predictable. As of last week, New York’s Health Department estimated the number of nursing home patients who had died of COVID-19 to be 3,500, a total representing more than 20 percent of all the state’s fatalities.
As reports of the suffering going on in nursing homes made clear, what happened was not a function of demography or chance. The March 25 order handed down by Cuomo’s Health Department mandating that nursing homes could not reject those recovering from the illness set in motion the events that inflated the state’s COVID-19 death tolls.
Far from realizing the mistake and seeking to correct it, Cuomo was still doubling down on the order at an April 26 press conference, at which he said again that nursing homes had no right to challenge the state order and reject patients who were likely to spread the illness.
When a reporter challenged him, asking whether upholding the order contradicted his admission that what was going on in these facilities was a “feeding frenzy” for the virus, Cuomo refused to acknowledge the problem. Instead, he insisted that any institution that didn’t have quarantine space or sufficient equipment to protect other patients or staff could request to have coronavirus victims transferred elsewhere.
Yet as the New York Post reported a day later, one coronavirus hotspot, the Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, where 55 people have died from COVID-19, had tried repeatedly to inform state Health Department officials of its lack of equipment and staff to handle the problem and received no help. Requests to transfer patients to the makeshift wards at New York’s mammoth Javits Center, a convention center that has been turned into a hospital, or the USS Comfort, the navy hospital ship that was anchored in New York Harbor before leaving due to lack of use, were turned down.
The Nursing Home Scandal Can’t Be Ignored
The problems in the nursing homes were reportedly compounded by a policy of secrecy. Families of the elderly housed in the facilities were not informed that their loved ones were being put in harm’s way until it was too late. While Cuomo conceded at one point, “I wouldn’t put my mother in a nursing home right now,” he was at the same time backing his administration’s order.
The Health Department order Cuomo supported was motivated by fears that those who had survived the illness might be rendered homeless if facilities could keep them outside their walls. But the proper response to that dilemma was not to leave care facilities without the option to protect their residents. If Health Department officials lacked the initiative or creativity to come up with alternatives — such as using the emergency resources being assembled by the state and federal governments to deal with the crisis — then Cuomo had the responsibility to sack them and find people who would not compound an already terrible situation.
But Cuomo didn’t deal with the problem and, flush with the positive media coverage his sympathetic pressers had created for him, he has airily dismissed any notion that he or his aides should be held accountable for what happened.
The nursing home order is only part of Cuomo’s pandemic record and should be placed in the context of his overall leadership and ability to speak to the fears of so many people. It’s also easy to second-guess any actions taken amid the chaos engendered by an unprecedented disaster. But in the absence of the governor taking responsibility for what turned out to be a fatal blunder by his administration, the cries of those who lost loved ones as a result should not be ignored.
In another time and place, the New York media, with which the governor has had a testy relationship, might have gone after Cuomo, who had a reputation as something of a political thug before the pandemic. But as the corporate media remains obsessed with criticizing every statement by Trump during his daily briefings, they appear little interested in holding Cuomo accountable not merely for inappropriate comments, but for actions that led directly to the loss of lives.