Criticism continues over New York Governor Andrew Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing home death data during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two state Senators from the Hudson Valley are dissatisfied with different aspects, and both want to see the governor’s emergency powers diminished.
Following summer oversight hearings about the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Democratic Senator James Skoufis of the 39th district says the Investigations and Government Operations Committee he chairs and others have posed additional questions to the Department of Health and Cuomo administration, including about nursing home deaths. He had given them to the end of February to provide the data under threat of subpoena.
Although the data was disclosed at the end of January, after a report from state Attorney General Letitia James about the state’s undercounting of nursing home deaths, some Republican lawmakers criticized Skoufis for not issuing subpoenas sooner. Skoufis, in an interview with WAMC Thursday, says subpoenas should be used as a last resort.
“The argument that some of my colleagues across the aisle have been making is really disingenuous,” says Skoufis. “They, they very clearly, have, since day one, wanted to issue subpoenas for the sake of issuing subpoenas.”
Skoufis says Republicans didn’t issue any subpoenas over a decade in power, while his record shows he uses subpoenas when need be.
“I’ve issued 25 subpoenas in about two years, so I don’t need to be lectured by folks about how to use subpoenas,” Skoufis says. “They wouldn’t know what a subpoena looked like if it hit them in the face.”
On Monday, state Senator Sue Serino, Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, submitted a Freedom of Information (FOIL) request to the administration for a full transcript and recording of the February 10 meeting held between top members of the Administration and Senate Majority members, including Skoufis, regarding the months-long withholding of the full number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths.
Cuomo’s office released the full transcript of that call Wednesday evening. Serino, a Republican from the 41st District, says that while she appreciates that her original call to release the full transcript was answered without stonewalling her FOIL request, she remains disturbed by the political undertones of the meeting. Serino says the transcript raises more questions than it answers, including about implementing step-down units.
“That conversation, I think, actually started in April, that I asked for them to put the step-down units into, in place. They never responded to me, and then we find out that in November they’ve done some but it was like, it was very hush-hush. It wasn’t disclosed to us where they were. So, and then about, too, about rapid tests. I had the nursing homes asking us for rapid tests. They weren’t getting them,” Serino says. “So there’s a lot… That’s why we need the independent investigation because we really need all the information so we don’t make the same mistakes again going forward.”
Skoufis says at least one question remains about the reporting of nursing home deaths.
“There is an open question as to whether the information that was being provided for many months last spring and summer, whether that was a fair representation at the time, given the information that the Department of Health had,” Skoufis says.
Meantime, both senators want to see Governor Cuomo’s emergency powers pulled back. Here’s Serino:
“Yeah, oh yeah, we’ve been calling for that since the first day of being back in session, and actually even before that,” says Serino.
“I came out a number of days ago with some colleagues in support of curtailing the extraordinary powers that were granted to him. I think they’re no longer appropriate,” says Skoufis. “We’re in a very different place now than we were as a state back in March and April and May of 2020.”
Skoufis says that over recent months, senators themselves have to learn the latest on the pandemic by watching the governor’s press briefings when they should have been informed otherwise.