New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a rare acknowledgment of a misstep in his response to COVID-19 on Wednesday as he said an earlier statewide mask mandate could have made a "dramatic difference" in the fight against the coronavirus this spring.
Cuomo, who has gained acclaim from his party as COVID-19 infection rates have declined in New York, offered the misstep as an example of a lesson for other states in an appearance on public radio.
Cuomo's executive order effective April 17 required all individuals over two years old to wear a face covering — if medically tolerable — when in public and unable to maintain social distance. By that time, several other states had announced less-restrictive mandates or advisories: New Jersey required workers and customers to wear cloth face coverings starting April 10, and an April 10 directive in Utah urged residents to wear coverings when social distancing isn’t possible.
"I was the first state in the nation to do masks. I should have done it earlier. I should have done masks earlier," Cuomo said on WAMC. "That would have made a dramatic difference."
It's a rare admission for a governor who has said he doesn't want a "blame game" but has pointed to the federal government's own failing when asked whether his administration ever erred as it responded to a little-known virus that roiled the state.
Despite his acknowledgment Wednesday, Cuomo quickly repeated his central argument that it's up to the federal government to look out for signs of a global pandemic and quickly come up with clear recommendations.
"Most of these issues are not in control of the state," said Cuomo, who's the new chair of the National Governors Association.
The Cuomo administration says at least 25,270 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in hospitals and nursing homes — an undercount that excludes at least 4,600 deaths of people who likely had COVID-19 in New York City alone.
As part of the same interview on WAMC, Cuomo responded to the AP report that the state’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes could be a significant undercount, saying it makes sense to include only those residents who died on the home’s property.
Unlike the federal government and every other state with major outbreaks, only New York explicitly says that it counts just residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.
"If you die in the nursing home, it’s a nursing home death. If you die in the hospital, it’s called a hospital death," he said. "It doesn’t say where were you before."
The governor added that if New York were to count a death as a nursing home death and a hospital death, that could lead to a "double count."
“And If I’m a nursing home operator, I say: ‘Don’t say that person died in my nursing home, because they didn’t,’” Cuomo said. ”‘They died in the hospital. And if the hospital did a better job, they wouldn’t have died. So why do I get the blame for the death when it didn’t happen in my nursing home?’ So it depends on how you want to argue it.”
Some New York lawmakers have accused Cuomo’s administration of refusing to divulge the complete count to make it appear that his state is doing better than others on the nursing home crisis and make a tragic situation less dire.
AP’s report found that New York’s official care home death count of more than 6,620 is not only an undercount but that it is likely undercounted by thousands of deaths. It noted how a separate federal count since May included resident deaths in hospitals and was 65 percent higher than the comparable state count that didn’t.
New York’s count allows it to tout a percentage of nursing home deaths among its overall deaths that is 20 percent, as much as three times smaller than neighboring states. If New York was even at the national average of 44 percent, that would translate to more than 11,000 nursing home deaths.
Several lawmakers lashed out at Cuomo during a livestreamed forum on the nursing home issue Wednesday, saying his health officials have for more than two weeks stonewalled their request for the numbers of nursing home residents who died in hospitals. One accused Cuomo of being more interested in promoting his upcoming book on the crisis than than being transparent on nursing homes.
"Don't be publishing a damn book right now. Take responsibility for what is happening,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat, said during the discussion put on by the Empire Report news site.
In a legislative hearing Aug. 3, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker acknowledged the state keeps a running count of nursing home resident deaths at hospitals but declined to provide that to lawmakers until it could be doublechecked for accuracy.
The lawmakers say they have not heard back since. AP has also been denied similar nursing home death data it sought through a public records request more than three months ago.
"It's patently ridiculous," Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat, said during the forum. "When you ask an important question and their answer is patently ridiculous, it's clear something is really wrong here."
Researchers are still studying why the virus — which may have spread to New York as early as February — took hold so swiftly and fatally in the densely populated metropolis and surrounding states.
By the end of March, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials told reporters they were weighing whether to change their recommendations for who should wear masks in light of early research that suggested people without symptoms were spreading COVID-19.
Cuomo had expressed initial skepticism about mandating the widespread use of masks, at a time of widespread concern over leaving health care workers bereft. He claimed Wednesday that he is now aware of those studies.
"And by the way, I did the research now," Cuomo said. "There were articles written in the New England Journal of Medicine that went back to January, February saying there was asymptomatic spread."
Cuomo and New York's top health official initially downplayed the need for a mask mandate at an April 3 press conference, when The Associated Press asked about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's call for New Yorkers to wear masks in light of a Singapore study on asymptomatic spread.
State health commissioner Howard Zucker said "there’s no clear evidence" to support the use of cloth face masks, or of face coverings in general among the public. And Cuomo — who had at times jabbed at fellow Democrat and political rival de Blasio for his efforts to combat the virus — said face coverings couldn't hurt unless they provide someone a false sense of security.
"But could it hurt?" Cuomo said at the time. "Might it help? I think it’s fair to say, yes, but don’t get a false sense of security that now you don't have to social distance and you don’t have to take the normal precautions because you're wearing a bandana."
Cuomo has a book coming out on Oct. 13 about the state's response to the coronavirus pandemic and the lessons he’s learned so far. He told reporters earlier Wednesday he'll make a donation to a "COVID-related entity" with book proceeds, but didn't disclose further details.