ALBANY, N.Y. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top lawyer was on the defensive Friday, arguing that officials stripped the full number of nursing home deaths from a report issued last summer due to incomplete data.
Cuomo senior counsel Beth Garvey issued a statement contending that the governor's embattled COVID-19 team didn't alter any information in the July report and argued it was public information that seniors who died outside of the facility in which they lived were counted separately.
"A decision was made to use the data set that was reported by the place of death with firsthand knowledge of the circumstances, which gave a higher degree of comfort in its accuracy," Garvey said.
The state's counting of nursing home COVID-19 deaths has been a source of criticism and the focus of a federal probe, leading to calls for Cuomo and his top health officials to resign.
The Department of Health report in question concluded that a state directive ordering elder care facilities readmit virus-positive residents had no impact on the number of seniors killed by COVID-19.
Recent reports revealed that top members of Cuomo's COVID-19 task force reviewed and requested changes to the July 6 report, which, when made public, recorded only 6,432 nursing home coronavirus deaths.
Prior to the changes, the death toll in the in-house review was closer to 10,000 and included seniors who died after being transferred to hospitals, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Garvey said the change was not meant to mislead the public and didn't alter the results.
"This decision was only made after determining that it didn't change the outcome, and that we understood that the same conclusions were supported by both data sets," Garvey said.
The Cuomo administration now says more than 15,000 nursing home residents died or were presumed to have died due to the virus over the past year.
Close Cuomo ally James Malatras, the chancellor of the State University of New York and a member of the governor's task force, distanced himself from the decision to alter the final tally in the report.
The Cuomo team has been under fire and facing accusations of covering up the true toll of coronavirus in New York's elder care facilities for months. Last month, a report from Attorney General Letitia James accused the administration of severely undercounting deaths.
The governor later admitted he and his team could have been more transparent, but repeatedly blamed the Trump administration for politicizing the pandemic.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, already upset about Cuomo's team stonewalling requests for related information for months, weren't buying the administration's excuses.
"It stemmed from his overweening need to burnish his public image, and it was made possible, if not inevitable, by the culture he created of secrecy and fear of retribution that has been amply documented in recent days," said Democratic state Sen. Rachel May, alluding to the nursing home scandal and accusations of sexual harassment recently leveled against the governor.
State Sen. James Skoufis, also a Democrat, said the latest revelations, first reported late Thursday, raise the possibility that Health Commissioner Howard Zucker was "not honest and forthcoming" when he testified before lawmakers last August and said hearings will be held in the near future.
"Whistleblowers are alleging an official public health report was scrubbed by political appointees for political purposes," Skoufis said. "This new, disturbing and, if true, highly unethical revelation demands answers and accountability."
Garvey said Malatras, secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa and another top aide, Linda Lacewell, were "involved in reviewing the draft report - (but) none of them changed any of the fatality numbers or 'altered' the fatality data."
She added that "the chamber" concluded the data on all deaths in homes and hospitals wasn't yet complete or verified and that "it did not need to be included, because it did not change the ultimate conclusions."