“Every day you think of her and you miss so much, it’s just terrible,” he told CNN at his home in Albany.
Agnes Minissale died in April after contracting Covid-19 at her nursing home, Minissale said. She would have been 94 years old on Valentine’s Day. Minissale’s father-in-law, Edward Bridgeford, was in the same nursing home and died from the virus two weeks later, he said. Both became sick at the nursing home and later died in the hospital.
Peter Arbeeny said his final goodbye to his 89-year-old father, Norman Arbeeny, at home more than a week after pulling him from a Brooklyn nursing home in late March.
“It was a horrific, emotionally challenging time to deal with an ailing parent that needed medical attention. And we were in a race to get him out of the nursing home. We got him, but he came out with Covid,” says Arbeeny.
Their heartache is all too familiar in this pandemic. And in New York, Minissale, Bridgeford and Arbeeny are just three of the more than 15,000 long-term care facility residents confirmed and presumed to have died from Covid-19, according to the latest State Department of Health numbers.
But beyond the anguish of losing loved ones to the coronavirus, New York families have had to deal with the politics surrounding the deaths.
Minissale has been outspoken about his frustration with the Cuomo administration’s handling of the pandemic when it comes to nursing homes. Arbeeny, a lifelong Democrat who voted for Cuomo, says “Democrats are on the wrong side of history with this issue” and vows to get to the bottom of why so many nursing home residents died in the state.
Covid-19 ravages New York nursing homes
At issue for these families is an advisory issued last year on March 25, In it, Cuomo put into effect an order requiring nursing homes to accept patients transferred from hospitals who had previously tested positive for Covid-19, if the patients were deemed medically stable.
The families believe, the advisory, in part, pushed the virus into the residences where the most vulnerable live.
“He (Cuomo) was saying that we can’t let (Covid-19) get into nursing homes, it’ll go through (residents) like wildfire,” Minissale said, referencing one of the governor’s daily Covid-19 briefings, “and at the same time when he’s telling you this, he’s putting out a mandate … which contradicts itself.”
Minissale lost his mother and father-in-law in the six-week period that it took for the Cuomo administration to rescind the order.
On Monday, Cuomo tackled the issue in a lengthy news conference, complete with the usual charts and personal reflections that we’ve come to expect from the governor.
He referenced guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which he says his administration followed. “At the time,” Cuomo said, “residents who were leaving the hospitals were not likely to be contagious, because at that time, the viral load (was) so low that (they were) not contagious.”
Cuomo also said that recovering Covid-19 patients were transferred out of hospitals as soon as possible so they wouldn’t contract a secondary infection, and that nursing homes could only accept the patients if they were able to care for them.
He doubled down on his claim that it was caregivers who brought the virus into the facilities, not the order.
“Covid did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals,” Cuomo said Monday. “Covid got into the nursing homes by staff walking into the nursing home when we didn’t even know we had Covid.”
In a Friday news briefing, Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said he stood by their March 25 decision.
“We made the right public health decision at the time, and faced with the same facts, we would make the same decisions again,” he said.
He added that, at the time, models showed hospitalizations were increasing “at a staggering pace” and the state was running out of ICU capacity.
He went on to say that since May — when the advisory was rescinded — no resident has been admitted to a facility without a negative test, visitation is still restricted, and the staff is tested twice a week.
“And yet, we are still seeing nursing home outbreaks and fatalities, the same rate of nursing home fatalities as we saw before March 25 after March 25, and in the fall and winter,” said Zucker.
Their explanation is one the families had heard before and, to them, one that doesn’t add up.
They feel the governor made a bad call and wonder why he didn’t consider other options like putting long-term care residents in field facilities, like the Javits Center, to recover, rather than back into their home facilities.
The families want the Cuomo administration to take ownership of the part the advisory played in spreading the virus in these facilities at the height of the pandemic in New York.
“He hasn’t allowed us to grieve, that’s what really annoys me. Just own your mistakes and let’s learn from it and move on,” Arbeeny said.
Claims of a cover-up
Early in the pandemic, New York only publicly released information on Covid-19 deaths categorized by where people had died.
For example, Minissale says that his mother and father-in-law were listed as deaths in hospitals, not nursing homes.
To some families who lost loved ones to Covid-19 in nursing homes, the decision on how the data was released seemed an attempt to hide the true cost of Cuomo’s actions, including the March 25 order.
When requested for updated information from entities like the watchdog group Empire Center for Public Policy, members of the press and even the state legislature, the Cuomo administration delayed its response, saying it prioritized a Department of Justice inquiry for similar information instead.
In a virtual meeting with a group of Democratic state legislators last week, Cuomo’s top aide Melissa DeRosa admitted to lawmakers they “froze” after receiving the DOJ request.
“We were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us,” she said, according to a transcript of the call released by the governor’s office.
DeRosa comments, first leaked to the New York Post, soon brought on more controversy and furthered claims of a cover-up by the Cuomo administration.
“If they froze from an inquiry letter, what do they think they did to us with their March 25 directive,” Arbeeny said, “You’re saying that you follow the federal guidelines, can we see communications? Can you show us the health care professionals that said this was a good idea?”
Earlier this month, it was a New York Supreme Court judge’s ruling in favor of Empire Center for Public Policy which pushed the state to deliver a true account of the number of Covid-19 deaths at nursing homes.
“His (Cuomo) explanation doesn’t hold water. I don’t know if we’ll ever get a straight answer,” says Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy. “He has damaged his credibility in a serious way. It’s important for the public to trust people making decisions.”
CNN has reached out to the Cuomo administration for a response to the families’ comments but hasn’t heard back.
Demanding an apology and investigation
Cuomo, on Monday, took responsibility for the “void” that the delay in releasing the data created, but says his administration wasn’t hiding anything and the numbers released by the Department of Health are accurate.
“The void, we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism and cynicism and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion … and that created more anxieties, for the families of loved ones,” he said.
But some families and lawmakers think that Cuomo is playing politics and that his explanations aren’t helpful.
“We asked for an apology and we didn’t get it (on Monday). We got defensiveness, we got deflection. We needed empathy from him. We needed respect from our governor,” says Arbeeny.
Hammond says his non-profit is now “parsing the data” to determine the impact of the March 25 order.
Minissale and Arbeeny say they hope the state legislature investigates further, which Republicans have called for and some Democrats have discussed, according to CNN reporting.
The US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, along with the FBI, are scrutinizing the handling of some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in New York, according to a law enforcement official.
A senior adviser to the governor said that the administration had been cooperating with the Justice Department and would continue to do so.
“I have not asked for his resignation. I have not asked for an impeachment. I have not wanted anything other than an apology and a proper investigation,” Arbeeny said, “the truth never has to be explained after, the lies do.”
Cuomo said Monday he explained what happened and there’s nothing to investigate.