ALBANY — After a sudden reversal of federal coronavirus testing guidelines, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday he would not trust a COVID-19 vaccine and denounced President Donald Trump’s credibility as the U.S. Department of Justice weighs investigating four Democratic states over thousands of virus deaths in their adult-care facilities.
The Justice Department announced Wednesday it is requesting details on decisions Cuomo and Govs. Phil Murphy, D-N.J.; Tom Wolf, D-Pa.; and Gretchen Whitmer, D-Mich., made during the COVID-19 crisis that may have contributed to the deaths of thousands of people in nursing homes.
The information will help determine whether to launch an official investigation into nursing home deaths under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects the civil rights of persons in state-run nursing homes, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, according to the Justice Department.
“I believe this federal government has forfeited its credibility at large,” Cuomo said Thursday during a telephoned conference call with reporters. “I don’t believe this president has credibility.”
The governor also assailed U.S. Attorney General William Barr.
“Mr. Barr cannot spell the word ‘justice,’” Cuomo said. “He lost all credibility in this position. He doesn’t even feign to be impartial or a real attorney general.”
Cuomo noted he and Whitmer were the nation’s two gubernatorial keynote speakers at last week’s Democratic National Convention.
“Coincidences? I don’t believe in them,” Cuomo said.
The four-day Republican National Convention ended Thursday.
Cuomo went on to question the credibility of federal health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who suddenly changed the nation’s public COVID-19 guidance this week that individuals exposed to COVID-19 and not experiencing symptoms are not recommended to get a diagnostic coronavirus test.
“You want to know if you have COVID because you don’t want to spread it and you want to get the care for yourself,” he added. “They’re endangering health and furthering their politics. If they turned around right now and said, ‘There’s a vaccine, take it,’ who’s going to believe them? Not me.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, disagreed with Trump on a potential timeline for a coronavirus vaccine. Trump said a vaccine could be available in November, but Fauci cautioned a vaccine is more likely to debut in 2021.
Cuomo called the controversial changes to the CDC’s guidance “political propaganda” Wednesday. The Justice Department’s request for more information about New York and three other Democratic states is also politically motivated, the governor said.
“They’re playing partisan politics at the Department of Justice,” he said of the potential probe.
The Justice Department requested COVID-19 data from the four governors, who issued orders that may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents after New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan required nursing homes to admit virus-positive patients to their vulnerable populations — often without adequate testing, according to a statement from the department Wednesday.
“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”
New York has reported more than 6,500 nursing home deaths since the pandemic struck in March, yet the state has only tallied the deaths of those who died in the homes, not hospitals. Critics have said the current figure doesn’t provide a full picture of the issue.
New Jersey and Pennsylvania have each reported more than 7,000 deaths of staff and residents of nursing homes.
Lawmakers, family members and others have called for an independent investigation of the state’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes, and to determine if New York’s March 25 Health Department memo contributed to the high number of coronavirus fatalities in adult-care facilities.
“No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to [a nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” according to the memo. “[Nursing homes] are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
“We did [the memo] four months ago when we were scrambling for hospital capacity and we were looking at the apocalypse,” Cuomo said. “Florida just implemented the exact same policy that we had implemented and rescinded.”
Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa shared her thoughts on the department’s Wednesday release.
“I felt the press release was so hyper-political,” DeRosa said. “They bent themselves into a pretzel explaining why they aren’t looking at Texas and Florida.”
The state’s March 25 memo remained in effect for 46 days. It is not found on the state Health Department’s website.
How extensive the department’s inquiry will be is unclear: The Department of Justice may only be able to look at a small fraction of the homes, mainly ones that are public facilities.
New York has five state-run nursing homes. The rest of its 600-plus adult-care facilities are privately owned.
Cuomo argued Thursday the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths in those five state-owned facilities, and the rest of the state’s nursing home deaths, have been released publicly online for months. To see the state’s nursing home coronavirus fatality data to date, visit health.ny.gov/statistics/diseases/covid-19/fatalities_nursing_home_acf.pdf
“What is interesting is there are about 14 states in the country that followed the same CDC guidance,” Cuomo said. “The letter only went to four Democratic states. This is all politics.”
Cuomo on Thursday expressed concern the nation’s altered testing guidance is dangerous from a health standpoint.
“Many public health officials have agreed with me that it is really bad advice,” Cuomo said. “It is dumbfounding. It was political propaganda rather than public health advice.”
Earlier this summer, Trump repeatedly, and publicly, belittled the necessity for the nation’s high number of daily coronavirus diagnostic tests, saying U.S. cases have soared as states increased their testing capacity.
State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker spoke with CDC scientists, he said Wednesday, who told him the changes to the coronavirus guidelines were politically motivated.
“There is not justification for this CDC guidance except manifesting what the president wanted them to do,” Cuomo said Thursday. “He’s denied COVID from day one. ... And you know what will happen if you test less? The number of cases will apparently go down. I know if you don’t do cancer screenings, the number of people you know who have cancer will go down. That doesn’t mean you cured cancer.”
The CDC and federal health officials have incorrectly reported COVID-19 information earlier in the pandemic, including reports that denied asymptomatic spread, that children are not affected by the disease and people cannot become infected with the virus a second time.
“I don’t believe the federal health experts have any credibility,” Cuomo said. “They have been substantively incompetent and they have been political ... which is a damning combination for a federal health official.”
Tribune News Service contributed to this report.