Janice Dean: The tragic rise of Andrew Cuomo amid COVID-19 — a real American crisis

“We will make mistakes in life. We try not to, but we do. The key is to be strong and secure enough to admit your mistakes and admit your shortcomings.” – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in November 2020 speaking at Riverside Church in Manhattan after releasing his book about leadership in the middle of a pandemic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “leadership” memoir “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic” was written and promoted in 2020 while over 30,000 New Yorkers died from the coronavirus (the largest number of deaths of any state) with an overwhelming percentage of those deaths coming from residents in nursing homes.

Janice Dean in Albany, New York in August, 2020.

Janice Dean in Albany, New York in August, 2020.

Mind you, before the “American Crisis” book, there was the poster the governor helped create (and sold) of a mountain representing the “curve” on a graph of all the cases (and deaths) in New York. 

There were little pictures of all the things Cuomo loved about himself. His sports car, his dog, his staff members, the “boyfriend” of one of his daughter’s depicted hanging off a cliff and a giant nose with a cotton swab inside of it. The giant nose image was perhaps a reference to a giggly interview with his news anchor brother Chris on CNN about getting a COVID test while body bags were piling up in storage trucks outside of funeral homes in the state.

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The governor, it would seem, is a big fan of props. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, he introduced a wall of masks during a press conference while hospitals were complaining of PPE shortages. Then in May, his giant Q-Tip comedy routine with brother Chris began on cable news. The governor also had someone make a bizarre giant plastic COVID mountain to go with his poster demonstrating at a press conference how he had “flattened the curve” of coronavirus cases in New York.

And then, of course, he somehow found the time to write his celebratory memoir “American Crisis.” We don’t know how much his advance was for this book and it won’t be disclosed until the spring but he received over $700,000 for his previous memoir. According to one New York website, Cuomo has pledged to donate an unspecified amount of the proceeds to a COVID-related entity.

“American Crisis” landed on the New York Times bestseller list in October and has lined his pockets as he continues to profit off the deaths of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. 

Two of those deaths were my husband’s parents, Mickey and Dee Newman, both of whom contracted the virus in their separate elder care facilities in New York City. 

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I believe the deaths of thousands of seniors who have died from COVID in New York State could’ve been prevented, and that’s the reason why I became an advocate over the last eight months trying to expose Cuomo’s own “mistakes and shortcomings,” while the national media crown him as one of their finest politicians.

Had the governor admitted his terrible decisions instead of making posters, plastic mountains and coronavirus artwork, many of us would’ve forgiven him. Had he written condolence cards instead of books about “leadership” I probably would not be speaking up on behalf of other grieving families.

Perhaps in lieu of joking around with his brother on CNN about his love life, doing puff pieces with People magazine or submitting videotape for the Emmy Awards, the governor could have been meeting with families and expressing sorrow for their loss.

And if Cuomo had admitted early on that he was caught by surprise about by a once in a lifetime pandemic, we would have understood.  

Back in early March, the governor was on television dismissing the severity of the coronavirus and instead was worried about the vaping crisis in New York. He attended a vaping rally and told the public that the COVID-19 “panic” was bigger than the virus itself. 

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On March 18, the governor reassured everyone there would NOT be a shelter-in-place order for New York. He told people to go about your life and do not be afraid.

The very next day, Cuomo began his shut down of New York. He would sign an order that helped kill thousands of seniors six days later.

We were all confused. And scared. But none of us knew the tragedy was yet to unfold.

During that time was when Cuomo’s star began to rise. Articles started coming out about “America’s Governor!” He was single and ready to mingle, and suddenly he was the go-to pandemic politician on all the national news programs. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, would give shoutouts to the Cuomo family and reportedly spoke to Chris Cuomo every day when he was apparently diagnosed with coronavirus and temporarily in quarantine.

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Celebrity friends like Chris Rock, Rosie Perez and Robert DeNiro were helping make mask-wearing PSAs, joining the governor at press conferences and later helping raise tens of thousands of dollars for the governor’s reelection campaign while small businesses went bankrupt and restaurants in New York closed their doors for good.

Janice Dean joins her husband and his sister Donna as they call on New York State lawmakers to initiate an independent nursing home investigation in Albany, New York in August, 2020.

Janice Dean joins her husband and his sister Donna as they call on New York State lawmakers to initiate an independent nursing home investigation in Albany, New York in August, 2020.

The whole Cuomo family was suddenly in our lives. The governor’s daughters appeared during his daily briefings, the Cuomo brothers’ comedy hour on CNN was must-see TV, and his mom Matilda was getting a law named after her, because Cuomo “knew” our seniors were vulnerable to the virus. He talked with great concern about our greatest generation on March 20:

“Who are we worried about? Seniors, compromised immune system, people with underlying illnesses. Where are the places we’re really worried about? Nursing homes, senior congregate facilities.”

Janice Dean testifies in Albany calling for an independent nursing home investigation in 2020.

Janice Dean testifies in Albany calling for an independent nursing home investigation in 2020.

He also said that protecting the nursing home residents was the state’s top priority, calling the threat “fire through dry grass.”

Five days after enacting Matilda’s Law to help protect the elderly, Cuomo signed his executive order that helped execute thousands of those he said he would help keep safe.

On March 25, Cuomo and his health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker issued an executive directive that required New York nursing home facilities to accept patients who were diagnosed with COVID-19 from hospitals. The reason was to free up hospital bed space for what was predicted to be an overwhelming number of people who would contract the virus.

The order stated that if a hospital determined a patient who needed nursing home care was medically stable, the home had to accept them, even if they had been treated for COVID-19. Nursing homes could not test incoming residents to see if they were newly infected or perhaps still contagious.

New York was the only state that barred testing of those being placed or returning to nursing homes.

When I look back on our own family experience it comes down to this: The dangerous people (those who were recovering from COVID-19) were forced into nursing homes, putting others in extreme danger. And people that could make a difference in the residents’ physical and emotional well-being (the family members) still, as of this date, are not being allowed into those facilities.

We didn’t find out about the order until it was too late. Perhaps if we had known sooner we would’ve had a chance to react, and save them.

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We were in quarantine, unable to visit them, hold their hands or comfort them.  My in-laws never had last rites performed by a Catholic priest, they died alone. And, besides a quick graveside burial service, we never had a wake or funeral.

I’m stating this because thousands of families went through the same tragic process. 

And that’s when grief turned to rage. Especially since Cuomo barely got asked about the nursing home order when he did all of his mainstream media interviews on “Good Morning America,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and “The View.” It was like the deaths of our loved ones deaths didn’t matter despite the total number of lives lost being several times higher than 9/11.

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When the nursing home mandate was first issued, the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, known as AMDA, had sent out a warning email stating that Cuomo’s order admitting infected patients posed a “clear and present danger” to nursing home residents. Jeffrey N. Nichols, who serves on the executive committee of the group, said, “the effect of that order was to contribute to the thousands of deaths.”

Those in the nursing home industry that I’ve talked to say they believed it to be mandatory and would’ve done anything to stop it from happening.

Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin owns and operates Van Rensselaer Manor nursing home. He says you have to question the motives behind the order because it defies logic and a basic understanding of medicine and senior care.

“The fact that the governor and his team will not answer questions on the subject only raises more questions. The governor’s administration issued the order in March, but now no one from his team seems interested in taking ownership.”

McLaughlin defied the governor’s directive in the spring and did not accept COVID-19 positive patients at their county-operated nursing home, and they required negative tests before admission.

“We outfitted staff with N95 masks, something the state has still failed to do and did not allow our nursing home staff to work at other nursing homes to help stop the spread.”

I asked McLaughlin why he thinks the order was put in place. There have been articles written about the relationship between hospital lobbyists and their influence behind the March 25 order.

He answers with a question:

“Was the memo pushing COVID-19 patients a huge mistake or done to give cover to nursing homeowners who may be political allies? The families of those who lost loved ones deserve an answer.” 

It is also interesting that this document was removed from the NYS Health Department website shortly after it was reversed on May 10.

But for the 46 days over 6,000 COVID positive patients were accepted into those tinderboxes, resulting in viral brush fires that killed thousands. We still don’t have the exact total number of those who were killed because New York is the only state that doesn’t count those who caught the virus in their elder care facilities but died in the hospital.  

The official number the governor and his health commissioner go by is around 6,500 deaths. However, estimates are much, much higher. At least 10,000 by many accounts.

The Associated Press put out a detailed report about the death toll coverup in August:

“New York’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes, already among the highest in the nation, could actually be a significant undercount. But so far the administration of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused to divulge the number, leading to speculation the state is manipulating the figures to make it appear it is doing better than other states and to make a tragic situation less dire.”

The report looked at Cuomo’s responses to the media when asked about the numbers, and noted that he brushes the criticism off as politically motivated and puts New York’s nursing home deaths at just 20% of the state’s total numbers of 30,000 while Pennsylvania is at 68%, Massachusetts is at 64% and New Jersey is at 44%.

Cuomo argued with those percentages, New York “is at the bottom of the list.”

Geriatrics experts say this number doesn’t make sense when other states are more than triple what the governor was spouting as facts.

Despite being asked for these numbers by reporters, lawmakers and even the Justice Department, Cuomo and his health commissioner refuse to give them. 

Bill Hammond is the senior fellow for health policy at Empire Center, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank located in Albany. Hammond has been one of our biggest allies in trying to find out the total number of seniors that died having contracted COVID in nursing homes. He decided to use the state Freedom of Information Law Act (FOIL) to access them, but when the state Department of Health missed the statutory deadline for fulfilling his FOIL request, he appealed. When the state rejected the appeal, the Empire Center responded by suing for the information.

He’s still waiting for the numbers.

I asked Hammond why he thinks the governor and his health department continue to stonewall his repeated requests for transparency even trying to dodge a lawsuit.

“I can’t get inside his head. It’s obviously a sore subject for him politically, and maybe personally, too. Admitting to a significantly higher death toll in nursing homes will undercut his self-image as an effective leader in a crisis, confirm that he has been distorting statistics and hiding facts, and give ammunition to his bitterest political enemies. Flouting the Freedom of Information Law looks bad, but he evidently calculates that the alternative is worse.”

The U.S. Justice Department announced in October that it is investigating whether New York is undercounting coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents, and demanded detailed data from hundreds of private facilities. But as of this report, a senior Justice Department official confirmed to me that New York state has failed to provide ANY data as of their October request.

Not only has Cuomo and his administration failed to provide any information to the Justice Department, lawmakers, Hammond, or countless reporters and grieving families who have asked they be disclosed, he also prefers to blame others for his disastrous mandate and instead says all of it is politically motivated.

The list of people and things Cuomo has blamed for his error is quite lengthy.  They include God, Mother Nature, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, President Trump, the New York Post, Fox News, nursing home workers, and nursing home visitors.

At one point, he seemingly blamed the seniors themselves: “Older people, vulnerable people, are going to die from this virus. That is going to happen. Despite whatever you do.”

Vivian Zayas, co-founder of Voices for Seniors, an advocacy group founded after the unexpected death of her mother while receiving a few weeks of physical therapy at a West Islip nursing home, says this situation is not about politics. For her, it’s now about protecting those at risk. Zayas wrote in an email:

“We the families are disheartened at the constant stonewalling by Governor Cuomo but we will not be deterred in our effort to seek accountability for the preventable deaths of so many seniors. We are the heroes of this story and we will continue to challenge all the players until we gain justice and reform for our vulnerable elderly population.”

One of the questions I’ve never seen the governor asked is why he never used the patient “overflow” facilities that the federal government provided New York, including the Navy’s ship Comfort, the Javits Center and other makeshift hospitals. 

Millions of taxpayer dollars went into running these operations along with doctors and staff at the ready. They instead went empty while nursing homes were packed with patients.

More recently here in New York, with COVID-19 numbers rising at an alarming rate, the governor’s office has suggested they may use the Javits Center again in case the hospitals get overwhelmed. In the spring, nursing home residents recovering from the illness were sent back to virus ravaged elder care facilities instead of being transported to the Javits Center. The governor has never been pressed on why they were not used more efficiently to help stop the wildfire of COVID-19 from killing seniors.

In my months of trying to find out answers for my own family, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of questions Cuomo gets asked about the nursing home massacre at his daily briefings and when he was promoting his book on “leadership.”

I asked Hammond about this, and his answer gave me some hope that journalism isn’t dead … yet.

“Cuomo does get kid-glove treatment from some in the media (especially when he does quick-hit appearances on national TV) but not from the Capitol press corps reporters who cover him on a daily basis. He and his P.R. staff are generally awful to deal with, so there is little love lost. If they don’t ask about the nursing home issue more often, it’s probably because they know they won’t get straight answers and they have dozens of other issues to cover. They might be pushing behind the scenes, and many reporters have filed FOIL requests similar to mine.”

Hammond says a lot of media outlets have done good work on the nursing home issue. One of their local TV stations in Albany, WRGB, has a countdown clock for how long it’s taking Zucker to provide the numbers he promised in August.

 “Pro Publica, the Albany Times Union and the AP have all dug into Cuomo’s record on nursing homes and highlighted his stonewalling and distortions.”

I asked Hammond about the governor and the people he surrounds himself with.  I’ve talked with many reporters that say if they ask hard questions of Cuomo, they’ve gotten pushback from the administration and sometimes from their workplace.

“Cuomo can be a bully, and his media staff follow that lead.”

Hammond assures me that the health department will eventually have to release the true count of nursing home deaths, which is what the Freedom of Information Law clearly requires, but the delay could easily go on months longer.

Peter and Daniel Arbeeny have been extremely vocal about their grief and calling out the governor whenever possible. In October they staged a mock funeral of Cuomo’s leadership by putting over 6,000 photocopies of his book cover in a casket outside of the Brooklyn nursing home where their father contracted coronavirus and died. In an email, they both say an apology would be the first step in helping their family start to heal, but they’re not holding their breath.

“Regrettably, asking a lifelong politician and the leader of NYS for an apology was met with deflection, blame and Deafening silence! WE ARE ASKED OFTEN if Cuomo ever apologized (would we accept) and our, RESPONSE IS the ‘self-appointed Pandemic God’ does not make mistakes, so why would he ever apologize?”

There have been many calls for an independent, bipartisan investigation into the nursing home tragedy, especially after an internal NYS Health Department study (conducted by Cuomo’s own administration) dismissed the COVID-19 recovering patients as the reason for the thousands of deaths, and instead blamed staff members and visitors. The governor’s investigation of himself was panned for its complete whitewash of his failed response.

There were state hearings in August about the nursing home tragedy to which I was invited to testify. I was hoping my family’s story would add to evidence piling up about the governor’s negligence when it came to nursing homes.

And then suddenly I was not allowed to appear in front of lawmakers. I was told there were emails sent from someone on the committee that was “uncomfortable with my appearance” and my invitation was rescinded.  

What was meant to be a deterrent to silence my voice instead made me even more determined to speak out, and my response is:

If anybody has the right to feel uncomfortable, it is the thousands of family members who lost loved ones. Many who would still be here today if they were better protected at a time when they were most vulnerable.

Then, in late August, I was invited with my husband and his sister Donna to join many lawmakers in Albany to push legislation to create an independent commission to investigate the nursing home deaths. The passage was sponsored by Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Assemblyman Ron Kim, D-Queens, in hopes of establishing a panel with subpoena power to perform a “top-to-bottom review” of the deaths reported in New York’s elder care facilities at the height of the pandemic.

Kim lost an uncle in a nursing home to COVID-19, so for him it’s deeply personal.  He texted me why this is still important:

“After nine long months, the families who lost their loved ones in nursing homes deserve full transparency and accountability. Unless we can review an accurate number of nursing home residents, we can never fully understand how we failed to protect them. This isn’t about saving the reputation or legacy of powerful politicians. This is about reassuring the public that we won’t repeat the same mistakes again.”

But Cuomo’s tragic rise continues.

There are ongoing reports that the governor may be headed to Washington to join the Biden administration, possibly as a candidate for attorney general.

There are also the whispers that Cuomo has his hopes on an even higher office someday with a presidential seal. His victory tour continues while many of us watch in horror.

In his speech at Riverside Church just before Thanksgiving, the governor said to always remember this advice when it comes to leadership:

“Don’t get defensive. Denying the mistake only assures repeating the mistake.”

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Cuomo is certainly good at giving out advice but fails miserably when it comes to following it.   

Your mistakes cost us the lives of our family members, governor. But rest assured, we, the People will be strong in our fight for answers and accountability. And the more you try to silence us, the louder our voices will become.

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Janice Dean currently serves as senior meteorologist for FOX News Channel (FNC). In addition, she is the morning meteorologist for FNC’s “FOX and Friends” (weekdays 6-9AM/ET). She joined the network in January 2004. She is the author of several books. Her latest is “Mostly Sunny” (Harper Collins, March 5, 2019) Click here for more information on Janice Dean.