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New York's new governor adds 12,000 COVID-19 deaths to state's previous tally

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul is acknowledging nearly 12,000 more deaths in the state from COVID-19 than had been publicized by her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo.

Former governor Andrew Cuomo counted only laboratory-confirmed deaths reported via state system

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks to reporters after a swearing-in ceremony at the state Capitol on Tuesday in Albany, N.Y. On her first day in office, Hochul's administration acknowledged almost 12,000 more COVID-19 deaths than were acknowledged by the previous government. (Hans Pennink/The Associated Press)

Delivering another blow to what's left of former New York governor Andrew Cuomo's legacy, the state's new governor acknowledged on her first day in office that New York has had nearly 12,000 more deaths from COVID-19 than Cuomo told the public.

"The public deserves a clear, honest picture of what's happening. And that's whether it's good or bad, they need to know the truth. And that's how we restore confidence," Gov. Kathy Hochul said on NPR.

In its first daily update on the outbreak Tuesday evening, Hochul's office reported that nearly 55,400 people have died of the coronavirus in New York, based on death certificate data submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That's up from about 43,400 that Cuomo reported to the public as of Monday, his last day in office.

The higher number is not entirely new. Federal health officials and some academic institutions tracking COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been using the higher tally for many months because of known gaps in the data Cuomo had been choosing to publicize. 

But Hochul, who was lieutenant-governor before being propelled to the state's highest office, said it is vital to be fully transparent about the numbers.

"There's a lot of things that weren't happening and I'm going to make them happen," Hochul said Wednesday on MSNBC. "Transparency will be the hallmark of my administration."

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Cuomo, a Democrat, once acclaimed for his leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak, resigned in the face of an impeachment drive after being accused of sexually harassing at least 11 women, allegations he has disputed. 

Tally excluded certain deaths

The Associated Press first reported in July on the large discrepancy between the fatality numbers publicized by the Cuomo administration and numbers the state was reporting to the CDC.

The count used by Cuomo in his media briefings and on the state's COVID-19 fatality tracker only included laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 deaths reported through a state system that collects data from hospitals, nursing homes and adult care facilities.

That meant the tally excluded people who died at home, hospice, in state prisons or at state-run homes for people living with disabilities. It also excluded people who likely died of COVID-19 but never got a positive test to confirm the diagnosis. Such tests were scarce in the initial months of the pandemic, when hundreds of New Yorkers were dying each day.

"There are presumed and confirmed deaths. People should know both," Hochul said.

Demonstrators gather for a rally decrying former New York governor Andrew Cuomo's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in nursing homes on March 25, 2021. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Cuomo's spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, said the former administration had only been reporting "clearly labelled confirmed COVID deaths" to ensure accuracy, but had been fulfilling its obligation to report "presumed" deaths to the CDC.

"New York always reported these numbers and they were always publicly available," Azzopardi said. He didn't address why the state had chosen not to add deaths outside hospitals and nursing homes.

By Wednesday, the state's website included the higher tally.

Under the Cuomo administration, the state Health Department refused to make an expert available to the AP to explain its continued decision to publicize only the lower tally. 

Nursing home data under investigation

During the spring of 2020, when New York was the deadliest hot spot in the U.S., Cuomo emerged as a hero of the pandemic in the eyes of many Americans for his daily PowerPoint briefings and stern but reassuring language. He won an international Emmy and wrote a book on leadership in a crisis.

But Cuomo's critics had long charged that he was manipulating coronavirus statistics to burnish his image. Months later, it turned out that his administration had minimized the death toll among nursing home residents by excluding several thousand who had succumbed after being transferred to hospitals.

Cuomo used those lower numbers last year to erroneously claim that New York was seeing a much smaller percentage of nursing home residents dying of COVID-19 than other states.

On Wednesday, several lawmakers from both parties called on Hochul to fire Howard Zucker, the state's health commissioner. The department did not immediately respond to a request for an interview with him.

Cuomo speaks during a virtual news briefing Saturday. His successor is reporting 55,400 COVID-19 deaths in the state, up from the 43,400 that his administration reported to the public as of Monday, his last day in office. (New York Governor's Press Office/The Associated Press)

Republican state Sen. Sue Serino called Hochul's disclosure "a welcome step forward on the transparency front" and pushed for an investigation of New York's COVID-19 response in nursing homes. 

"In order to rebuild public trust, it will be important that anyone who had a hand in manipulating or withholding relevant data from the public no longer has a place in state government," she said.

Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat who chairs the Senate Health Committee, was among those calling for Zucker's removal, saying he "aided and abetted in the worst times of the pandemic what is obviously the governor's efforts to burnish his image."

"What you have here is just the clearest evidence, as if we didn't have enough, that this administration went out of its way to make the governor seem much better, much more skilled and that he had handled the pandemic much better than anyone else," Rivera said.

Federal prosecutors have been investigating the Cuomo administration's handling of the nursing home data. The state Assembly Judiciary committee has also been investigating the matter.

This week, in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal, Cuomo's Emmy was revoked. And the publisher of his book has said it will no longer print hardcover copies and will not come out with a paperback edition.

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