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.
New York is now reporting that nearly 55,400 people have died of COVID-19 in the state based on death certificate data submitted to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up from about 43,400 that Cuomo had reported to the public as of Monday, his last day in office.
"We're now releasing more data than had been released before publicly, so people know the nursing home deaths and the hospital deaths are consistent with what's being displayed by the CDC," Hochul said Wednesday on MSNBC.
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. Her spokesperson, Haley Vicarro, said the governor consulted with the state Health Department before making the change to report both tallies going forward.
"There's a lot of things that weren't happening and I'm going to make them happen. Transparency will be the hallmark of my administration."
WATCH | Hochul says it's time to escape 'oppression' of COVID-19:
Cuomo, 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 under Cuomo excluded certain deaths
Cuomo's spokesperson, Rich Azzopardi, said the former governor's administration reported death data daily.
"New York always reported these numbers and they were always publicly available," Azzopardi said.
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 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.
That lower number favoured by the Cuomo administration still appeared in the daily update put out by Hochul's office Tuesday, but with an explanation about why it was an incomplete count.
State now using CDC numbers: Hochul
"There are presumed and confirmed deaths. People should know both," Hochul told NPR Wednesday.
"Also, as of yesterday, we're using CDC numbers, which will be consistent. And so there's no opportunity for us to mask those numbers, nor do I want to mask those numbers."
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.
Azzopardi said that in August, the Health Department issued an order "mandating that any presumed COVID death be tested to ensure accuracy in numbers." He said the CDC requested data on "presumed" COVID-19 deaths, too.
Spokespeople for the Health Department have said it's still verifying data reported by hospitals and nursing homes.
Azzopardi didn't respond to request for comment on why Cuomo's lower tally excluded confirmed COVID-19 deaths outside of hospitals and nursing homes dating back to spring 2020.
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 during the crisis of the pandemic.
But Cuomo's critics had long charged that he was manipulating coronavirus statistics to burnish his image as a pandemic leader.
The state, under Cuomo, had minimized its toll of nursing home residents' deaths by excluding all patients who died 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.
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.
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.