Brendan Williams

There is a poignant scene in the first episode of Spike Lee’s “NYC Epicenters 9/11-2021½” on HBO in which New York Assembly Member Ron Kim breaks down recounting the efforts of former Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, to bully him into silence over nursing home deaths from COVID-19.  

The scale of those deaths was concealed by Cuomo’s administration and they were exacerbated by Cuomo’s much-maligned March 2020 directive to nursing homes to admit COVID-positive hospital discharges, totaling more than 4,500 residents according to an Associated Press calculation.  Kim’s uncle was among nursing home residents who died.

Even as those residents were dying, Cuomo was basking in media froth – heralded in Vogue as “an FDR for our time”; praised by Ellen Degeneres, who declared herself a “Cuomo-sexual”; featured on the front cover of Rolling Stone’s May 2020 issue; and receiving an International Emmy Founders Award in a November 23, 2020, ceremony where an array of celebrities (including, ironically, Spike Lee) praised him.  

This was months after Cuomo’s administration had released a report, widely acknowledged as laughable even at the time, that purported to exonerate his administration for its nursing home policy. By the admission of Cuomo’s own top aide and an examination by New York Attorney General Letitia James, we now know that the report was completely misleading.

That damning facts existed about the inexcusable neglect of New York’s most vulnerable was clear enough even at the time Cuomo was receiving his Emmy, or speaking on August 17, 2020, to the Democratic National Convention (boasting that “[w]e climbed the impossible mountain, and right now we are on the other side.”). The Associated Press had reported on August 11, 2020, that New York’s undercount of nursing home deaths was in the thousands.  

Prior to that, on June 16, 2020, ProPublica published a piece quoting Cuomo’s acknowledgment of the virus’s lethality in nursing homes: “‘Fire Through Dry Grass’: Andrew Cuomo Saw COVID-19’s Threat to Nursing Homes. Then He Risked Adding to It.”  They reported that one county executive “viewed the state’s directive as madness and chose to defy it, refusing to allow any COVID-19 patients to be returned to, or placed in, the one nursing home run by the county. The 320-bed facility, Van Rensselaer Manor, has not seen a single COVID-19 death.”

There is an expression in the law, res ipsa loquitur, that is Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.”  It is where something is so obvious as to offer proof of negligence.  No reasonable person can deny that Cuomo’s decision to compel nursing homes to admit those positive for COVID-19 contributed to the suffering, and likely deaths, of other nursing home residents.  

And yet that did not stop the accolades for a man who was cutting nursing home care funding just two months before facilities were subject to the federal government’s COVID-19 restrictions.

In looking back, perhaps it is as Rabbi Shai Held presciently warned in The Atlantic in a March 12, 2020 piece entitled “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly.”  As he wrote:

“‘The elderly’ are bunched together as a faceless mass, all of them considered culprits and thus effectively deserving of the suffering the pandemic will inflict upon them.  Lost entirely is the fact that the elderly are individual human beings, each with a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained.  But they deserve to die — and as for us, we can just go about our business.”

Brendan Williams is the president/CEO of the New Hampshire Health Care Association.

The opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News guest submissions are the author’s and are not necessarily those of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News or its editors.