Cuomo downplays calls for federal probe into nursing home coronavirus deaths: 'Ask President Trump'

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday brushed off calls for the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the massive number of deaths in the state’s nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic – claiming he was only following guidelines from the Trump administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While no formal probe has been announced, the speculation comes amid scrutiny of his March 25 directive that required nursing homes to take on new patients infected with COVID-19. The order stated that "[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."

Nursing homes in New York – which has been the epicenter of the public health crisis – have been particularly devastated by the pandemic, with the death toll in the facilities topping more than 5,000 as of earlier this week. Cuomo recently issued a new directive stating that hospitals cannot send patients back to nursing homes in the state unless they test negative for the virus.

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CDC guidelines require any newly admitted and readmitted resident with a COVID-19 case to be placed in a designated COVID-19 care unit, while those who have met the criteria to have recovered can return to a regular unit in the nursing home. New York – along with California and New Jersey –  at the time had specific guidelines saying that nursing homes cannot refuse to take patients from hospitals solely because they have the coronavirus.

When questioned about the deaths in nursing homes and a possible investigation into his role, Cuomo deflected the blame onto the Trump administration’s guidelines and suggested the calls for a probe are politically motivated.

“This is a political season, I get it,” Cuomo said. “I’m not going to get into the political back-and-forth, but anyone who wants to ask why did the state do that with COVID patients in nursing homes, it’s because the state followed President Trump’s CDC guidance.”

Cuomo added: “They should ask President Trump. I think that will stop the conversation.”

The Democratic governor went on to argue that CDC guidance at the time said nursing homes could not discriminate against patients with COVID-19 because of fears of overcrowding of patients in local hospitals.

“Remember hospital capacity?” Cuomo said. “If a person doesn’t need an urgent care bed in a hospital because they are not urgently ill … is the best use of a hospital bed to have somebody sit there for two weeks in a hospital bed when they don’t need the hospital bed.

“A nursing home cannot accept a patient who they are not qualified to handle,” Cuomo added, noting that the homes needed to be able to quarantine a patient and have proper equipment and personal protective equipment to safely care for the person and prevent further infection.

There have been widespread reports across the nation of a dearth of personal protective equipment in nursing homes as those were funneled almost exclusively to critical care facilities.

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While allowing patients to return, Cuomo in March did restrict outside visitors from entering nursing homes in the state and, more recently, ordered that all nursing home staff be tested for COVID-19 twice a week -- saying, "this rule is not optional — it’s mandatory."

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has been the leading voice calling for an investigation into the Democratic governor’s original March directive.

"Today I joined my [New York GOP] colleagues in the House to call for a federal investigation of Cuomo's failed nursing home policies," Stefanik tweeted Friday. "NOW they admit they unethically changed the way they report nursing home deaths. An INEXCUSABLE tragedy for NY -- NEED ANSWERS."

In taking aim at the Cuomo, Stefanik linked to a Daily Caller report published Friday that said New York is under-reporting the number of nursing home patients who died from the virus.

Until April 28, New York reported coronavirus deaths for all nursing home and adult-care facility residents. But then around May 3, the state changed how it reported statistics about nursing home deaths to exclude residents who died in a hospital. Only nursing home residents who died at their facility would be counted.

On Wednesday, when asked about the claims of underreporting deaths in nursing homes, Cuomo had a blunt answer: “No numbers were changed.”

Fox News’ Marisa Schultz and Gregg Re contributed to this report.