Psaki won’t say if Biden has confidence in Cuomo amid nursing home controversy, despite past praise

New York Gov. Cuomo under fire over underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday dodged a question about whether President Biden has confidence in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the controversy surrounding underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths in the state.

Psaki was asked whether the president had confidence in Cuomo, after Biden hosted a group of bipartisan governors and mayors at the White House Friday to discuss coronavirus response efforts.

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"The president hosted Gov. Cuomo and a bipartisan group of governors and mayors today to get their perspectives from the front lines — not to give anyone a stamp of approval or to seek their stamp of approval, and to discuss the urgency of passing the American Rescue Plan," Psaki said, adding that the president "is committed to partnering with governors and mayors."

"Gov. Cuomo is the governor of one of the largest states in the country— one of the places where the pandemic hit hardest, the earliest," Psaki said. "There are still many Americans continuing to struggle to get vaccinated and make ends meet, so it was important to have him as part of the meeting."

Biden, in the past, had praised Cuomo’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in New York, saying last year that the governor’s daily briefings were "a lesson in leadership," and touting him as having done "an incredible job."

On the "Tonight Show" last April, Biden said that Cuomo was "sort of the gold standard."

Psaki’s comments come as Cuomo has fallen under scrutiny for his handling of the pandemic.

Last month, New York Attorney General Letitia James said nursing home COVID-19 deaths in the state were undercounted by as much as 50%. And things escalated Thursday after a report that a top aide to Cuomo told leading state Democratic lawmakers that the administration had withheld data on COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes to avoid federal scrutiny.

But last year, Cuomo directed nursing homes in the state to accept patients who had or were suspected of having COVID-19. The decision created an onslaught of COVID-19 cases that infected thousands of elderly patients and resulted in hundreds of deaths among the state's most vulnerable population. 

James said a new report revealed that, as of Jan. 27, 2021, there were 5,597 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 in nursing homes and an additional 2,783 presumed deaths. In assisted care facilities, there were 160 deaths and 52 presumed deaths.

James' report said government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities and may have obscured the data available to assess that risk.

Cuomo, taking questions from reporters last month after the release of the report on nursing home deaths, defended himself and said, "Everybody did the best they could."

In the press conference, Cuomo said the state followed federal guidance. "If you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government," he said. "It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, this became a political football." 

Cuomo has defended the nursing home policy as in line with guidance from the Trump administration at the time.

James' report said government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities and may have obscured the data available to assess that risk.

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) asked 62 nursing homes to provide data about deaths in their facilities. 

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The report, which revealed the findings of an investigation into allegations of patient neglect and other "concerning conduct" that jeopardized the health and safety of both patients and employees, said that some facilities failed to comply with health protocols to stop the spread of the virus. 

Nursing homes that had low U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services Staffing ratings were found to have higher COVID-19 fatality rates. 

In addition, lack of sufficient personal protective equipment for staff, as well as low availability of testing, could have also increased the patients' risk of contracting the virus, the report said. 

About 70% of the nearly 35,000 COVID deaths in New York were people aged 70 and older, according to state data as of Jan. 28.

Investigations into more than 20 nursing homes whose reported conduct during the first wave of the pandemic presented particular concern are still ongoing, James added. 

"As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate," James said in a statement. "While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves and to spur increased action to protect our most vulnerable residents."

Meanwhile, Psaki last month was asked whether the White House would support a federal probe into the matter. 

"Any investigation would be led by the Justice Department," Psaki said. 

In a swipe at the Trump administration, Psaki, during her press conference, added: "We’re in a new age where they’re independent and will determine what steps they take moving forward."

Fox News' Peter Doocy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.