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New York's handling of COVID nursing home deaths at center of Congressional hearing. Read former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's full opening statement.

Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo grilled on Capitol Hill over COVID nursing home deaths
Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo grilled on Capitol Hill over COVID nursing home deaths 02:42

NEW YORK -- Former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's handling of COVID in nursing homes was under scrutiny Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Republican lawmakers on the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic specifically asked him about the state's nursing home guidance in the early days of the pandemic.

On March 25, 2020, New York mandated that nursing homes must admit patients who tested positive for COVID. Cuomo's administration was later accused of underreporting nursing home deaths, but the state acknowledged at least 15,000 long-term care residents died during the pandemic.

The former governor entered the Congressional building with a wave Tuesday, intent on defending himself from claims the nursing homes directive led to needless deaths. On his way inside, he was asked whether he had anything to say to the families of those who died. He called the situation a "tragic loss."

"At one time in this country, 50% of the deaths were in nursing homes. So it was a national tragedy, and that's what we have to learn from this," he said. 

Cuomo was subpoenaed in March and then agreed to the interview in April. The subcommittee has also conducted interviews with other members of his administration, including former state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.   

Cuomo's opening statement on COVID pandemic

Cuomo shared a transcript of his opening statement Tuesday morning, ahead of his appearance on Capitol Hill.

In his prepared testimony, he challenged the premise that New York did something wrong, insisting the state followed the directives that were issued by the federal government. He also said Democratic states were investigated, but red states, like Kentucky, Utah, Arizona and Indiana, that issued the same guidance were not.

Cuomo Opening Statement to the Congressional Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic by CBSNewYork Scribd on Scribd

Cuomo said the criticism of his administration was politicized under former President Donald Trump and claimed the Department of Justice unfairly targeted Democratic-led states in its investigation.

"To distract from their own culpability and muddy the waters, four years ago the Republican administration made many accusations and called for investigations into New York's COVID response: those investigations have been completed," Cuomo's opening statement reads in part. "The Department of Justice -- three times -- the Manhattan District Attorney, the New York Attorney General, and the New York State Assembly all investigated and not a single one validated the Republican administration's accusation that New York's nursing home admissions guidance was the cause of COVID being introduced into nursing homes."

He added New York followed the latest nursing home guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

"Specifically, the Trump administration charged that, in New York, the March 25 admissions guidance issued by the New York Department of Health was allegedly the reason COVID entered the nursing homes," his opening statement continued. "New York was vilified and attacked for such ignorance and ridiculed for causing thousands of deaths. However, today we know that was never true. Investigations found that New York's DOH March 25 guidance was consistent with the prior guidelines issued by the federal CMS and CDC on March 4, 9, 13th and 23rd."

He went on to say it was actually "staff members and visitors who unknowingly walked the virus into the front door of the facility every day for many months before we even knew COVID was here and continued to walk COVID into nursing homes for months until mandatory staff testing was available and in place."

Republicans from New York did not buy Cuomo's rationale

During the questioning, Staten Island Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis, a member of the committee, said that Cuomo denied knowledge of the executive order until it became a public issue.

"He's trying to make it seem as if it was a staff level decision at the Department of Health, that it wasn't even signed, not just not only not signed off by him but by the executive chamber, itself," Malliotakis said.

She was also critical of the former governor's attempt to put the onus on former President Trump and his administration.

"A lot of his answers today are putting the blame on others. At the end of the day, the buck stops with you," Malliotakis said.

Congressman Mike Lawler, who represents parts of Rockland, Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties, also didn't buy the "Who? Me?" routine.

"Anybody who knows anything about Andrew Cuomo and knows anything about how New York State government was run under Andrew Cuomo knows that that is a flat out lie. Nothing happened in New York without Andrew Cuomo's sign off," Lawler said.

The hearing was held as Cuomo seems to be engineering a return to public life, but Lawler told CBS New York, "The Tappan Zee Bridge has a better chance of being renamed than Andrew Cuomo ever holding office again."

NYPD detective: Cuomo "lit the match in the nursing homes"

As Cuomo testified, families who lost loved ones in nursing homes told CBS New York the former governor needs to be held accountable.

More than four years after Elba Pabey's death, her daughter said she still feels the burning pain of loss.

"I miss her. I miss the stories she would tell us. I miss her cooking. I miss her laugh," Haydee Pabey said.

In April 2020, following Cuomo's order to move COVID-positive patients into nursing homes, Pabey, an NYPD detective, got the call that her otherwise healthy 72-year-old mother was on her death bed with COVID.

"He lit the match in the nursing homes that fired the dry grass. He lit the match," she said.

Pabey called her mother's death a tragic statistic and protested Cuomo's actions, but to no avail.

"We have waited four very long years and we never thought this would ever come true," she said. "We need to know. I just wish it was televised. We need to know what his thinking was."

On Cuomo's claims Tuesday that he was just following the federal government's directive, Paybey said, "I think he's just playing with the words. 'Oh, we followed guidelines.' I think he's just trying to protect himself. He has to be told, 'You were wrong and you need to pay for what you did.'"

Pabey said she wants to see Cuomo held accountable, either through a substantial fine or even jail time.

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