ALBANY — Here we go again.
That was my reaction to news, as reported by Marina Villenueve of the Associated Press, that Andrew Cuomo's administration has been underreporting the state's total number of COVID-19 deaths. Of course, the governor and his staff spent nearly a year hiding the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, a scandal that federal officials are investigating.
And now this? Does this governor, I wondered, ever learn?
Villenueve reports that the federal count of New York COVID-19 deaths includes about 11,000 more victims than the state's official tally. That's largely because the state Department of Health is counting only lab-tested deaths in hospitals, nursing homes and adult-care facilities but excluding presumed COVID-19 victims who died in their own homes, hospice, state prisons or at state-run homes for people with disabilities.
The revelation is different from what happened with nursing homes in an important way: The more accurate federal number is publicly available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That wasn't the case with nursing home deaths, as the state's dishonestly kept us in the dark until a report by Attorney General Letitia James called out the undercount.
But in other respects, this feels like a replay. New York is again underreporting deaths in an official total, making the state's handling of the pandemic look better than it really was. And the state is again obfuscating: As Villenueve noted on Twitter, she'd been asking the Health Department to explain the undercount since May without receiving a direct answer.
"They're playing games," said Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center Center for Public Policy. "They're leaving out entire categories of people who died, and it doesn't make any sense."
According to the state's official count, about 43,000 New Yorkers have died from COVID-19. But the state, according to the Associated Press, has provided data to the federal government showing that roughly 54,000 have died in COVID-19 related deaths.
"There's no such thing as 'federal data' as opposed to New York state data," contended Jill Montag, a health department spokesperson. "The numbers disseminated by the CDC come from New York state's own daily reporting — it's all New York state data and all public."
And this is the way Cuomo put it when asked by reporters Wednesday about the undercount: "We have always reported lab-tested COVID results," he said. " CDC asks for additional information on, I forget their terminology, possible or presumed COVID deaths, which we report to them and then they report."
But why must New Yorkers seeking full information go to the CDC? Why can't they get data from their own state?
Keep in mind that other states, including California, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, don't report their official tally that way. They keep count as the CDC does and include deaths where COVID-19 is considered an associated or contributing factor. So does New York City for its official count.
Here's the thing: If it hadn't been for all the nursing home dishonesty — which included scrubbing of honest data from an official Health Department report, stonewalling and threatening of lawmakers seeking the truth, and illegal dismissals of FOIL requests — maybe we could give the Cuomo administration the benefit of the doubt on this one.
But the Cuomo team has shown it doesn't deserve our trust. The governor and other state officials offered up blatantly misleading statistics on nursing home deaths, presumably to deflect criticism of a controversial state order requiring the facilities to accept COVID-19 patients.
"Why should we assume it's different now?" Hammond asked. "Why should we assume that they have a good faith reason for something that results in such a large undercount?"
We shouldn't. We can only view data from the Cuomo administration with skepticism. The governor's credibility, and that of his health department, has vanished, which is obviously a bad situation.
What happens if there's another public health crisis? Why would New Yorkers believe what they're told?
"You want to be able to trust the Health Department to give you straight information," Hammond said. "But if they're being deceptive about this" — the COVID-19 death total — "if makes you wonder about the accuracy of all means of other stuff."
Five months ago, in February, the governor finally admitted that the state had been not been counting residents who were sent to hospitals before they died in its nursing home tally. He talked about "creating the void" that allowed for misinformation to spread and rued that the failure had "created pain."
He also said that while fatalities in nursing homes had not been fully tallied, New Yorkers could have faith in the state's overall COVID-19 tally.
"Total death counts were always accurate," Cuomo said then.