Then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said COVID-19 could burn through nursing homes “like fire through dry grass” 10 days before he issued an infamous March 2020 executive order that required nursing homes to take COVID-19-positive patients, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reveals in an upcoming memoir.
Relatives of nursing home residents who died following Cuomo’s order told The Post the disclosure heightens their outrage and underscores the need for accountability.
Kushner wrote that Cuomo specifically mentioned possible nursing home horrors in a 30-minute phone call as Kushner helped lead the early White House pandemic response as infections mounted in New York.
In the March 15 call, Cuomo allegedly told Kushner, “For nursing homes, this could be like fire through dry grass.”
Cuomo’s subsequent March 25 order said nursing homes weren’t allowed to turn away patients “solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” which the families of victims said was a death sentence to vulnerable elderly residents.
Kushner described a generally good working relationship with Cuomo while helping lead the White House coronavirus response, in part due to Cuomo’s supportive outreach to Kushner’s father after his 2004 arrest, when the governor told the disgraced billionaire, “I’ve had highs and lows as well. You’ll be back.”
Cuomo’s controversial nursing home policy remained in effect until May 10 and was intended to ease hospital crowding. Kushner does not go into detail on the nursing home scandal in his nearly 500-page tome “Breaking History,” which is due out Aug. 23.
The Cuomo administration went on to admittedly cover up the death statistics from nursing homes to impede a federal investigation.
Vivian Zayas, whose 78-year-old mother Ana Martinez died at the Our Lady of Consolation nursing home in West Islip, slammed Cuomo for ordering infected people into nursing homes despite his awareness about the possible toll.
“What I feel is heartbreak because our parents, our loved ones were still alive on March 15,” said Zayas, who founded with her sister the advocacy group Voices for Seniors.
“His deviation marked my mom for death. She was expendable. We will never know why he still decided to go forth.”
Zayas added, “There could’ve been more that could have been done. How many seniors who were still alive on March 15 would have lived if he had not done that order and if he had not instructed the nursing homes to take these people in?”
It’s unclear why the Democratic governor proceeded to allow the state order to take effect given his concerns.
Fox News Senior Meteorologist Janice Dean, whose father-in-law and mother-in-law both died of nursing home-contracted COVID-19, said, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know putting 9,000 sick patients into places where our most frail and vulnerable lived would be a disaster. But someone gave him the idea, and he signed the order.”
“This is why it’s so important that we get to the bottom of the origins of where the March 25th mandate came from,” Dean said.
“This excerpt from Kushner’s memoir gives us more evidence that what Cuomo and the Department of Health did was criminal. They took away the rights of my husband’s parents and while the rest of the world was told to stay away from the virus, the state was literally piling the disease into nursing homes.”
Dean added: “There needs to be accountability for this, and I believe people should go to jail for it. Now more than ever, we need a bipartisan investigation with subpoena power into what happened inside nursing homes in the spring of 2020. Anything less will not give us the answers our families deserve.”
Peter Arbeeny, whose father Norman Arbeeny, 89, died after catching the virus in a Brooklyn nursing home, agreed that Cuomo’s newly disclosed words underscore the need for a thorough investigation of the nursing home order.
“It’s not only that he did the March 25th order — he defended it for 6 weeks. He not only defended the March 25th order, he lied and suppressed the true death toll within the nursing home environment!” Arbeeny said.
“This is why we need… an investigation with subpoena power. You need to get testimony.”
Arbeeny noted that Cuomo was preparing to write a glowing account of his own leadership as part of a $5 million book deal during the early phase of the pandemic.
“No one has testimony from anyone in the DOH, or even [then-health commissioner Howard] Zucker himself,” Arbeeny said. “We know that the executive narrative was to glorify Cuomo because he was already speaking to Penguin House representatives as early as March 19th. He was already in discussions about a book!”
Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi didn’t dispute Kushner’s account, but instead emphasized that “as [Kushner] wrote, we took COVID’s impacts on the vulnerable very seriously.”
Azzopardi added, “both the [attorney general] and the [state] Assembly investigated and concluded that no link was found between the DOH guidance and new cases. What we didn’t foresee was efforts to politicize the pain of those who lost loved ones and perpetuate the myth that it did.”
Cuomo’s administration covered up the death toll at nursing homes to impede Justice Department investigators, his aide Melissa DeRosa confessed last year to Democratic legislators, months before Cuomo resigned in disgrace in a sexual harassment scandal.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, in January 2021 revealed that the Cuomo administration underreported by about 50 percent the number of deaths linked to nursing homes.
The report from James would mean almost one-third of New York’s more than 43,000 coronavirus deaths at the time were linked to nursing homes.
Cuomo on other occasions likened COVID-19 ravaging nursing homes to fire burning through dry grass. For example, Cuomo said on April 19, nearly one month after the order, that “nursing homes are still our number one concern.”
“Vulnerable people in a congregant facility, in a congregant setting where it can just spread like fire through dry grass,” Cuomo said at the time. “We have had really disturbing situations in nursing homes, and we’re still most concerned about the nursing homes.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Division in October 2020 launched an inquiry into all New York state nursing home deaths after an initial DOJ Civil Rights Division review of public nursing home data indicated a significant under-count. The Biden DOJ closed the civil rights probe last year without charges.
In addition to the nursing home anecdote, Kushner wrote in his memoir that part of his work with Cuomo involved mediating in the “dysfunctional relationship” between Cuomo and then-New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.
In early April 2020, for example, New York City was six days away from running out of ventilators, Kushner wrote.
“The previous week, we had shipped 4,400 ventilators from the stockpile to New York. I was told that Cuomo had funneled 2,000 of them to a state-run warehouse, where they were not being used, rather than sending all of them to New York City, which was the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States,” Kushner wrote.
Kushner wrote that he had to “confront” an “obstinate” Cuomo and say, “Please send the two thousand ventilators to New York City before people die.”