State AG says New York massively undercounted nursing home COVID-19 deaths

The administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, according to a new report from the state attorney general.

The 76-page report from Attorney General Letitia James (D) is based on preliminary findings from an investigation that began in March into nursing home policies that caused abuse and neglect and put the lives of patients and staff in danger.

The state has reported about 8,600 nursing home deaths tied to the coronavirus since the pandemic began. Overall COVID-19 deaths in the Empire State exceed 40,000.

Cuomo has been dogged by accusations of obscuring the true death toll in nursing homes across the state at the height of the pandemic last spring.

New York only counted residents who died on nursing home property, rather than any who were transferred to hospitals. But according to the report, most of the deaths occurred in hospitals.

“Preliminary data analysis obtained from [Office of the Attorney General] inquiries to a portion of nursing homes during the pandemic suggests that many residents died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes,” a report summary said.

In one example, a facility reported five confirmed and six presumed COVID-19 deaths as of Aug. 3 to the state Department of Health. However, the facility reported to the attorney general’s office a total of 27 coronavirus deaths at the facility and 13 hospital deaths a discrepancy of 29 deaths.

In another instance, a facility reported one confirmed and six presumed COVID-19 deaths as of Aug. 3. But the facility reported 31 deaths to the attorney general’s office as of April 18 – a discrepancy of 25 deaths.

James said her office is continuing its investigation, including a deeper examination of practices at more than 20 nursing homes where reported conduct “presented particular concern.”

“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,” James added.

The Hill has reached out to Cuomo’s office for comment.

Nationwide, only 6 percent of coronavirus cases have been associated with long-term care facilities, but those cases make up at least 39 percent of all COVID-19 deaths, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Aside from miscounting, James said the investigation also revealed that nursing homes’ lack of compliance with infection control protocols, including not isolating residents who had tested positive for COVID-19 or even doing basic employee screening for the virus, put residents at increased risk of harm.

Thursday’s report praised Cuomo for instituting a mandatory testing requirement in May for nursing home residents and staff. The report said that without it, “many nursing homes would not have tested staff for COVID-19, and many staff could not have obtained testing frequently on their own, unless testing was otherwise easily available and free.” 

But the report also found fault with an order Cuomo issued at the start of the pandemic, which said nursing homes could not turn away patients who tested positive for COVID-19, as long as they were medically stable.

The move was meant to help relieve overburdened hospitals, which were sending patients elsewhere to help free up capacity.

Even though a state-commissioned report released in July did not find fault with the policy, James’s report said it may have increased the risk of the virus spreading to others at the facilities.

That view has been echoed by health advocates, nursing home residents, families and nursing home operators, who have all said the policy was misguided.

–Updated at 1:08 p.m.

Tags Andrew Cuomo Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in New York City nursing homes
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