Cuomo administration undercounted nursing home deaths from COVID-19: AG

(Kevin P. Coughlin / Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

By Mark Hallum

State Attorney General Letitia James issued a damning report on nursing home fatalities, finding that the Cuomo administration had undercounted deaths from COVID-19 while facilities failed to follow infection control policies.

James’ office claims the number of dead may have been undercounted by the state Department of Health by at least 50% while the AG plans an additional investigation into 20 nursing homes whose conduct has been called into question both prior to and during the pandemic.

“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. “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. Nursing homes residents and workers deserve to live and work in safe environments, and I will continue to work hard to safeguard this basic right during this precarious time.”

The attorney general set up a hotline in April for the public to report communication problems with nursing homes, which were required by the state to restrict visitations by families, and received over 950 complaints by the time November rolled around.

This was on top of allegations of COVID-19-related neglect through the usual channels used by the AG’s office, according to James. There was an increased number of complaints in areas with a higher level of community spread.

Particularly, facilities with low U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Staffing ratings had a higher number of deaths from COVID-19, the report claims.

On element of controversy was a directive from the state Department of Health that nursing homes with capacity could admit residents who had recently been discharged from hospitals after treatment for COVID-19, which was later rescinded by the governor through executive order.

The governor’s office has also been clear in the distinction between a recorded 8,455 deaths in nursing homes to the perception of an undercount due to those who died after being transferred to a hospital. A spokesman from Cuomo’s office, on this basis, argued against the AG’s claim that the death toll could have been undercounted by up to 50% as the two fell into different categories that were accounted for.

The possibility of an undercount in COVID-19 related deaths, especially among the elderly, is not something that has not been discussed by the governor and elected officials with some of the first indications being raised by Councilman Mark Levine. In April, Levine claimed that at-home deaths in the city had increased from a daily average of 20 to 25, to closer to about 200 to 215 with not enough testing capacity at the time to ascertain a cause of death.

The insufficient testing capacity was in nursing homes was confirmed in the AG’s report which her office said may have contributed to a higher rate of spread.

In May, the Cuomo administration did implement measures to stop the seemingly rapid spread through nursing homes, which he often likened to a wildfire, by requiring facilities to carry adequate personal protective equipment and keeping the capacity to isolate patients, as well as mandating that staff get tested twice a week.

You can read the full AG’s report here.

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