NY accused of under-reporting COVID nursing home deaths; health commissioner insists count is accurate

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — The New York State Department of Health's public data may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths in some nursing home "by as much as 50 percent," according to a report from the state attorney general's office.

Attorney General Letitia James launched an investigation last spring into "allegations and indications of COVID-19-related neglect of residents in nursing homes."

Using a sample size of 62 nursing homes, about 10% of the state's total facilities, the attorney general's office looked into discrepancies between the number of deaths being reported by health department and the homes themselves.

The nursing homes reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the health department logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.

“The report confirms something watchdogs had been looking at: that the official count reflected only deaths that happened inside the four walls of a nursing home,” WCBS 880’s Steve Burns reported. “Any nursing home resident who was transferred to a hospital and died there was not counted.”

The report cites one unnamed facility that had reported 11 confirmed and presumed deaths, but upon further review actually reported 40 deaths to the attorney general’s office — a discrepancy of 29 deaths.

The report also pushes back on the Cuomo administration’s official line that nursing home workers were mostly to blame for outbreaks at facilities.

The investigation also found residents who tested positive were not properly isolated, employees weren’t trained properly and there wasn’t enough protective gear to go around.

James is also advocating for doing away with a provision that granted nursing homes immunity from legal liability during the pandemic. She said they need to be held accountable.

Twenty facilities remain under investigation.

Read the full report.

“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,” said James. “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.”

Queens Assemblymember Ron Kim, a vocal critic of the governor, lost a loved one inside a nursing home last year. He said he almost cried when he heard the news from the attorney general's office.

"Finally we have a statewide official who is willing to come out and validate the truths that we have been experiencing every single day," he tells Burns, "It feels like we are receiving a sense of justice instead of feeling like we're getting gaslit every single day from the administration."

New York's Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying in part that the attorney general's report "is clear that there was no undercount of the total death toll from this once-in-a-century pandemic."

"The OAG affirms that the total number of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes is full and accurate," the statement read. "New York State Department of Health has always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient, and separately reported the number of fatalities within nursing home facilities and has been clear about the nature of that reporting."

The statement went on to say, "Indeed, the OAG acknowledges in a footnote on page 71 that DOH was always clear that the data on its website pertains to in-facility fatalities and does not include deaths outside of a facility. The word 'undercount' implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong. In fact, the OAG report itself repudiates the suggestion that there was any "undercount" of the total death number."

"The OAG's report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died. The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals," Zucker said. "That does not in any way change the total count of deaths but is instead a question of allocating the number of deaths between hospitals and nursing homes. DOH has consistently made clear that our numbers are reported based on the place of death. DOH does not disagree that the number of people transferred from a nursing home to a hospital is an important data point, and is in the midst of auditing this data from nursing homes. As the OAG report states, reporting from nursing homes is inconsistent and often inaccurate."

Zucker called the initial findings of wrongdoing by some nursing homes "reprehensible" and said the health department will continue to follow up on all allegations of misconduct.

Click here to read the full statement.

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