Cuomo administration underreported nursing home Covid deaths by up to 50%, NY attorney general says


A view of a patient being wheeled out of a nursing home in Flushing Queens New York USA during coronavirus pandemic on April 22, 2020.

John Nacion | NurPhoto | Getty Images

The New York Department of Health underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%, according to a new report published Thursday by New York Attorney General Letitia James.

The 76-page report comes after a months-long investigation by the attorney general’s office into allegations that nursing homes failed to follow coronavirus safety protocols. Her office was also investigating discrepancies between the number of nursing home deaths reported by the state’s department of health and the number of deaths reported by the facilities themselves.

The investigation found that the number of Covid deaths among nursing home residents in some facilities rose by more than 50% when residents who died in the hospital are counted. The state’s official Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes, which stands at more than 8,700, excludes patients who died after being transported to a hospital.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has faced criticism for failing to disclose the total number of nursing-home residents who have died of Covid-19. In her sweeping report, James, also a Democrat, found that “many nursing home residents died from Covid-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in D.O.H.’s published total nursing home death data.”

Representatives for Cuomo did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the findings.

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement Thursday evening that the state’s department of health has clearly and separately reported Covid-19 fatalities that occurred in nursing homes and in hospitals.

“DOH has consistently made clear that our numbers are reported based on the place of death,” he said in a statement. “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.”

He added that the audit of the available data is still ongoing, but preliminary findings show that at least 9,700 skilled nursing facility residents have died of Covid-19 in New York, including more than 3,800 deaths inside hospitals.

He added that the confusion over how to record Covid-19 deaths was caused by the Trump administration, which he said failed to provide adequate guidance to states.

The attorney general’s findings put her directly at odds with the governor, who has often boasted about the state’s response to the coronavirus. Cuomo has also brushed off criticism of a health department policy that directed nursing homes to accept residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus. The governor has repeatedly defended his administration’s response to the pandemic, saying that the state was poorly supported by an inept federal government caught off guard by the import of the virus.

In May, the federal government began to require nursing homes to submit data on deaths caused by the coronavirus every week, including residents who died in the facility and at hospitals. But that directive came after the initial peak of New York’s outbreak, so the available data from the state’s nursing homes is scant. An Associated Press analysis of federal data published in August concluded that the state could be understating the deaths by as much as 65%.

James’ findings are based on a survey of 62 nursing homes, or about 10% of nursing homes in the state. She said her office continues to investigate discrepancies in the data reported by the department of health and the numbers reported to the attorney general’s office.

The investigation also found that a number of nursing homes failed to comply with “critical infection control policies,” such as failing to isolate residents who tested positive for the virus.

“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.”

The New York State Nurses Association applauded James’ investigation and criticized nursing homes for failing to follow public health protocols during the pandemic.

“The majority of long-term care facilities are privately-owned, for-profit corporations. These facilities had a financial incentive to understaff before the pandemic; and during the pandemic, chronic understaffing, mixed with cutting corners on health and safety, had deadly results,” Kristi Barnes, a spokeswoman for the union, which represents 42,000 frontline nurses, said in a statement. “The report clearly underscores why relying on for-profit companies for safety-net healthcare is a tragic mistake.”

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