AG probe finds NY COVID-19 nursing home deaths underreported by as much as half

Published: Jan. 29, 2021 at 7:06 AM EST
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NEW YORK (WWNY) - A larger number of New York nursing home residents may have died from COVID-19 than previously reported by the state.

A report out today from state Attorney General Letitia James says the Department of Health may have undercounted those deaths by as much as 50 percent.

The report shows that nursing home residents who were sent to hospitals and died there were not counted among nursing home deaths.

“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 release. “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.”

Investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.

A state mandate that required nursing homes to accept medically stable COVID-19 patients “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.”

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in a statement Thursday afternoon, said the AG’s report “is clear that there was no undercount of the total death toll” and that the DOH “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.”

He goes on to add, “The word “undercount” implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong.”

Zucker also said the report shows problems caused by “a complete abdication by the Trump Administration of its duty to manage this pandemic.”

Read Zucker’s full statement here

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that the mandate followed CDC guidance at the time and that it helped free up much-needed beds in hospitals.

North country Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, who has often criticized the governor for his handling of the pandemic, particularly in nursing homes, released a statement calling the underreporting a “criminal coverup,” adding that the governor and his administration “have blood on their hands” (her full statement is below).

Investigations by the AG’s office also showed that nursing homes’ lack of compliance with infection control protocols put residents at increased risk of harm.

The report also notes that facilities with low staff levels before the pandemic had higher fatality rates.

According to the findings, the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for nursing home staff and a lack of testing early on put residents at risk.

Following is Stefanik’s full statement:

“This is now more than a nursing home scandal, this is a massive corruption and coverup scandal at the highest level of New York State Government implicating the Governor, the Secretary to the Governor, the New York State Health Commissioner and the Governor’s staff.

“Every New Yorker deserves transparency, accountability and answers regarding the orchestration of this illegal coverup. I am calling on the New York Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice to issue subpoenas immediately of Governor Cuomo and his entire staff on all documentation and internal and external communications, including with any and all associations and lobbyists who have direct ties to the Governor’s senior team related to this corrupt and illegal coverup.

“I am committed to doing everything I can in my power to protect the independence of the ongoing federal investigation into Governor Cuomo’s nursing home disaster. President Joe Biden should pledge to do the same. As a fellow New Yorker, I want to publicly thank the effective and tireless advocates who have humbly served as the voice of their lost loved ones and have faced inexcusably cruel treatment from the Governor and his entire team, who we know have orchestrated a criminal coverup and have blood on their hands.”

State lawmakers who represent the north country also weighed in with statements of their own.

This message came from Assemblyman Ken Blankenbush (R. - 117th District):

“Today we finally received an accurate report on nursing home deaths and numbers in New York during the pandemic. The report from Attorney General James confirms what many of us hoped not to be true- the governor was involved in a cover-up. The attorney general details that the governor and his administration underreported nursing home deaths by up to 50%.

“For months, family members who lost loved ones in nursing homes have been demanding answers. Their worst fears have come to life with the news of AG James’ report. The governor and Health Commissioner Zucker are at fault for countless lives that were needlessly lost and they need to be held accountable.

“In a show of unity, the Legislature can use this moment to rein in the governor’s emergency powers on a bipartisan basis. The attorney general’s report makes clear that he can no longer be trusted to make unilateral decisions.”

State Senator Joseph Griffo (R. - 47th District) released this statement:

“The Attorney General’s findings show the deadly and devastating effect that many of the state’s misguided policies have had during the coronavirus pandemic. Equally frustrating is the fact that the state released a report last year investigating their handling of nursing homes and found no problems, proving that the administration should not be trusted to objectively investigate itself.

“Today’s report is a stain on the administration’s leadership and credibility and raises significant questions about the state Department of Health’s ability to effectively guide New York through this public health crisis. Those responsible for the activities highlighted by the Attorney General must be held accountable. While I agree that confidence in Dr. Zucker’s ability to run his department has been called into question and that he should step down, we cannot ignore the fact that he works for and reports to the Governor. It is the Governor who must accept and ultimately bear responsibility for the actions of his administration. Accordingly, I am requesting that Sen. James Skoufis convene a hearing of the Senate’s Investigations and Government Operations Committee to get to the bottom of this alarming and appalling situation.

“While the Attorney General’s report is a good start, we must continue to work to understand the real impacts of the state’s policies, despite the administration withholding vital information from the Legislature and stonewalling our efforts to uncover the truth. Nursing home residents, and their families, deserve better, deserve transparency and deserve answers to what has transpired in facilities across the state and the state’s role in this tragedy. I will continue to advocate on their behalf and to push for much-needed changes in the nursing home industry as a whole.”

Assemblyman Mark Walczyk (R. - 116th District) issued this statement:

“My office has spent the last 11 months focused on helping the people of our state deal with the devastating loss caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nothing has caused more devastation than the black hole of unanswered questions, doors slammed shut and neglectful isolation than the disastrous nursing home policies of the Cuomo administration. Today, thanks to the efforts at long last of the Attorney General, we now know that thousands upon thousands of our most vulnerable citizens died at the hands of his policy, and for months he and his lackeys covered it up.

“How can our state move forward with this man solely at the helm of control when it comes to our pandemic recovery? It cannot. New Yorkers’ faith and confidence is shattered, as are the hearts that are broken with the unbearable loss that came with knowing they never got to hold the hands of their loved ones to say a final goodbye. Nursing home residents live with constant, unshakable fear every day that maybe they will be next and no one can protect them. New Yorkers deserve so much better than this.

“I applaud Attorney General Tish James for having the gumption to speak truth to power and have the courage to buck party leadership on this.

“I am horrified by the heartlessness of this administration. At a time when our state needed to come together, they thought only of themselves. When they have unilateral control over the situation and every opportunity to fix it, they covered it up instead. That’s not leadership. As I have been saying for many months, the state Legislature now has run out of excuses for this man and must immediately take away his extraordinary powers. We must convene an independent investigation from the top down and those responsible, including Howard Zucker and the governor himself, should face every charge head on. We cannot allow the senseless deaths of thousands of New Yorkers to be brushed aside simply because ‘they were old’ or sick or vulnerable. In fact, that’s even more reason we should defend them. That’s what government should have been doing all along.”

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