ALBANY, N.Y. (WWNY) - More than 15,000 residents of nursing homes and related facilities in New York died of COVID-19, according to data released this week by the state Department of Health.
The number is far higher than what the Cuomo administration was reporting, about 9,000. Legislators and journalists have fought for months to get complete nursing home data from the Cuomo administration.
And that was just one of the developments Thursday in the controversy over nursing home deaths and COVID 19.
Cuomo’s critics claim he covered up the true toll of the virus in nursing homes for months because his administration’s policy last spring allowed the virus to spread, causing thousands of needless nursing home deaths.
Cuomo and his top aides deny the policy did what his critics claim; moreover, they say there is proof the virus spread because of infected nursing home employees, not patients.
Republicans continue to call for Cuomo aides to testify under oath about the nursing home deaths.
“Right now, we still have many more questions than we have answers,” said Kevin Byrne, a Republican legislator who represents Westchester and Putnam counties, and who sits on the state assembly’s health committee.
“People like to talk the talk about trying to get accountability. Now it’s time to walk the walk.”
Will Barclay, the assemblyman from Pulaski who leads the Republicans in the state assembly, said of the Cuomo administration ““seems they’re circling the wagons and trying to get their stories straight.”
A spokesman for Cuomo said state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker is scheduled to testify under oath at an upcoming budget hearing.
Also Thursday, the Associated Press reported more than 9,000 recovering coronavirus patients were released from hospitals into nursing homes.
And the New York Post reported a top aide at Governor Cuomo apologized to Democratic legislators for withholding the nursing home data. The newspaper reported Melissa DeRosa said “we froze” out of fear the true numbers would “be used against us” by federal prosecutors.
North country congresswoman Elise Stefanik, a Cuomo critic, called for Cuomo, DeRosa and Cuomo’s “senior team” to be “prosecuted immediately.”
For months, the Cuomo administration insisted on counting as “nursing home deaths” only people who died from COVID while in the nursing home, and excluding people who were taken from a nursing home to the hospital and died. Under pressure from a critical report by the state’s Attorney General, which found that deaths were under-counted by as much as 50 percent, the health department began including nursing home residents who died in the hospital as nursing home deaths.
According to state health department figures, as of Tuesday, 13,297 nursing home patients have died of COVID, while 803 people in “assisted living” facilities have died of COVID and there have been 949 deaths linked to other adult care facilities, for a total of 15,049.
Why should you care?
Because Cuomo’s critics believe he covered up the true number of nursing home deaths last spring in order to conceal the effects of an order from his health department, that COVID positive patients must be admitted to nursing homes, as long as the nursing homes could care for them. Cuomo’s critics believe that allowed the virus to spread and killed thousands of people needlessly.
His health department says no, not true at all.
In a lengthy memo this week, the health department argues “The March 25th advisory memo was not a directive to nursing homes to take residents for whom they could not provide care, and as shown by the data, admissions were clearly not a factor in introducing COVID for at least 98% of nursing home fatalities that had admissions between March 25th and May 8th.”
What data? According to the health department, about 6,300 COVID patients were admitted to nursing homes from hospitals. Of those 310 nursing homes, 304 of them already had COVID in the facility, according to the health department. Therefore, the argument goes, the COVID patients weren’t responsible for introducing COVID into the nursing homes.
“It is likely that thousands of employees who were infected in mid-March transmitted the virus unknowingly - through no fault of their own - while working, which then led to resident infection,” the health department concludes.
The fact that Republicans in the state legislature want hearings, want sworn testimony, ordinarily wouldn’t amount to much; Democrats control both houses of the legislature by large margins and Republicans can do little but complain.
However, this issue may be the exception: Democrats in the legislature are also unhappy with how the Cuomo administration has handled nursing homes - so it is possible that the legislature may move to hold Cuomo accountable in some fashion. Already this week, a series of nursing home-related bills have passed through the state senate’s health committee.
How many nursing home deaths from COVID in the north country? According to data supplied by the state Department of Health to the Empire Center for Public Policy, the number is 66; 40 in St. Lawrence County, 22 in Jefferson County and four in Lewis County.