WINDSOR TERRACE — On Jan. 28, New York State Attorney General Letitia James released the findings from her office’s ongoing investigations into nursing homes’ responses during the pandemic. Collected data from 62 facilities — 10 percent of New York’s total facilities — during specific time periods suggests that New York’s Department of Health (DOH) undercounted COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes by 56 percent.
The day after the report was released, Governor Andrew Cuomo deflected and defended himself, saying the office’s findings confirmed what State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker has stated in the last year and that New York followed federal guidelines issued at the time. When asked by a reporter what he would say to the families who lost loved ones to the coronavirus in nursing homes, Cuomo responded, “Everyone did the best they could.”
He added, “It’s not about pointing fingers or blame. It’s that this became a political football. Whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home, the people died.”
Cuomo issued an executive order on March 25, 2020, that mandated nursing homes had to admit recovering COVID-19 patients returning from hospitals. The order, which was reversed on May 10, intended to free up hospital beds, as hundreds were dying every day during the height of the pandemic. More than 6,300 COVID-positive residents had been allowed to return to nursing homes by the time the directive was reversed, according to a DOH report from July.
The DOH recorded 8,671 confirmed and presumed reported COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities — which includes nursing homes and adult care facilities — as of Jan. 18. Of the 8,671 reported deaths, 8,469 have been attributed to those in nursing homes. However, the DOH has only recorded the number of seniors who have passed away in nursing homes — excluding deaths outside those facilities, such as the hospitals they were transferred to.
The investigations also revealed that nursing homes’ lack of compliance with infection control protocols, like properly screening staff members and failing to properly isolate COVID-positive residents, put residents at increased risk of harm. It was also reported that facilities that had lower pre-pandemic staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates.
Based on these findings and subsequent investigation, James will continue to conduct investigations into more than 20 nursing homes “whose reported conduct during the first wave of the pandemic presented particular concern.”
Between April 23 and Nov. 16, the Attorney General’s Office received more than 950 complaint calls on its hotline, relating to nursing home-family communications about on-site care and being prohibited from visiting their loved ones in person.
“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,” Attorney General James said in a statement. “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.”
On Jan. 28, Zucker released his own lengthy response to the report, saying the total number of deaths has not changed.
“The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong,” Zucker said. “The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals. 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,” Zucker added. “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.”
According to Zucker, DOH has already issued 140 infection control citations and more than a dozen immediate jeopardy citations. DOH has stated data will be released once an audit is completed.