For a while now Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been boasting about what a great job he’s been doing handling the coronavirus pandemic. He even wrote a book that’s a massive self pat on the back. The truth is it’s been a disaster.
Cuomo has tried to brush away the fact that his policies had allowed thousands of nursing home residents to die of the virus.
But in massive a blow to the self absorbed governor, the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, reported on Thursday morning that he had undercounted coronavirus-related deaths of state nursing home residents by the thousands.
Is attorney general, Letitia James correct?
Yes. Health Department officials made public new data that added more than 3,800 deaths to their tally, representing nursing home residents who had died in hospitals and had not previously been counted by the state as nursing home deaths.
New York’s acknowledgment increased the overall death toll related to those facilities by more than 40 percent. Letitia James’s report had suggested that the state’s previous tally could be off by as much as 50%.
The findings don’t change the overall number of Covid-19 deaths in the state — more than 42,000, the most of any US state — but the recalculation in the number of nursing home deaths clearly illustrates how unprepared the nursing home industry was in the first and deadliest weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo has dismissed the critiques of his policies governing those facilities claiming they are just partisan attacks from the Trump administration and other Republicans.
But the report by Letitia James proves otherwise on why the state made the decision to send nursing home residents who had been hospitalized with the coronavirus back to the nursing homes, a policy that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has defended as following federal guidelines.
However, AG James’s assertion of an undercount of deaths gives credence to theories that Cuomo may have intentionally played down the number of those deaths to avoid blame.
“This is shocking and unconscionable,” said Assemblyman Richard N. Gottfried, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. “But not surprising.”
The 76-page report led Cuomo’s administration to scramble to rebut its assertions, including a lengthy response late on Thursday afternoon from the health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker.
Dr. Zucker said in his response that the state website had always been clear that the deaths it listed did “not include deaths outside of a facility.”
“The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported,” he said. “This is factually wrong.”
He also said that the lack of data on hospital deaths of nursing home residents was due to concern and caution about the accuracy of data that nursing homes supplied — an issue that was also raised by the attorney general. “D.O.H. does not disagree that the number of people transferred from a nursing home to a hospital is an important data point,” he said.
The data newly released by Dr. Zucker puts the total number of deaths connected to the nursing homes at a staggering 12,743.
James’s findings seem to put her in conflict with Andrew Cuomo and raises more questions about the handling, oversight and performance of the state’s nursing homes in the early stages of the pandemic.
“This is now more than a nursing home scandal,” said Representative Elise Stefanik, a conservative Republican from upstate New York. “This is a massive corruption and cover-up scandal.”
Cuomo is accused of covering up an accurate estimate of nursing home deaths. The state’s count only included the number of deaths at the facilities, rather than accounting for the residents who died at a hospital after being transferred there.
For its report, Ms. James’s office surveyed dozens of homes and found consistent discrepancies between deaths reported to the attorney general’s investigators and those reported to and officially released by the Health Department.
In one instance, an unnamed facility reported to the Health Department that it had 11 confirmed and presumed deaths on site through early August. The attorney general’s survey of that same facility, however, found 40 deaths, including 27 at the home and 13 in hospitals.
The AG’s report also scrutinized immunity provisions granted to health care providers codified by Cuomo in the state budget. The report said the protection of immunity may have prompted some nursing homes to make financially motivated decisions at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, for example; admitting patients even when the facilities were facing staff shortages or were unequipped to care for them.
The report also cast a critical eye on the governor’s March 25 directive from the Health Department that ordered nursing homes to accept and readmit patients who had tested positive for COVID-19.
While acknowledging that Cuomo’s memo to nursing homes was consistent with federal guidance, Jame’s report said the governor’s policy “may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities.” Under the policy, some nursing homes stopped testing residents for coronavirus, a factor that may have obscured data reported by the facilities, the report found.
James’s report also found a number of nursing homes that “failed to comply with critical infection-control policies,” including failing to isolate residents who had tested positive for the virus or screen employees for it.
AG James’s office is still investigating and weighing up legal action stemming from complaints made to her office about shortcomings and neglect that may have placed residents at risk.
Those include allegations of nursing homes that failed to isolate Covid-19 patients, maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment, properly screen employees for the virus or ensure adequate staffing levels even before the pandemic.