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WNY has at least 150 nursing home deaths across 24 facilities, but death toll may be even higher

Tom Dinki/WBFO News file photo
Safire Rehabilitation of Northtowns employees protest a lack of personal protective equipment outside the nursing home April 17.

Western New York has seen at least 150 nursing home residents across more than 20 facilities die of COVID-19, according to the latest data from New York state, but the death toll could be even higher.

A somewhat clearer picture emerged Tuesday of COVID-19’s impact on New York nursing homes, as the state Department of Health disclosed an additional 1,700 nursing home deaths and identified every nursing home where a resident has died of the respiratory illness.


The new data is the result of a change in reporting procedure, said Gary Holmes, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health. Holmes explained that the state asked nursing homes to report all COVID-19 deaths, both confirmed and presumed, since March 1. 


“These numbers will continue to evolve for a lot different reasons,” he added. “Presumed cases may move from presumed to confirmed. Presumed cases may move off the board altogether because testing shows that that individual is negative. … The review process has not stopped. We’re still getting daily reporting and still reviewing retrospectively.”


According to the state data, there have been 159 deaths in 24 nursing homes across the eight counties of Western New York. All but nine of those deaths are confirmed to have been caused by COVID-19. 


Erie County has by far the most nursing home deaths with 128, while Niagara County has 17, Orleans County has 12 and Wyoming County has two. Genesee, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties are still reporting zero nursing home deaths.


See where those nursing home deaths occurred by using the map below.


However, this new state data does not include nursing home residents who died after being taken to a hospital. It only includes nursing home residents who actually died inside their nursing home.


“One of the reasons why we’re doing that is to make sure that we have an accurate count because we are counting deaths at hospitals in a different data set,” Holmes said. “We want to make sure we’re not duplicating that number.”


However, Lindsay Heckler, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo, believes this is misleading, as many more nursing home residents are likely dying in hospitals.


“The numbers that have been released are severely underreported,” she said. “What are residents, families and the public supposed to believe when these numbers are not consistent?”


Heckler also criticized the state’s policy that mandates nursing homes take in residents who have tested positive for COVID-19. The state released guidance March 25 that nursing homes must accept discharged hospital patients, regardless of whether the patient has COVID-19. Some feel this has inadvertently introduced COVID-19 into some nursing homes.


“Quite frankly, the Department of Health and the state were not doing enough to make sure our most vulnerable were protected,” Heckler said.


Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his team once again defended the policy Tuesday, saying nursing homes should only accept COVID-19 patients if they can follow the state’s safety regulations, like isolating COVID-19 patients and providing staff with proper personal protective equipment.


Tuesday also marked the first time the state disclosed every nursing home that has had at least one COVID-19 death. It previously only disclosed nursing homes that had at least five deaths, citing privacy concerns.


According to the new data, nearly half of Erie County nursing homes, 17 of 35, have had at least one COVID-19 death. Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park had by far the most in Erie County and all of Western New York with 29 deaths — nine more than the second-highest local nursing home. 


In a statement Tuesday, Father Baker Manor officials said their high number of reported deaths is due to their “high standard of testing.” Father Baker Manor tested all 138 of its residents, as well as all 187 of its staff members, back in early April.


“Non-COVID nursing home deaths are not publically reported, so it is likely COVID-related deaths may be underreported in facilities that do not extensively test their residents,” Father Baker Manor’s statement read. “It’s also important to note that many facilities consider their residents COVID-free after 14 days of testing positive, even if they are not re-tested. Under this assumption, if death occurs after that time, it may not be classified as a COVID-related death. At Father Baker Manor, residents are considered COVID positive until they test negative, which for some may be after one month or more.”


While glad the state is finally identifying every nursing home with a COVID-19 death, Heckler said there still needs to be more transparency. She feels the state should also disclose how many total COVID-19 cases, of both residents and staff members, are at each nursing home.


She noted nursing homes now have to report COVID-19 cases directly to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, and CMS had said it plans to release that data to the public.


“So there is no reason the state Department of Health should continue to hide behind the veil of privacy rules when this information will be going to the federal government and the federal government is going to make it public,” she said.


It appears nursing home residents account for a high percentage of Western New York’s total COVID-19 deaths. Western New York’s 159 nursing home deaths were as of Sunday. Western New York’s eight counties had reported roughly 337 total deaths as of Sunday. That would mean nursing home residents account for roughly 44% of all deaths in Western New York. Statewide, nursing home residents have accounted for only about 20% to 25% of the state’s total deaths.


Considering the state data does not include nursing home residents who died outside the nursing home, the percentages could be even larger.


Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said last week that the trend is concerning and the county is trying to determine for itself how many of its deceased are nursing home residents.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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