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AG accuses Cuomo administration of underrreporting COVID nursing home deaths

Yuki Iwamura / AP
Families of COVID-19 victims who died in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center in Brooklyn in October.

report from New York’s attorney general finds that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration may have undercounted by as much as 50% the number of the state’s nursing home residents who died at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York last spring. The news has led the Republican leader of the state Senate to call for the state health commissioner’s resignation.

The number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 has been in dispute for months. The state health department has said 8,711 residents died of the disease, but it has not released key data, including the number of residents who died after they were transferred to a hospital.

Attorney General Tish James, an ally of the governor who, like Cuomo, is a Democrat, said investigators examined a sample of 62, or about 10%, of the state’s 600 nursing homes. The homes reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, but the Department of Health reported 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.

In one example, a nursing home reported five confirmed and six presumed COVID-19 deaths at the facility as of Aug. 3 to the state health department. But the nursing home told the attorney general’s investigators that there were a total of 27 COVID-19 deaths at the facility and 13 hospital deaths. That’s a discrepancy of 29 deaths.

Sen. Jim Tedisco, a minority party Republican from Schenectady, has been asking Democrats who are in the majority in his house to subpoena the health department to obtain the death records. He said he hopes the report will now expedite those efforts, and he wonders why the Cuomo administration did not just hand over the data when lawmakers first asked for it last summer.

“The cover-up is always worse, and can get worse, in many instances, than what you are trying to cover up,” said Tedisco. “Today, the attorney general has lifted the veil that was hiding the important real numbers of nursing home lives that have been lost under the governor’s leadership.”

Tedisco and others have criticized a controversial March 25 directive from the health department that said nursing homes had to accept patients who were still ill with COVID-19 back into the nursing homes. They said that decision led to more deaths as the infection spread in the homes.

Cuomo has blamed right-wing media outlets for the controversy.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in a report last July, blamed asymptomatic nursing home workers for the deaths. He did not provide the specific dates when the nursing home residents were first diagnosed with the virus.

State Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt is calling for Zucker’s resignation, saying he betrayed the public trust.

“How can he lead when we have this report that shows he lied to the people of New York?” Ortt said. “He has no credibility. His department now has no credibility.”

Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, are also expressing concern. The chair of the Senate Investigations Committee, Jim Skoufis, hinted earlier in the week that he might issue subpoenas if the health department does not release the data by a scheduled legislative budget hearing on Feb. 3.

“We’re all very upset that we’ve not gotten these answers,” Skoufis said.

That hearing has now been postponed until Feb. 25. A spokesman for the governor told the Albany Times Union that the hearing needed to be postponed so it would not interfere with the governor’s prescheduled three-times-a-week coronavirus briefings.

Skoufis, in a statement, said if Zucker does not produce the data by the new date, he “will support a move to compel the information.” 

The attorney general’s report also finds that many nursing homes failed to comply with critical infection control polices, and that staff had insufficient personal protection equipment, including masks and gloves. Nursing homes with the lowest staff-to-patient ratios also had the highest number of deaths, the report founds.

Because of immunity provisions enacted in an emergency order by Cuomo, the nursing homes cannot be held liable for any of the missteps detailed in the report that could have led to more deaths. James recommends rescinding the immunity provisions.

Late in the day, Zucker responded in a statement. He disputed the report’s characterization of an “undercount,” saying the additional deaths of nursing home residents that the investigators discovered are already listed under total hospital deaths. And he shifted blame for the numbers discrepancy to the nursing homes, saying they should be investigated for possibly submitting false information to the department.    

Zucker said the Health Department is conducting an audit of reported deaths from COVID-19 and, while it is not complete, it has revealed that at least 3,800 more nursing home residents died of the disease than is currently reported on the  department’s website, for a total of 12,742.   

He said in the recount, 9,786 confirmed fatalities have been associated with skilled nursing facility residents, including 5,957 fatalities within nursing facilities and 3,829 within a hospital. There are also 2,957 nursing home fatalities presumed to have occurred because of COVID-19, but the cause of death was not confirmed due to a shortage of testing materials.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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