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Fiscal watchdog group FOILs state health department for detailed COVID-19 data

Empire center Health Policy Analyst Bill Hammond, wearing a suit, is speaking
Empire Center
Empire Center Health policy Analyst Bill Hammond is leading a FOIL effort to get New York COVID-19 data.

A fiscal watchdog group is using the Freedom of Information Law to try to get New York state’s health department to release more detailed data on the over 42,000 New Yorkers who died during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A previous FOIL request by the group, the Empire Center, was one of the factors that led Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration to disclose it had underestimated by half the number of nursing home residents who died in the pandemic.

Bill Hammond is the health policy analyst for the Empire Center. He’sseeking a detailed list of data about the deaths of New Yorkers from COVID-19, including those tracked by the date, county and ZIP code, as well as confirmed cases of coronavirus by age group, race, and ethnicity.

The Empire Center is also seeking details on nursing home deaths in each county and in individual facilities. Hammond said some of that data is partially available in a limited form on the health department's website.

He would also like to know, by age group, the average length of time between when someone tested positive for the coronavirus and when they died.

“The strategy is to ask for everything, the kitchen sink,” Hammond said.

He said other state and municipal health departments have released more detailed numbers.

Cuomo and his top aides, including the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, have become embroiled in a controversy over the deaths of nursing home residents during the pandemic. At issue is a March 25, 2020, state directive that required the homes to take back COVID-19 patients from hospitals. It was later rescinded, but critics say that led to the spread of the disease in the homes and additional deaths.

Zucker, in a report issued in July 2020, blamed nursing home employees and visitors for bringing the virus into the homes. The U.S. Attorney for Eastern New York is investigating whether the Cuomo administration deliberately covered up the true number of deaths.

Hammond said he believes the state health department may be withholding the data for political reasons.

“That issue has gotten very politicized,” Hammond said. “The health department has participated, along with the governor, in hiding data, in twisting facts, in quoting statistics that are misleading.”

Hammond said the full release of all the data would enable the public to “fact-check what the politicians are saying."

A previous FOIL request by the Empire Center in part led to the health department's disclosure that the deaths of nursing home and other adult long-term care residents from COVID-19, previously reported to be around 9,000, was more accurately closer to 15,000. A judge in early February ordered the Cuomo administration to disclose the data shortly after state Attorney General Letitia James issued a report finding that nursing home deaths had been undercounted by 50%.

Though the Empire Center leans conservative, and Cuomo is a Democrat, Hammond said it’s not about trying to embarrass the governor politically. He said matters of life and death are not ideological, and he said the public, including historians and scientists, have the right to know the details of what happened in New York, which was for a time the world’s epicenter of the disease.

Hammond said just like the 1918 flu pandemic, “this was a world historical event that science will be studying for generations to come."

“The state has boatloads of data,” Hammond said. “And the world would benefit from that data being public.”

Obtaining all the data is likely to take months. Hammond said his group is prepared to go to court again if the state health department does not heed the FOIL request.

The Empire Center is not alone in its quest for more detailed information on the pandemic. It signed a letter, along with 8 other groups, led by the reform group Reinvent Albany, asking the Cuomo administration for greater transparency and for the legislature to hold oversight hearings on the management of the pandemic.

Requests for comment from the health department were not returned.

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.