New York officials confirmed Thursday that thousands more nursing home residents died of COVID-19 than the state’s tallies had shown, adding to long-running complaints about how Gov. Andrew Cuomo handled the state’s long-term care population.
The new numbers show that more than 12,700 nursing home residents died of COVID-19, far more than the state’s official tally of over 8,500 nursing home deaths.
The confirmation was made hours after a scathing report from state Attorney General Letitia James, who said investigators found data that suggests many nursing home residents died after they were transferred to hospitals. That wasn’t reflected in the Cuomo administration’s tally, she said.
The undercount means the state’s actual number of nursing home deaths boosts New York’s ranking for such deaths from No. 6 to the highest in the nation, according to The Associated Press.
Some nursing homes appeared to have underreported COVID-19 deaths to state authorities, and Ms. James found lackluster compliance with infection control protocols that put residents at risk.
Facilities with poor pre-pandemic staffing ratings also had higher fatality rates from COVID-19. Other facilities had insufficient personal protective equipment, which put residents in harm’s way.
All told, Ms. James is investigating 20 facilities and their conduct.
“As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” said Ms. James, a Democrat who also has investigated former President Donald Trump’s businesses and the National Rifle Association. “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.”
New York was a major hot spot at the start of the coronavirus crisis last spring.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, faced widespread denunciation over a directive that said nursing homes should accept residents who had or were suspected of having COVID-19, so long as they were medically stable. The region was clamoring for hospital space at the time.
Many facilities took the governor’s directive as a mandate and weren’t prepared, even as the virus tore through nursing homes, prompting withering criticism of Mr. Cuomo and an inquiry by the Trump Justice Department.
Mr. Cuomo changed his March order in May, prohibiting hospitals from discharging patients to nursing homes unless they tested negative for COVID-19.
New York Health Commissioner Howard A. Zucker said the 76-page report from the attorney general’s office centers on a dispute over where deaths are tallied, not the overall number.
“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,” Dr. Zucker said.
The New York Department of Health “has consistently made clear that our numbers are reported based on the place of death,” he said. “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.”
Dr. Zucker also heaped blame on nursing home operators. He said the attorney general’s “findings that nursing home operators failed to comply with the state’s infection control protocols are consistent with DOH’s own investigation.”
“The report found that operators failed to properly isolate COVID-positive residents; failed to adequately screen or test employees; forced sick staff to continue working and caring for residents; failed to train employees in infection control protocols; and failed to obtain, fit, and train caregivers with PPE. These failures are in direct violation of Public Health Law and DOH guidance that every nursing home operator was aware of,” Dr. Zucker said.
Ms. James’ investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Health Department logged only 1,229 deaths at the same facilities. One unidentified facility had an official death toll of 11, but the attorney general’s investigation found 40 deaths.
The report from a fellow Democratic official undercut Mr. Cuomo’s frequent argument that the criticism of his handling of outbreaks in nursing homes was part of a political “blame game.”
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat who has blasted the Cuomo administration for its incomplete death count, said he was “sadly unsurprised” by the report.
“Families who lost loved ones deserve honest answers,” Mr. Rivera told the AP. “For their sake, I hope that this report will help us unveil the truth and put policies in place to prevent such tragedies in the future.”
Mr. Cuomo, who released a book this fall touting his leadership in dealing with COVID-19, has not been shy about using New York’s lower nursing home death count to make the argument that his state is doing better than others in caring for those in such facilities.
“There’s also no doubt that we’re in this hyperpolitical environment, so everybody wants to point fingers,” Mr. Cuomo told CBS’s “This Morning” in October. “New York, actually, we’re No. 46 out of 50 in terms of percentage of deaths in nursing homes — 46 out of 50. So, yes, people died in nursing homes. … But 46 out of 50, it’s not a predominantly New York problem.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.