- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The state of New York undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by more than 4,000 during former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tenure, according to a new audit that says incorrect data led to an inflated perception of New York’s performance against other states.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s audit, released Tuesday, found the administration undercounted deaths by 4,071 from April 2020 to February 2021, with 13,147 deaths occurring but only 9,076 reported.

It failed to report 50% of deaths between April 15, 2020, and May 2, 2020, a critical period of the pandemic when Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat who was forced to resign last year amid sexual harassment allegations, was trumpeting his response to the virus.

“The pandemic was devastating and deadly for New Yorkers living in nursing homes. Families have a right to know if their loved one’s COVID-19 death was counted, but many still don’t have answers from the state Department of Health,” said Mr. DiNapoli, a Democrat. “Our audit findings are extremely troubling. The public was misled by those at the highest level of state government through distortion and suppression of the facts when New Yorkers deserved the truth.”

The audit also found New York was slow to respond to a federal directive to conduct surveys of nursing homes for infection control problems, inspecting just 20% of facilities between March 23 and May 30, 2020, compared to over 90% in other states.

The audit also said Mr. Cuomo’s team tended to micromanage the response as he generated buzz with his daily briefings and later wrote a book about the COVID-19 response, only to face scrutiny later.

A key Cuomo aide admitted their team slow-walked the release of nursing home data, telling Democratic state legislators in a private call in February 2021 that officials froze over concerns that the data would be used against them in a federal probe.

The Cuomo administration defended its counting of nursing home deaths, saying their tabulation did not change overall deaths because those who died outside of the facility were not counted as nursing home deaths.

Critics said it was odd not to count them simply because they died at a hospital since their infections were likely due to the spread of the virus within the nursing facilities.

Cuomo spokesperson Rich Azzopardi told CNN the audit smacks of politics.

“As the number of out-of-facility deaths were reported last January this is not news, however what is peculiar is the comptroller’s release of this audit now — but no one has ever accused him of being above politics,” Mr. Azzopardi told the news outlet.

The state Department of Health issued a formal response to Mr. DiNapoli but said its own efforts should not be conflated with the prior administration’s lack of transparency.

“The department’s use and analysis of available data for public health purposes was not affected or constrained in any way by the prior administration’s public reporting determinations, and included both nursing home and hospital-supplied information encompassing the full range of data collected from health care providers impacted by the pandemic,” it told the comptroller.

Mr. DiNapoli said moving forward, the state health department should improve its data collection to identify infection patterns and threats, while supplementing its data from other sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also urged the executive branch, now led by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, to assess and improve its operations, “including improving cooperation with state oversight inquiries, communication with localities, and external reporting.”

“The pandemic is not over, and I am hopeful the current administration will make changes to improve accountability and protect lives,” the comptroller said. “An important step would be for DOH to provide the families who lost loved ones with answers as to the actual number of nursing homes residents who died. These families are still grieving, and they deserve no less.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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