Updated Jan 28, 2021 - Health

New York AG: State severely undercounted COVID nursing home deaths

Andrew cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Data from New York's public health department undercounted COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%, according to a report released Thursday by state Attorney General Letitia James.

The big picture: Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration had not been including nursing home patients who died after being transferred to the hospital in its tally of over 8,500 nursing home deaths. Data provided to the attorney general's office from 62 nursing homes "shows a significantly higher number of resident COVID-19 deaths can be identified than is reflected" in the official count.

  • The topic of nursing homes was already a sensitive one for Cuomo, whose office has been previously criticized for not doing enough to protect this vulnerable population.
  • New York was the first major COVID-19 hot spot when the pandemic arrived in the U.S. last spring, and it has a higher death toll (over 42,800) than any other state in the country.

The state of play: In addition to undercounting deaths, the investigation also revealed that some nursing homes failed to comply with infection control protocols.

  • Facilities with lower staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates.
  • Insufficient PPE and testing for nursing home staff put residents and staff at increased risk.
  • Owners of for-profit nursing homes had a financial incentive to increase their own profits instead of investing in more staff, PPE and other safety measures.

What they're saying: "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," James said in a statement.

  • "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," she added.

The other side: New York's health commissioner Howard Zucker said Thursday evening in a statement that there is nothing wrong in the accuracy of the health department's numbers.

  • "The OAG's report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died. The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals," the statement says.
  • "The Attorney General's initial findings of wrongdoing by certain nursing home operators are reprehensible and this is exactly why we asked the Attorney General to undertake this investigation in the first place."

This post has been updated with comment from New York health commissioner Howard Zucker.

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