ALBANY, N.Y. — An article by the New York Times reports that top aides for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo prevented state health officials from releasing the number of nursing home deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The article states the governor's most senior aides prevented state health officials, including the commissioner of the NYS Department of Health Dr. Howard Zucker, from releasing the actual number of nursing home deaths to the public or share with state lawmakers.
Back in January, New York State Attorney General Letitia James released a report on the state's nursing home response to COVID-19.
Among the findings during their investigation was that the New York State Department of Health's publicly reported data may have undercounted COVID-19 related deaths.
During the attorney general's initial investigation, they found several areas of concern that include:
- A larger number of nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than DOH data reflected
- Lack of compliance with infection control protocols put residents at increased risk of harm
- Nursing homes that entered the pandemic with low U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) Staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates
- Insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for nursing home staff put residents at increased risk of harm
- Insufficient COVID-19 testing for residents and staff in the early stages of the pandemic put residents at increased risk of harm
- The current state reimbursement model for nursing homes gives a financial incentive to owners of for-profit nursing homes to transfer funds to related parties (ultimately increasing their own profit) instead of investing in higher levels of staffing and PPE
- Lack of nursing home compliance with the executive order requiring communication with family members caused avoidable pain and distress
- Government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have put residents at increased risk of harm
The investigation also showed many nursing homes failed to comply with critical infection control policies that put residents at an increased risk of harm. Among the findings:
- Failing to properly isolate residents who tested positive for COVID-19
- Failing to adequately screen or test employees for COVID-19
- Demanding that sick employees continue to work and care for residents or face retaliation or termination
- Failing to train employees in infection control protocols
- Failing to obtain, fit, and train caregivers with PPE
At that time, Dr. Zucker said the claim that the state undercounted COVID-19 deaths was not true. He also said the report contradicts itself on this.
He wrote in part, "The word 'undercount' implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong."
Dr. Zucker said the report's findings that nursing home operators did not follow the state's infection control protocols are consistent with DOH's own investigation. He added that violation of the protocols is "inexcusable" and that the DOH has already issued 140 infection control citations and more than a dozen immediate jeopardy citations.
The governor's office was further scrutinized following comments made by Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa, as reported by the NY Post.
The article says DeRosa apologized to Democratic lawmakers for withholding the state’s nursing home COVID death toll, saying “we froze” out of fear that the true numbers would “be used against us.”
DeRosa issued a statement in February regarding her comments to lawmakers:
"I was explaining that when we received the DOJ inquiry, we needed to temporarily set aside the Legislature's request to deal with the federal request first. We informed the houses of this at the time. We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout. As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked. But we are committed to being better partners going forward as we share the same goal of keeping New Yorkers as healthy as possible during the pandemic."
On Wednesday night Elkin Abramowitz, the legal counsel for the Governor’s office, issued a statement:
“The whole brouhaha here is overblown to the point where there are cynical suggestions offered for the plain and simple truth that the chamber wanted only to release accurate information that they believed was totally unassailable.
“The chamber was never satisfied that the numbers that they were getting from D.O.H. were accurate.
“The chamber responded to the D.O.J. request with what they deemed to be totally accurate numbers. They didn’t want to have a public debate about other numbers at the same time.
“What’s going on in the press now is exactly what the chamber wanted to avoid while William Barr was A.G.
“(The Governor) was interested in putting out only accurate information to highlight the contrast between Albany and Washington."