Cuomo Administration Accused of Undercounting Nursing Home Deaths

Photo: Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

After the better part of a year was consumed by questions about the true number of nursing-home residents who died from COVID-19, there finally appears to be an answer. On Thursday, the state’s office of attorney general released a report finding that the Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Department of Health undercounted those who died in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. In response to the inquiry, according to the New York Times, the Health Department released new data that added more than 3,800 deaths to the record, bringing the total to 12,743. Those deaths were already counted in the state’s overall total of more than 45,000 fatalities.

The report found that there were frequent inconsistencies between the number of deaths reported to the Health Department and the number reported to AG investigators. The state was not counting nursing home residents who died in hospitals. In the inquiry, Attorney General Letitia James’s office asked 62 nursing homes for records related to onsite and in-hospital COVID deaths, then cross-referenced that data with official numbers provided by the Health Department. The deaths reported to James’s office totaled 1,914, while the Health Department’s count was 1,229. The investigation looked at around a tenth of the state’s total of nursing homes, suggesting that the current number of 8,711 nursing home deaths is closer to 13,000.

Cuomo downplayed how the deaths were counted during a press conference Friday. Wherever they died, he said, “They died.” The governor, whose handling of nursing homes has complicated his self-appointed narrative of pandemic hero, said, “I understand maybe the instinct to blame or to find some relief for the pain that you’re feeling. But it is a tragedy, and it’s a tragedy that continues today.”

The governor drew sharp criticism earlier in the pandemic for his directive effectively requiring nursing homes to accept COVID patients from hospitals, potentially exposing vulnerable residents to the virus.

The AG report also found “widespread mismanagement by the homes in trying to control the virus due to a lack of staffing, equipment, and updated protocol,” according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. James also announced that her office is investigating around 20 nursing homes that “presented particular concern” as well as some instances “where the discrepancies cannot reasonably be accounted for by error,” suggesting a possible cover-up by some facilities.

As states rush to vaccinate nursing-home residents who represent between a third and a fourth of nationwide COVID deaths, public-health officials are running into roadblocks. States including Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Oklahoma have rerouted doses meant for long-term care facilities in order to speed up the overall vaccination. In Connecticut, D.C., Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia, many nursing-home workers have opted out of early vaccination rounds, according to the Washington Post. “This is a forgotten workforce that hasn’t been treated well for years,” Harvard health professor David Grabowski told the Post. “We’ve been slow with [personal protective equipment], we’ve been slow with hazard pay, and all of a sudden now, they want to go fast with vaccinations . . . There’s good reason they’re so distrustful.”

Cuomo Admin. Accused of Undercounting Nursing-Home Deaths