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AG: Cuomo administration underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths

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A report from New York’s attorney general finds that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration may have undercounted by as much as 50 percent the number of the state’s nursing home residents who died at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York last spring.

The news has led the Republican leader of the state Senate to call for the state health commissioner’s resignation.

The number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 has been in dispute for months. The state health department has said 8,711 residents died of the disease, but it has not released key data, including the number of residents who died after they were transferred to a hospital.

Attorney General Letitia James, an ally of Cuomo who, like the governor, is a Democrat, said investigators examined a sample of 62, or about 10 percent, of the state’s 600 nursing homes. The homes reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, but the Department of Health reported 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.
See related PDF 2021-nursinghomesreport-final.pdf
In one example, a nursing home reported five confirmed and six presumed COVID-19 deaths at the facility as of Aug. 3 to the state health department. But the nursing home told the attorney general’s investigators that there were a total of 27 COVID-19 deaths at the facility and 13 hospital deaths. That’s a discrepancy of 29 deaths.

Sen. Jim Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady, has been asking Democrats who are in the majority in his house to subpoena the health department to obtain the death records. He said he hoped the report will now expedite those efforts, and he wondered why the Cuomo administration did not just hand over the data when lawmakers first asked for it last summer.

“The cover-up is always worse, and can get worse, in many instances, than what you are trying to cover up,” said Tedisco. “Today, the attorney general has lifted the veil that was hiding the important real numbers of nursing home lives that have been lost under the governor’s leadership.”

Tedisco and others have criticized a controversial March 25 directive from the health department that said nursing homes had to accept patients who were still ill with COVID-19 back into the nursing homes. They said that decision led to more deaths as the infection spread in the homes.

Cuomo has blamed right-wing media outlets for the controversy.
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, in a report last July, blamed asymptomatic nursing home workers for the deaths. He did not provide the specific dates when the nursing home residents were first diagnosed with the virus.

State Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt is calling for Zucker’s resignation, saying he betrayed the public trust.

“How can he lead when we have this report that shows he lied to the people of New York?” Ortt said. “He has no credibility. His department now has no credibility.”

Democrats, who hold the majority in the Legislature, are also expressing concern. The chair of the Senate Investigations Committee, Jim Skoufis, hinted earlier in the week that he might issue subpoenas if the health department does not release the data by a scheduled legislative budget hearing on Feb. 3.

“We’re all very upset that we’ve not gotten these answers,” Skoufis said.

That hearing has now been postponed until Feb. 25. A spokesman for the governor told the Albany Times Union that the hearing needed to be postponed so it would not interfere with the governor’s prescheduled three-times-a-week coronavirus briefings. Skoufis, in a statement, said if Zucker does not produce the data by the new date, he “will support a move to compel the information.”

The attorney general’s report also finds that many nursing homes failed to comply with critical infection control polices, and that staff had insufficient personal protection equipment, including masks and gloves. Nursing homes with the lowest staff-to-patient ratios also had the highest number of deaths, the report founds.

Because of immunity provisions enacted in an emergency order by Cuomo, the nursing homes cannot be held liable for any of the missteps detailed in the report that could have led to more deaths. James recommends rescinding the immunity provisions.

In a  news briefing Thursday, Monroe County Commissioner of Public Health Michael Mendoza said the issue stretches outside the county's purview. He found the report "concerning."

"The nursing homes themselves work directly with the state health department, the process for reporting data is solely through the health department," Mendoza said. "We get some information somewhat anecdotally after the fact, but in general, I care very much about our nursing homes and am certainly eager about getting them open safely for visitors."

Mendoza also emphasized that Monroe County will continue to provide needed support and resources for nursing homes.

"Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, for better or worse, we've had a sort of supportive role in the nursing home endeavors," Mendoza said. "We are there to help with PPE, with guidance. We'll do contract tracing for employees within the nursing homes."

Karen DeWitt is WXXI's Albany Correspondent.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or