January 28th, 2021 By Joe Mahoney
ALBANY — The Cuomo administration has significantly undercounted COVID-19 fatalities at nursing homes, with data from facilities revealing the actual number of deaths may be as much as 50% higher, the state attorney general’s office reported Thursday.
“Preliminary data obtained by O.A.G. (Office of the Attorney General) suggests that many nursing home residents died from Covid-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in D.O.H.’s (Department of Health’s) published total nursing home death data,” the report from Attorney General Letitia James stated.
SPREADING LIKE FIRE
Her report also found the Health Department’s failure to include the deaths of nursing home patients at hospitals in its public data tallies impeded efforts aimed at improving conditions at the facilities. Cuomo has repeatedly stated in television interviews lined up for him by his aides that a single case of COVID-19 within a nursing home is capable of “spreading like fire through dry grass.”
The 76-page report stated: “Government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities and may have obscured the data available to assess that risk,” the report found.
The report prompted numerous Republicans, including Senate GOP Leader Rob Ortt of North Tonawanda, to call for the resignation of the Cuomo-appointed state Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker.
But Zucker swung back at the attorney general’s report, arguing it merely reflects differences in how COVID deaths are tabulated for nursing homes and hospitals and “does not in any way change the total count.”
Six hours after the James report was issued, Zucker’s agency released long-awaited data putting the total number of COVID-19 confirmed and presumed deaths of nursing home patients who died in both the facilities and at hospitals at 12,743.
A total of 3,829 of thse fatalities were recorded at hospitals, according to Zucker, who had earlier signaled his agency needed more time to compile the data.
Earlier this week, the state had pegged the total number of pandemic-related nursing home deaths at 8,677.
The report also suggested the death tallies were marred by undercounting in reports filed by the nursing homes themselves. Those facilities are licensed by the state, with Zucker’s agency having oversight of their compliance with state regulations and mandates.
Zucker’s response to the report also included a swipe at former President Donald Trump, a regular target of criticism for Cuomo.
“Ultimately, the report demonstrates that the recurring problems in nursing homes and by facility operators resulted from a complete abdication by the Trump administration of its duty to manage this pandemic,” Zucker said.
For the past 10 months, the nursing homes have received special legal protectons providing them with legal immunity in connection with their patient care during the pandemic.
James argued it is time to rescind those protections to allow for the industry to again be accountable. The report pointed out that fatalities were the highest in the facilities with the least staffing. The staffing shortages were at “especially dangerous levels” at some facilities, increasing the risks for the residents, the attorney general’s office said.
In violation of infection control protocols, some homes directed staffers to work and stay for additional consecutive shifts even though when they were ill or “met quarantine criteria,” the report said.
The report, compiled by the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit within the attorney general’s office, found infection control protocols at some homes were inadequate, with understaffing at some facilities contributing to the challenges in managing the threat posed by the fast-spreading virus.
James vowed the probe will continue, with its focus on more than 20 nursing homes.
“It is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” James said, adding: “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.”
MARCH 25 ORDER
Reacting to the report, Ortt praised James, a Democrat, for showing independence in carrying out her responsibilities. Cuomo is the state’s top Democrat and, as such, as the de facto leader of the party in New York.
“For months, Governor Cuomo and his administration have refused to be transparent or take any responsibility for actions they have taken during this public health crisis – including the deadly March 25, 2020, order to send COVID-positive patients into nursing homes,” Ortt said.
That comment was a reference to a controversial mandate by Zucker that the facilities readmit COVID-positive patients from hospitals. The Cuomo administration, in May, deleted the order from the state web site, declaring it was simply amending it by requiring hospitals to test nursing home patients for the virus before sending them back to the facilities.
CNHI reported last April the March 25 order was vigorously opposed by the American Medical Directors Association.
“Unsafe transfers will increase the risk of transmission in post-acute and long-term care facilities which will ultimately only serve to increase the return flow back to hospitals, overwhelming capacity, endangering more healthcare personnel, and escalating the death rate,” the association said in its response to the advisory.
LIFE ON MARS
Cuomo has praised Zucker throughout the pandemic and dismissed suggestions the fatality data for nursing homes was being undercounted. When a television reporter suggested in November the true death total was much higher, Cuomo responded: “I hear people say there is life on Mars.”
Sen. Pete Oberacker, R-Schenevus, said he agrees that the information in the report warrants the “immediate resignation of Zucker.
“The report from the Attorney General proves what we already knew – bad policies emanating from the governor’s administration greatly jeopardized the health and well-being of our most vulnerable,” Oberacker said. “Both Governor Cuomo and his Health Commissioner have dodged questions relating to COVID related deaths in our nursing homes, hidden the true statistics, and advanced policies that contributed to increased casualties.
“I join with Senate Republican Leader Ortt in calling for the immediate resignation of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. Additionally, it is time for subpoenas to be issued and a full independent investigation conducted – those we have lost and their families deserve a true accounting.”
Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, said James deserves credit for “showing her true bipartisanship in executing the duties of her office by bringing out the truth.”
“This now calls for an in-depth investigation into the nursing home crisis in New York so we can bring some peace and closure to the families who suffered the loss of loved ones, without the facts being known,” Morinello told CNHI.
In a blistering statement, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-North Country, said the James report documents a “a massive corruption and coverup scandal at the highest level of New York State Government implicating the Governor, the Secretary to the Governor, the New York State Health Commissioner and the Governor’s staff. Every New Yorker deserves transparency, accountability and answers regarding the orchestration of this illegal coverup.”
Stefanik urged the U.S. Justice Department and the state attorney general to issue subpoenas for all internal and external communications from Cuomo and “his entire staff,” including those involving lobbyists with ties to Cuomo’s senior team.
“President Joe Biden should pledge to do the same,” Stefanik added.’
Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said the report demonstrates the Health Department has not provided accurate public health data.
“Early on we were promised by the governor that data would drive decisions, with him saying he would share all of the numbers,” Stec said.
“Today’s attorney general report suggests that the State Department of Health has instead obscured by as much as 50 percent the number of nursing home-related deaths. The governor hasn’t kept his promise.”
He added the attorney general’s findings are “alarming to say the least” and paints a picture of “either gross incompetence or an apparent cover-up by Cuomo and his administration.”
Republicans were not the only ones calling for a more extensive review of the state’s fatality data.
Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Chateaugay Falls) said her was “outraged at the lack of transparency and accuracy from the Department of Health and the Administration with regard to nursing home protocols and reporting measures. That is why my colleagues and I have been calling for the release of accurate data for months.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told the Hearst Newspapers bureau in Washington the James report is “deeply disturbing.” The senator said she will ask the Senate Aging Committee to organize hearings aimed at formulating new protections for elderly Americans.
Zucker released a report last July linking the COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes to infected workers entering the nursing homes, adding to the risk of patients contracting the potentially lethal contagion.
The Health Department study also contended that most of the hospital patients who did have the infection were no longer positive at the time they were admitted back to the nursing homes and thus “were not a source of the infection.”
Cuomo had directed the Health Department last April to work with the attorney general’s office in an investigation into how nursing homes were dealing with the pandemic. But it was clear from the report that the Health Department had no role in authoring the document.
The state GOP wasted no time in using the report as a springboard for a new fundraising drive, with Republican Chairman Nick Langworthy declaring: “There is no hiding from this damning report and no one to cast blame on except Andrew Cuomo himself.”
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