Deaths in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic may have been undercounted by as much as 50%, according to a report released on Thursday by Attorney General Letitia James's office.
“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.
“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. Nursing homes residents and workers deserve to live and work in safe environments, and I will continue to work hard to safeguard this basic right during this precarious time.”
State officials have previously said more than 8,000 people have died in nursing homes during the pandemic. But the number does not count people who contracted the virus in a facility and later died in a hospital.
The Cuomo administration has blamed the spread of the virus by asymptomatic staff and guests in nursing homes. The report released by James's office, however, supported another theory: The requirement that COVID positive patients be admitted to the facilities "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 goes to the heart of the concerns that have been raised by nursing home family members since the start of the pandemic. State lawmakers earlier this week raised the possibility of issuing a subpoena to state health officials over the fatality rate in long-term care facilities during the pandemic.
"We are reviewing this comprehensive report by the Attorney General," said Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "The tragic situation in our nursing homes remains a heartbreaking reminder of the toll this pandemic took on this state. Nothing will bring back our loved ones that we lost but it is crucial that information guides our responses so this will not happen again."
Republican Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, meanwhile, called for the resignation of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.
"By underreporting COVID deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, the Department of Health has betrayed the public trust," Ortt said. "To repair that broken trust, I am calling on Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to resign."
At the same time, the report revealed a lack of compliance with infection protocols put in place to protect residents and facilities that had lower pre-pandemic staffing ratings also had higher fatality rates.
The labor union 1199SEIU seized on the report's findings over staffing levels.
“Attorney General Letitia James’ report affirms what 1199SEIU caregivers in nursing homes have known all along: the underlying poor conditions in too many New York State homes worsened the toll from the COVID-19 pandemic," said union Vice President Milly Silva.
"Now is the time for Albany to enact bold reform, as neighboring states have done, to ensure that taxpayer dollars are directed to resident care, not excessive profit, and that there is sufficient staff to meet resident needs. The report’s recommendations are right on target and 1199SEIU members will be working hard to see that they are enacted as part of the 2021-22 New York State budget. Our state’s vulnerable nursing home residents and those that care for them deserve no less.”