Four years ago, New York was under lockdown as COVID-19 infections swept the state's metropolitan and densely populated areas — prompting hastened, questionable decisions that affected millions of New Yorkers.

The anniversary of the pandemic's earliest days has prompted more questions from state officials about the timeline, and efficacy, of an ongoing $4.3 million state-contracted review of New York's pandemic decisions to be released this summer — at least six months later than first expected.

"There's still a lot of hurt out there, and a lot of uncertainty and a real quest for answers," state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli told Spectrum News 1 in an interview Tuesday.

The Olson Group's contract will end June 20 to complete a 32,000-hour after-action pandemic review, overseen by the state Department of Homeland Security & Emergency Services. The Virginia-based consulting firm referred all questions about the timeline of the review to the department. The firm provides Commissioner Jackie Bray, who leads oversight of the review, with progress updates.

The firm has billed the state $1.1 million of its $4.3 million agreement to review the state's coronavirus response and issue a final report of its findings. The comptroller's office approved the six-month renewal last week. State budget officials said the low spending near the end of the contract could indicate issues with the report's work, or at least gives reason to raise suspicion.

"I think there's a lot of hope and expectation that will provide some of the answers that are still out there, but until we see the report, it's hard to know what the judgment's going to be," DiNapoli said.

State officials said they eagerly await the final report as New Jersey released findings earlier this month from an independent statewide pandemic review. A release date for New York's report has not been announced, but many lawmakers argue an independent review is needed to prepare for the next public health threat.

More state legislators have started to push for legislation to create a commission to conduct a separate review of the state's pandemic policies with subpoena power to ensure independence from the Executive Chamber.

State Health Department commissioner James McDonald said last week an additional review isn't necessary.

"As far as what needs to be reviewed, I think the question is: What are you trying to do?" he told reporters at an unrelated event in Albany. "Are you trying to learn something or trying to blame somebody? I've already learned a lot. I'm always open to new ideas. But I'm not blaming anybody anymore for anything."

DiNapoli isn't opposed to a separate study, but said the Legislature should first review recommendations in the Olson Group's report. State officials said Tuesday new information in the document will reveal the quality of the firm's work.

A thorough report, DiNapoli said, must provide insight for the state to improve infection control, guidance for health facilities and nursing homes, how to improve data reporting and more. The comptroller added that includes understanding how many New Yorkers died from the virus, including specified data for fatalities in hospitals and nursing homes following a March 2020 order under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that forced COVID-positive nursing home patients to return to facilities. 

"What are the real numbers? I mean, that's a hard question to still be asking years later, but they [families] are asking it and I think they're right to ask it," DiNapoli said.

The comptroller also said state leaders should rely on health officials to relay information in a public health emergency — a nod to Cuomo's leading of daily coronavirus briefings that were often nationally televised.

"Should we have another emergency like this, it should not be micromanaged from a PR perspective from the executive," DiNapoli said. "It really should be left to the public health professionals for them to make the best judgment and not to be interfered with in the interest of trying to put a positive spin. I think that's key and I think that's something that the families particularly would be very concerned about moving forward."

DiNapoli audited the state's nursing homes, and in a follow-up, found the state Health Department fully implemented one of four of the comptroller's recommendations.

"You can't rewrite history with a crayon: The overall number of COVID fatalities was never in question and it took time to compile subcategories of data that people requested, of which the federal government was at front of the line," Cuomo's spokesman Rich Azzopardi said. "The comptroller spent a year on his audit of this, and if he doesn't trust his own numbers, that's more of a reflection on him."

A special U.S. House of Representatives committee continues to investigate the pandemic, and subpoenaed Cuomo earlier this month about his administration's handling of nursing homes during the outbreak.

Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim plans to reintroduce legislation this week to study the state's COVID response in nursing homes, and said the state and congressional reviews are both critical for an accurate picture of the state's public health protocols.

The assemblyman has worked closely with several advocates and families affected by the pandemic and said none has been interviewed by the Olson Group — making him skeptical of that review standing alone.

"It leads me to believe that it's not a thorough investigation," Kim said. "It's critically important that we create policies around the people that were impacted the most ... and it is my understanding they're continuing to go within distributors and lobbyists to get their feedback, but not the people who were impacted the most on the ground."

State Republicans continue to lead the push for a separate review, rallying in the Capitol on Monday to blast Cuomo's March 25, 2020 nursing home order on the fourth anniversary of its declaration.

Sen. Jim Tedisco has long pushed back on the need for a separate review.

"That doesn't appear to me to be an independent evaluation," Tedisco said of the Olson Group's contract. "It really, I think, it's a slap in the face to all the family members who truly want to know exactly what were the causes of those 15,000 deaths in nursing homes."

DiNapoli on Tuesday said his office will consider an additional follow-up with the Health Department about its recommendations for nursing homes. The state has invested over $139 million in nursing homes over the past three years to support staff, improve infection controls, ensure improved financial stability and expand long-term care access, according to DOH.

"The New York state Department of Health was on the front lines of the global COVID-19 pandemic, gathering data with new and repurposed systems, and working quickly to share that information to both inform the public and guide the public health response," DOH spokeswoman Monica Pomeroy said in a statement. "The lessons learned from the pandemic continue to inform us, as we remain well-prepared for any new outbreaks or future pandemics. ... In regard to the December 2023 report, we appreciate the comptroller’s recommendations, including other actions to strengthen data tools and processes that are completed, underway, or being addressed by the department."