New York COVID-19 Nursing Home Death Toll Soars in New Disclosure

February 12, 2021 Updated: February 12, 2021

New York’s COVID-19 nursing death toll has soared after the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo released additional data after the state Supreme Court ordered its release following a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request.

The new disclosure, released on Feb. 10, was prompted by a FOIL application by the Empire Center, a think tank.

“Those revelations increased the known death toll from about 9,000 to almost 15,000—making clear that the pandemic’s toll on long-term care residents was much worse than the Cuomo administration previously portrayed it to be,” the Empire Center said in a statement.

The data shows that there were 6,344 confirmed and 2,981 presumed in-facility COVID-19 deaths and another 4,775 confirmed out-of-facility deaths.

The COVID-19 death toll associated with New York long-term care facilities is higher, the Empire Center said, as the data does not include some 600 presumed out-of-facility COVID-19 deaths.

It comes amid reports that, during a video conference call, Cuomo’s top aide allegedly apologized to state Democratic lawmakers for withholding the state’s COVID-19 nursing-home death toll, according to The New York Post.

Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa said on the call that the Cuomo administration had rejected a legislative request for the tally in August because the issue had been turned into “a giant political football” and the administration feared the figures would “be used against us” by federal prosecutors, The Post reported.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on DeRosa’s reported remarks.

New York GOP Chairman Nick Langworthy criticized the Cuomo administration’s reported admission of a cover-up.

“The second most powerful person in state government and top aide to Governor Cuomo admitted on video to the premeditated and willful violation of state laws and what clearly amounts to federal obstruction of justice,” Langworthy said in a statement. “Andrew Cuomo has abused his power and destroyed the trust placed in the office of governor. Prosecution and impeachment discussions must begin right away.”

Meanwhile, records obtained by The Associated Press show that 9,056 recovering COVID-19 patients in New York state were released from hospitals into nursing homes early in the pandemic under a controversial directive that was later scrapped amid criticism it accelerated outbreaks.

The revelation raises new questions as to whether a March 25 directive from Cuomo’s administration helped spread sickness and death among residents, a charge the state disputes.

“The lack of transparency and the meting out of bits of important data has undermined our ability to both recognize the scope and severity of what’s going on” and address it, said Richard Mollot, the executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, a residents advocacy group, in remarks to The Associated Press.

New York nursing homes
Families of COVID-19 victims who died in New York nursing homes gather in front of Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., to demand that Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologizes for his response to clusters in nursing homes during the pandemic on Oct. 18, 2020. (Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo)

The COVID-related nursing home deaths have been a flashpoint for criticism against Cuomo, who faced public outcry over a controversial March 25 directive—subsequently reversed in May—essentially prohibiting nursing home operators from refusing to accept residents even if they tested positive for COVID-19.

“No resident shall be denied readmission or admission to a nursing home solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” the order said.

Under the order, if hospital staff determined residents were medically stable, nursing homes were prohibited from requiring that the patient be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission. Experts warned at the time that the order would lead to a surge in COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

Cuomo’s new order, issued in May, required hospitals to keep elderly COVID-19 patients until a negative test was confirmed or move them to another state-run facility that wasn’t a nursing home.

Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks on the coronavirus disease at the Riverside Church in New York City, on Nov. 15, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Cuomo has repeatedly rejected links between the since-repealed policy and the thousands of nursing home deaths in the state. Last year, the Cuomo administration flatly denied the allegations.

“Admission policies to nursing homes were not a significant factor in nursing home fatalities. And data suggests that nursing home quality is not a factor in mortality from COVID.”

A state Department of Health study (pdf) corroborated this stance, concluding that it was infected nursing home staff that fanned the spread.

“This study highlighted a critically important fact that the overwhelming majority of hospital patients sent back into nursing homes were not only medically stable, they were no longer contagious, and that 81 percent of the nursing homes receiving COVID patients from New York’s hospitals already had the virus,” said Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, in a release.

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said at a press conference following the release of a report that admission policies were not a significant factor in virus-related nursing home deaths, and called attempts to blame the fatalities on the March 25 executive order a “false narrative.”

However, questions have been raised about the reliability and impartiality of the study, and a number of lawmakers have called for a probe.

Meanwhile, Harvard University health care policy professor David Grabowski told NBC New York in an interview in August of last year that he believes the March 25 directive fanned the flames of the outbreak in nursing homes but was probably not the main factor.

“Did the policy increase fatalities in the state?” Grabowski said of the executive order. “It probably did. I just don’t think it was the primary driver.”

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

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