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Covid death toll at N.Y. state nursing homes 50 percent higher than reported, AG says

New York still leads the nation in Covid-19 deaths with nearly 44,000, NBC News data shows.
Daily Life In New York City Amid Coronavirus Outbreak
Refrigeration trucks serve as temporary morgues at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal in New York on May 25.Noam Galai / Getty Images file

The New York state Health Department underreported the Covid-19 death toll in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, the state’s attorney general charged Thursday.

More nursing home residents died from the coronavirus than the Health Department’s "published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent,” Attorney General Letitia James' investigators concluded in 76-page report.

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“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 in a statement.

New York leads the country in the number of Covid-19 deaths with 43,734, according to the latest NBC News tally, most of which occurred in the early days of the pandemic, when public health officials were trying figure out how the disease was spreading.

There was no immediate response from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat whose pandemic response has been widely praised but who has also been criticized for waiting until May to reverse a state policy that required long-term care facilities to accept recovering patients who may still test positive for Covid-19.

Cuomo has insisted that it was up to the nursing homes to alert state health officials if they were not equipped to take care of infected residents. And a report issued by the state in July laid the blame for the more than 8,500 deaths of seniors on staffers who unwittingly infected residents.

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, insisted in a statement that there was no "undercount."

"The word 'undercount' implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong," Zucker said. "The OAG's report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died. The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals."

Cuomo's office said Thursday the state followed federal guidance when issuing its order on nursing homes.

Zucker added that "the report's findings that nursing home operators failed to comply with the State's infection control protocols are consistent with DOH's own investigation."

Asked at a previously scheduled news conference about the attorney general's report, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said, "We have to get the full truth, and we have to make sure it never ever happens again, nothing like this happens again, and we have to be honest about the numbers."

De Blasio and James are also Democrats.

State Rep. Elise Stefanik, a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, joined other Republicans in calling for the resignations of Cuomo and Zucker.

"This is now more than a nursing home scandal, this is 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," Stefanik said in a statement.

The attorney general’s office launched an investigation last spring after whistleblowers reported that residents who tested positive for Covid-19 were being “intermingled” with healthy residents and that the nursing homes were failing to adequately test workers for the coronavirus and making “sick employees continue to work and care for residents or face retaliation or termination.”

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Soon, investigators began noticing discrepancies between the numbers of Covid-19 nursing home deaths they were seeing and the numbers being reported by the Health Department.

“Preliminary data obtained by O.A.G. 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 published total nursing home death data,” a summary of the report reads.

Investigators, in their survey of 62 nursing homes (about 10 percent of the total statewide), also noticed another pattern.

“The investigations also revealed that nursing homes’ lack of compliance with infection control protocols put residents at increased risk of harm, and facilities that had lower pre-pandemic staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates,” the report states.

As a result of the report, the attorney general’s office said it will investigate more than 20 nursing homes whose conduct during the first wave of the pandemic “presented particular concern.”

The New York State Nurses Association did not weigh in on the alleged death toll undercounting in a statement issued Thursday, but it did applaud James for probing other issues, like the shortages of personal protection equipment that were rife early on in the pandemic.

"The report confirms what we have heard from members since the Spring of 2020: Many long-term care facilities lacked adequate PPE, basic infection control procedures, safe staffing, and quarantine protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within facilities," the NYSNA said in a statement. "A key finding of the report is that poor staffing increased mortality rates, adding to the large body of evidence that shows safe staffing saves lives."