In his first public remarks since a scathing report found that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) administration undercounted nursing home deaths by 4,000, the governor on Friday said it didn’t matter how a COVID death was counted in a nursing home or hospital as he sort to continue the blame game on the Trump Administration for the entire investigation.
“If you look at New York state, we have a lower percentage of deaths in nursing homes than other states. A third of all deaths in this nation are from nursing homes,” Cuomo said. “New York State we’re only about 28 percent only. But we’re below the national average in the number of deaths in nursing homes.”
“But who cares — 33 [percent], 28 [percent] — died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died,” Cuomo added.
Cuomo blamed the entire investigation on a politically motivated effort, specifically citing former Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo, whom he called a protege of Roger Stone.
“Everybody did the best they could,” Cuomo said when asked what he’d say to the families of those who died in nursing homes. “If you think there was a mistake, then go talk to the federal government. It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, this became a political football.”
On Thursday, New York Democratic Attorney General Letitia James announced that an investigation led by her office found that nursing home deaths from coronavirus were undercounted by about 50 percent. The investigation backed up the findings of an Associated Press investigation from August that found New York’s count was flawed and significant undercount based on the state only counting residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.
An AP’s analysis in August concluded that the state could be understating deaths by as much as 65%, based on discrepancies between its totals and numbers being reported to federal regulators. Using data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, the AP estimated that if New York’s nursing-home death toll percentage were at the national average, the death toll would be 11,000. The undercount would mean the state’s current official tally of 8,711 nursing home deaths to the virus is actually more than 13,000, boosting New York from No. 6 to the highest in the nation.
“Preliminary data obtained by OAG suggests that many nursing home residents died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in DOH’s published total nursing home death data,” a statement from Attorney General Letitia James’ Office said. “Preliminary data also reflects apparent underreporting to DOH by some nursing homes of resident deaths occurring in nursing homes.”
“While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves,” James said in a statement.
According to the 76-page report, more than 6,300 hospital patients were admitted to 310 nursing homes across the state during the roughly 6-week period the executive order was in effect.
Despite the media gushing over the New York Governor handling of the pandemic, the state’s handling of nursing homes and their residents has been a subject of scrutiny, particularly a March 25 order by the state’s Department of Health that mandated nursing homes must not deny “re-admission or admission… solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” The controversial March 25 order from New York state’s website was quietly scrubbed off and replaced with an “updated guidance.”
In a defensive long statement, New York state’s health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker disputed the use of the word “undercount” and defended the department’s newly released figures that put the tally of confirmed and presumed deaths in both nursing homes and hospitals at 12,743 as of Jan. 19.
“The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong,” Zucker wrote. “The New York State Office of the Attorney General report is clear that there was no undercount of the total death toll from this once-in-a-century pandemic,”
Zucker also said that James’ report “found no evidence” that Cuomo’s controversial March 25 directive for nursing homes to admit coronavirus patients had “resulted in additional fatalities in nursing homes.”
The department, Zucker claims “has always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient, and separately reported the number of fatalities within nursing home facilities and has been clear about the nature of that reporting.”
Earlier before the bombshell report, the New York Department of Health website released its own data put that figure at 8,740, or 25 percent of the state’s total. The tally didn’t include nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals and died there.
“DOH data audited to date shows that from March 1, 2020 to January 19, 2021, 9,786 confirmed fatalities have been associated with Skilled Nursing Facility residents, including 5,957 fatalities within nursing facilities, and 3,829 within a hospital,” Zucker said.
He added, “When 2,957 presumed COVID nursing home fatalities – those fatalities that occurred when testing was scarce and lack confirmed evidence the deceased had COVID – are included, the state’s share of fatalities of individuals that died in nursing homes or in hospitals after transfer is 29.8% of the total number of confirmed and presumed deaths in New York State listed by CDC.”
Asked if he wished that things had been handled differently, Cuomo went into a lengthy rant, none of which included an apology.
“Federal guidance said that people who were in hospitals, but who were presumed not contagious could go back to a nursing home which could handle them, not all nursing homes can handle them. And the nursing home had to by law say that they could handle those people,” Cuomo said.
“But do I wish this never happened? I wish none of it happened,” Cuomo added. “I wish there was no COVID. I wish no old people died. I wish I didn’t have to call out the National Guard, who got sick, some of whom got sick and died. I wish I didn’t have to ask essential workers to leave their homes.”
Bipartisan criticism, both on the state and national level has called for a full dataset from the Department of Health since the summer. New York Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee demanded Commissioner Zucker turn over a full picture of the death count in August during a legislative hearing on Covid-19 in long-term care facilities and hospitals.
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) the ranking member of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis subcommittee, said the findings constitute an “outrageous” cover-up and demanded Cuomo, who is “obfuscating facts” to turn over all of the state’s data on nursing home deaths before February 4.
“This report requires your immediate attention and a full and immediate response to the numerous inquiries made by the Republicans on the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis,” Scalise wrote in a letter. “For us to bring transparency and facts to the forefront and provide some semblance of closure to the thousands of families hurt by your recklessness, it is necessary you answer the questions Select Subcommittee Republicans have posed numerous times. As such, we request the following documents and information immediately but no later than February 4, 2021.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) called on President Joe Biden to support a federal investigation into the matter.
“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.