New York AG: COVID-19 Nursing Home Deaths Significantly Underreported

Nursing homes around the U.S. have seen some of the highest rates of death due to the coronavirus.

Elderly man inside nursing home looks out at family amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Elderly man inside nursing home looks out at family amid the coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Cryptographer / Shutterstock)

ALBANY, N.Y. — New York’s health department may have underreported COVID-19 nursing home deaths by 50%, an investigation by the state’s attorney general found.

In a report released on Thursday, the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James said that the state undercounted the number of nursing home deaths due to the virus. In addition, certain actions by the state and by nursing homes put vulnerable residents at risk during the pandemic, the office claimed.

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, told CNA on Thursday that the report’s findings “demonstrate a classic instance of throwaway culture.” 

Nursing homes around the U.S. have seen some of the highest rates of death due to the coronavirus. In May, one report found that more than 40% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Despite the high death tolls in nursing homes, the attorney general’s report found that the actual numbers may have been much higher than reported A “larger number of nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than DOH [New York Department of Health] data reflected, and may have been undercounted by as much as 50 percent,” the office found.

The report followed a months-long investigation by the office into the handling of the pandemic at nursing homes.

In addition, the report cited “a lack of compliance with infection control protocols” at nursing homes, as well as other problems such as a lack of both personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing for residents and staff.

All these problems placed residents “at increased risk of harm,” the investigation found. 

The report also said that, due to Gov. Cuomo’s order in March requiring nursing homes to accept recovering COVID patients from hospitals, vulnerable nursing home residents may have been put at greater risk of contracting the virus.

“Government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes 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 stated. Cuomo's administration issued this guidance in March. 

By his actions, Cuomo treated the state’s nursing home population as “expendable” and “essentially a dumping ground” for patients with active or suspected COVID cases, Camosy said. “And when he was caught, he lied about it.”

James said in a statement, “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.” 

“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,” James said. 

“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,” she said. 

Camosy connected the story to “the upcoming infrastructure bill,” saying that the proposed legislation presents an opportunity to discuss appropriate elder care: 

Cuomo was awarded an International Emmy Founders Award last year for “leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world.” The International Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences had recognized him for the award.

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