The true toll of COVID-19 on New York’s nursing homes is becoming clearer as new fatality data are released by New York State.
At the same time, calls for Governor Andrew Cuomo’s emergency executive powers to be reined in and for investigations into why the data were withheld have grown louder.
New data released this month by the State Department of Health revealed more than two dozen additional deaths of nursing home residents at East End facilities — including 10 at the Westhampton Care Center, which has now reported 33 total deaths.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said on Monday that he thinks there should be further investigations of the handling of fatality data from nursing homes in 2020, and that Governor Cuomo should be stripped of the additional emergency powers he was given by the legislature in the spring with the first wave of the pandemic.
“Confidence in the executive is waning because of what happened with nursing homes,” Mr. Thiele said Monday, “which has added to the general dissatisfaction with many of the executive orders and the vaccine rollout. There is a feeling in the legislature right now that whatever was added to his powers in March should be repealed, or at least allowed to expire.”
While the governor already has fairly broad powers to act unilaterally during a state of emergency, the legislature granted the governor additional special powers to act without specific approval of the legislative branch to allow for a more nimble response to the pandemic. The governor’s ability to enact temporary new laws, like those used to dictate limitations on gatherings and the operations of certain businesses and industries, have been the most visible of those powers.
The uproar, however, comes in the wake of a report by Attorney General Letitia James’s office indicating that the state’s reporting understated fatalities at nursing homes during the pandemic.
The report followed months of speculation that the death toll in nursing homes was, in fact, much higher than officially reported, because the data released by the state only accounted for the deaths of those residents and patients who died within the nursing care facilities, and not those who died after being transferred to hospitals.
Data released since the attorney general’s report came out now show that more than 15,000 nursing home residents died of COVID-19 in the state — up from fewer than the 9,500 reported earlier.
U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin and New York’s Republican delegation to the House of Representatives last week called for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation of the data reporting over what Mr. Zeldin said amounted to obstruction of justice.
He pointed to the admission by one of Mr. Cuomo’s top aides that the administration had begun withholding information on nursing homes from other state officials last year because it feared any information released would be used in politically motivated investigations by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
“The families of thousands of dead New York seniors deserve accountability and justice for the true consequences of Governor Cuomo’s fatally flawed nursing home policy and the continued attempts to cover it up,” Mr. Zeldin said in a statement in which he joined with the state’s other Republican members of the House of Representatives in calling for the federal investigation. “It’s clear what is happening here is criminal.”
The governor himself has countered that the correct numbers of total deaths had been tallied all along, and that where the fatalities were reported to have occurred was of little consequence while the pandemic is still raging through the state.
But critics have said the vagueness of the numbers was an intentional effort by the administration to obscure the apparent impact of one of the administration’s policies early in the pandemic that called for patients with COVID-19 who were no longer in need of emergency medical care at a hospital to be transferred to nursing homes to recover.
The governor said repeatedly in his daily updates last spring that the policy was intended to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, and that nursing homes were only to accept patients that they could safely care for. He blamed much of the surge in deaths on poor administration by profit-driven private nursing home operators who understaffed and inadequately supplied their facilities.
The state rescinded the directive in early May, and the data reported only ever showed the deaths reported by facilities.
“Issues related to the withholding of information regarding nursing home deaths and the current vaccine distribution fiasco only underscores the need for checks and balances as we continue to respond to the pandemic,” Mr. Thiele said in a statement on Tuesday calling for a new investigation of the data reporting.
“Regarding the events surrounding information on nursing home deaths, we know the public was denied the truth, and that the state violated the Freedom of Information Law … in the process. More investigation isneeded. I support such investigation by any and all agencies, both state and federal, who have jurisdiction, including the State Legislature as itperforms its critical oversight function. Let the chips fall where they may.”
With the new tallies of those residents and patients who contracted COVID-19 in their nursing facility but died elsewhere added to the previous counts of fatalities, the death toll at some East End facilities has soared even higher.
The highest total death toll on the East End, according to the state statistics available from the state, has been at the Acadia Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Riverhead, where 40 patients have died, 20 of them at the facility itself and another 20 after being taken to the hospital.
The Westhampton Care Center, one of just two such facilities on the South Fork, saw 10 additional deaths added to its previous count of 22. The new data do not make clear when the deaths outside the facility took place.
During the spring surge, the WCC had reported nine residents’ deaths. A new outbreak that seems to have begun just after Thanksgiving left another 14 dead.
The new data revealed only one additional death at the Hampton Center For Rehabilitation and Nursing in Southampton, which has lost 23 residents in all to the virus — primarily during an outbreak in the spring that the facility has blamed on the transfer of COVID-positive patients from hospitals.
The new data also revealed the deaths of two more residents of Peconic Landing, the assisted living and nursing care facility in Greenport that was beset by one of the earliest outbreaks of the coronavirus on Long Island. Previously, the facility had only been reported by the state to have lost nine residents to the coronavirus.
In all, the new tallies have revealed more than 400 additional deaths of nursing home residents in Suffolk County.
Even with the new tallies, New York’s fatality rate per 100 nursing home residents is still in the bottom third of hardest hit states and about half of those in the worst impacted states of Indiana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Kansas, where about 3 percent of nursing home residents have died, compared to 1.54 percent in New York, according to analysis by AARP.
Mr. Thiele said the criticisms of the governor’s handling of the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic cannot go across the board, because New York was plunged into crisis before much of the rest of the country by international travel. The state also was hobbled by dense population centers and bumbling federal guidance, but still managed to climb out of the first surge and has maintained one of the lowest infection rates in the country through the winter surge.
“You do have to give him some credit: At one point in the summer, New York had the lowest infection rate in the country,” the assemblyman said. “The governor has done a lot of things right — and not done some things right.
“Some things did not go well, and sometimes you have to admit you made a mistake. Say, ‘We could have done that better.’ Instead, they tried to cover it up.”