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New York State Probe nursing home deaths

The OBSERVER’s View

Given the state of our national and state political discourse, one could almost see how Gov. Andrew Cuomo for dismissing calls for a third party review of the state’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes as a partisan tripe hunt.

The governor is wrong, though. A thorough accounting is needed not to establish blame or score political points, but to find what truly worked, what didn’t work and to find patterns so that we can handle similar situations better in the future.

The fact that there are concerns among Democratic state legislators as well as Republicans tells us it is time for a true third party review of how New York handled COVID-19 in nursing homes. If the smoke was coming from Republicans we could understand Cuomo ignoring it. But these calls are bipartisan — and where there’s that kind of smoke Cuomo should be bending over backwards to put it out.

But that’s not what’s happening.

A March 25 order to send recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals into nursing homes that was designed to free up hospital bed space at the height of the pandemic has drawn withering criticism from relatives and patient advocates who contend it accelerated nursing home outbreaks. Cuomo reversed the order under pressure in early May. And his health department later released an internal report that concluded asymptomatic nursing home staffers were the real spreaders of the virus, not the 6,300 recovering patients released from hospitals into nursing homes. Dr. Howard Zucker, state health commissioner, then defended the report during legislative hearings — a tact that only inflamed Republicans and Democrats rather than assuage their concerns.

“That’s a problem, bro,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat, told Zucker during a legislative hearing on nursing homes earlier this month. “It seems, sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so that you can look better.”

This whole counting fiasco could have been avoided had federal regulators been ordered to have states count coronavirus deaths the same way. Because the federal government was slow to respond, states were left to their own devices — and now we’re left trying to sort out the details months later.

Why does it matter?

It matters because the numbers that have come out in the past few months point to there being far more nursing home deaths than the state is admitting happened. According to the Associated Press, since May federal regulators have required nursing homes to submit data on coronavirus deaths each week, whether or not residents died in the facility or at a hospital.

Because the requirement came after the height of New York’s outbreak, the available data is relatively small, but roughly a fifth of the state’s homes reported resident deaths from early June to mid July — a tally of 323 dead, 65% higher than the state’s count of 195 during that time period. Even if half that undercount had held true from the start of the pandemic, that would translate into thousands more nursing home resident deaths than the state has acknowledged.

Another group of numbers also suggests an undercount. State health department surveys show 21,000 nursing home beds are lying empty this year, 13,000 more than expected — an increase of almost double the official state nursing home death tally. While some of that increase can be attributed to fewer new admissions and people pulling their loved ones out, it suggests that many others who aren’t there anymore died.

Lawmakers and regulators need to have an accurate accounting of what happened in New York’s nursing homes, not a politically whitewashed report that gives the governor warm fuzzies in his belly when he reads it.

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