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COVID-19: NY Health Director Denies Undercount On Nursing Home Deaths After Scathing AG Report

Gov. Andrew Cuomo flanked by state health director Howard Zucker (left) and Cuomo's top aide Melissa DeRosa during a COVID-19 briefing earlier this year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo flanked by state health director Howard Zucker (left) and Cuomo's top aide Melissa DeRosa during a COVID-19 briefing earlier this year. Photo Credit:

New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker is defending the state following Attorney General Letitia James’ newly released report that alleges COVID-19 deaths in the state's nursing homes were underreported by as much as 50 percent.

The report found the state negligible for COVID-19-related deaths inside New York nursing homes that had previously gone unreported, which Zucker has denied in a lengthy statement released late on Thursday, Jan. 28, just hours after the report was released.

Zucker said that the state has always publicly reported the number of COVID-19 fatalities in New York hospitals while reporting the number of fatalities within nursing homes separately.

“Indeed, the OAG acknowledges in a footnote on page 71 that DOH was always clear that the data on its website pertains to in-facility fatalities and does not include deaths outside of a facility,” Zucker said in a statement. “The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong. In fact, the (James’ office’s) report itself repudiates the suggestion that there was any ‘undercount’ of the total death number. 

“(James’) report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died,” the statement continues. “(James) suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals. That does not in any way change the total count of deaths but is instead a question of allocating the number of deaths between hospitals and nursing homes.”

In his statement, Zucker said the state has recorded 5,957 deaths in long-term care facilities plus another 3,829 in hospitals for a total of 9,786. The previous total shared by the state was just over 8,700.

“The Attorney General's initial findings of wrongdoing by certain nursing home operators are reprehensible and this is exactly why we asked the Attorney General to undertake this investigation in the first place,” Zucker stated.

“To that end, DOH continues to follow up on all allegations of misconduct by operators and is actively working in partnership with (James) to enforce the law accordingly.”

Zucker said that the new report was consistent with the Department of Health’s investigation into nursing homes’ infection control protocols. He noted that those violations have led to nearly 150 infection control citations and more than a dozen “immediate jeopardy” citations.

“The report found that operators failed to properly isolate COVID-positive residents; failed to adequately screen or test employees; forced sick staff to continue working and caring for residents; failed to train employees in infection control protocols; and failed to obtain, fit, and train caregivers with PPE,” Zucker stated. “These failures are in direct violation of Public Health Law and DOH guidance that every nursing home operator was aware of.”

In his statement, Zucker sought to put the blame on the Trump administration, stating that there were no uniform processes or reporting mechanisms and that every state-reported data in different ways.

“There is no satisfaction in pointing out inaccuracies; every death to this terrible disease is tragic, and New York was hit hardest and earliest of any state as a direct result of the federal government's negligence,” he said.

"There is still an ongoing crisis that is being actively managed and investigated and we will review the remainder of the recommendations as we continue to fight with every resource and asset to protect all New Yorkers from the scourge of COVID.”

Some have been critical of Zucker following his statement, alleging that the state should have been more aware of its policies regarding nursing homes during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If Health Commissioner Howard Zucker really wants to respond to the Attorney General’s nursing home report, I invite him to do so in front of the State Legislature that he’s been dodging for months,” Republican leader Rob Ortt said in a statement. “Families deserve transparency. Now, they deserve his resignation.

“The report released today by the attorney general is confirmation for the thousands of families who lost loved ones to COVID-19 in New York nursing homes,” Ortt added. “By underreporting COVID deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent, the Department of Health has betrayed the public trust.”

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise sent a scathing letter to Cuomo’s office demanding that the state release all data on nursing home deals as he demands the governor “stop obstructing efforts to gather the facts.”

“Data and transparency drive an intelligent response to any pandemic, but considering the novel nature of COVID-19, complete and accurate data is more important now than ever before,” he wrote.

“During the recent New York State Assembly and Senate hearings on this topic, (Zucker) admitted that New York keeps a count of nursing home resident deaths at hospitals but declined to provide that number under oath,” Scalise added. “It is clear that this order caused infections and fatalities, and you took concerted efforts to cover it up.”

In his statement, Zucker placed the blame on nursing homes, not his Department of Health.

“All of this confirms that many nursing home operators made grave mistakes and were not adequately prepared for this pandemic, and that reforms are needed, which is why we proposed radical reforms to oversight of nursing home facilities in this year's State Budget,” he said.

“We will do everything in our power to enact those reforms this year. This is still an ongoing crisis and we will continue deploying every resource possible to ensuring the health and safety of every single New Yorker.”

Cuomo is expected to make his first public comments on the attorney general's report at a COVID-19 news briefing scheduled for midday Friday, Jan. 29 in Albany.

Check back to Daily Voice for updates.

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