A damning attorney general’s report that showed Governor Andrew Cuomo and other officials downplayed the deadly impact of COVID-19 on New York’s nursing homes finally led the state’s embattled health commissioner on Thursday to reveal the total number of resident fatalities.
In a defensive, nearly 1,700-word statement, Dr. Howard Zucker released figures that put the tally of confirmed and presumed deaths in both nursing homes and hospitals at 12,743 as of 19th January.
The staggering number is only slightly less than the 13,000-plus suggested by the report issued earlier in the day by Attorney General Letitia James.
That report said data from 62 nursing homes showed the death toll of residents was 56 percent higher than publicly acknowledged by the Department of Health.
“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 claimed.
“The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong.”
Prior to Zucker’s grudging announcement, the official DOH count of nursing home deaths from COVID-19 included only residents who actually died in nursing homes and not anyone who died at a hospital while undergoing treatment.
Earlier Thursday, the DOH website put that figure at 8,740, citing data current as of a day earlier.
“DOH data audited to date shows that from 1st March, 2020 to 19th January, 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.
“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.”
Zucker’s statement doesn’t actually include the total of those various death counts.
The DOH had been facing calls to release the total number of deaths from The Post, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the Empire Centre for Public Policy, which filed suit under the state Freedom of Information Law in September.
On Monday, state Senate Investigations Committee Chairman James Skoufis (D-Newburgh) even threatened to issue a subpoena, calling it “downright insulting…that, six months later, DOH is continuing to stonewall us on basic questions.”
Zucker also said that James’ report “found no evidence” that a controversial, March 25 DOH directive for nursing homes to admit coronavirus patients had “resulted in additional fatalities in nursing homes.”
However, one of the findings listed in James’ report says in full, “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.”
More than 6,300 “COVID-positive residents” were admitted to nursing homes before Cuomo rescinded the policy in May, according to a DOH report from July that blamed the spread of the coronavirus on infected, but asymptomatic, workers.