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Records show higher total of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds a storm and

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds a storm and COVID-19 briefing at his New York City office on Feb. 2. Credit: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/Don Pollard

ALBANY — The Cuomo administration says the number of residents of nursing homes who died or are presumed to have died from COVID-19 has risen to 13,297 and that the virus was already present in 98% of nursing homes when the state issued its March 25 guidance to accept COVID-19-positive patients from hospitals.

New data states that from March 1, 2020, to Jan. 19, 2021, 6,218 nursing home residents were confirmed to have died of COVID-19, 2,957 residents were presumed to have died of the virus in nursing homes; and 4,122 residents have died in hospitals while being treated for the virus.

When the number of deaths among persons living in assisted living and other adult care facilities are included, the total is 15,049 by the state’s latest count.

On Jan. 28, the administration reported that 5,957 nursing home residents died in nursing homes of the virus; 2,957 were presumed to have died in homes; and 3,829 residents died in hospitals. At the time, state officials said their audit of deaths was still underway and the numbers would change.

Previous counts of the deaths of nursing home residents released by the Cuomo administration didn't include those of many nursing home residents who had been transferred to hospitals.

The latest data was released Wednesday night to comply with a court order. The order was the result of a lawsuit brought by the Empire Center think tank seeking to rectify what it contended was an undercounting of nursing home deaths by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state health department. The lawsuit followed a request under the Freedom of Information Law made in August.

"The pandemic’s toll on long-term care residents was much worse than the Cuomo administration previously portrayed it to be," the Empire Center said in a statement.

The administration denied it has delayed or undercounted deaths, but rather said it had to confirm death totals from hospital and nursing home records to release accurate information in time for the legislative budget hearings this month.

"We said we would release additional data once our audit was complete and ahead of the commissioner’s budget testimony," said Gary Holmes, spokesman for the health department. "We’re doing that."

Legislative leaders were briefed by the Cuomo administration on the data Tuesday night, the deadline set by a state judge in ruling in favor of the Empire Center’s lawsuit.

"It is unacceptable that it took so long," said the Senate’s Democratic majority. "We will certainly have more questions as we review this information."

The data released by the Cuomo administration Tuesday night also addressed criticism about guidance issued March 25 by Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and Cuomo to nursing homes advising them to accept COVID-19-positive patients after they were treated at hospitals. Families of residents and some nursing home operators said the guidance was perceived as an order, and that it led to introducing the virus to the vulnerable population in nursing homes.

The Cuomo administration, however, said 304 of 310 nursing homes already had COVID-19 in the facility because of infected residents or staff members when the guidance was issued.

"This data demonstrates that in these cases, the patient admitted from the hospital did not introduce COVID-19 into the nursing home," Zucker said.

Attorney General Letitia James in a Jan. 28 report had stated that before the March 25 guidance, more than 300 nursing homes "had no reported COVID infections … while additional data and analysis would be required … the admissions may have contributed to increased risk of nursing home residents and subsequent fatalities."

Three days later, the attorney general’s office retracted the statement and said they no longer stood by that data after further review.

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