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Answers elusive in nursing home death controversy

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds a coronavirus briefing

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo holds a coronavirus briefing on Wednesday. State Attorney General Letitia James released a report last month that indicated the state was undercounting the deaths of nursing home residents. Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

Last April, I wrote a column about the impact of COVID-19 on nursing home residents, and the lack of information we were getting.

"Perhaps the only thing that’s clear is that what we don’t know far outpaces what we do know," I wrote then.

Nearly 10 months later, that’s still mostly true.

And that, perhaps, is the most disturbing part of how the state, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have handled the nursing home controversy that has now taken center stage.

Much attention rightly has been focused on the guidance the state provided last March that required nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from the hospitals, as long as they said they were able.

But the problem is more complex than that. The state consistently has been unable or unwilling to fully answer questions that continue to percolate about how many residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities died, and why.

Here are just some of the remaining questions.

  • How many nursing home residents who had gotten sick in those homes and were then sent to hospitals died due to COVID-19?
  • What impact did the March guidance have on COVID-19's affect on nursing home residents?
  • What has taken so long to get complete information and explanations?
  • What was the state's responsibility in all of this?

It was a frustrating cycle without an end for plenty of journalists. Time and again, state officials promised that more information was coming.

But it didn't come.

Until, that is, state Attorney General Letitia James released a deeply critical report last month that indicated the state was undercounting the deaths of nursing home residents by not counting those who died who were sent to hospitals.

Suddenly, some information started to flow. Health Department head Howard Zucker released a statement indicating that more than 12,000 nursing home residents died due to COVID-19, a 46% increase from the state's narrower count of deaths only in nursing homes. Since then, the number has grown further. The state now says that when including assisted-living and other adult-care facilities, 15,049 residents died of COVID-19.

It's a stunning statistic that underscores the toll the pandemic has taken on our older loved ones. It's likely to change further as the state refines its information again. But at least it's a number that's likely more realistic and more complete.

Yet it's not enough. We need the whole story, and that is why local journalists have been so persistent. We need to know which nursing homes failed to do what they should have done to keep their residents safe — and what role the state, as overseer and regulator, played.

Journalists need to keep asking the questions — and they should be able to expect legitimate answers.

All of this comes as 15,049 families continue to grieve, and they are hoping for explanations, too.

As for that April comment?

"Perhaps the only thing that’s clear is that what we don’t know far outpaces what we do know."

Only Cuomo can make sure that's no longer the case.

Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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