After months of stonewalling, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration last week released data on Covid-19 1/4 u2032s deadly march through the state’s nursing homes. The state Department of Health now says 12,743 fatalities are linked to coronavirus infections in nursing homes — a number 43% higher than previously reported.
The enormity of the loss staggers the soul.
Everyone knew the coronavirus preyed on nursing home residents already weakened by age or disease. Until now, only state officials and the nursing homes themselves knew the true scope of the tragedy.
Their lack of candor cast doubt on whether they were on top of the problem; built suspicion that they had something to hide; called into question the agency’s competence to perform a simple function; prevented families from making informed healthcare decisions for their loved ones; and kept policymakers from getting a handle on the size of the problem and thus developing approaches to contain it.
For months, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker repeatedly delayed releasing the complete nursing home death data, despite demands and lawsuits from legislators, public policy groups, journalists and families.
The dam finally broke Thursday. Syracuse.com struck the first blow. An investigative report by Tim Knauss estimated the number of nursing home residents who died of Covid in Onondaga County was roughly 50% higher after counting people who died in the hospital.
Hours later, New York Attorney General Letitia James dropped her bombshell investigation, also estimating nursing home deaths statewide were 50% higher than previously known. A few hours after that, Zucker finally released the true number of nursing home residents who died from Covid: 12,743 when the 3,829 deaths in hospitals were added in.
Zucker and Cuomo continue to brush off the difference as mere bookkeeping. After all, every Covid death was counted in the state’s grand total, they say. We strenuously disagree.
By understating the scope of Covid fatalities linked to nursing homes, the public and policymakers could not properly assess the administration’s response to the crisis or demand changes to it based on accurate data. It’s especially infuriating to hear the governor proclaim the state’s Covid response is guided by the numbers — except, apparently, when the numbers make him look bad.
Cuomo further blames political enemies for harping on nursing home deaths. Attacking the Trump administration for New York’s decisions won’t fly here. And last we checked, AG James was a Democrat and an ally of the governor.
Nevertheless, her report pulled few punches.
The AG’s investigation slammed nursing home operators for not hiring enough staff, paying too-low wages, pressuring sick employees to come to work, failing to enforce infection control measures, providing insufficient personal protective equipment to staff and failing to communicate with families. The report makes a direct correlation between low staffing ratios and Covid fatalities. It castigates for-profit nursing home operators — which represent two-thirds of the state’s 619 homes — for putting profits over patient care. It notes how immunity from liability shields nursing home operators from the consequences of bad decisions.
James’s report is inconclusive when it comes to assessing the Cuomo administration’s misbegotten policy requiring nursing homes to admit Covid-positive patients being discharged from hospitals. It is neither the indictment the governor’s critics wanted, nor the exoneration Cuomo claims.
We call on the state Legislature to settle that question. It should demand a full accounting of the administration’s response to Covid-19 in nursing homes. This crisis also should prompt a broad and deep reassessment of how we care for our vulnerable elderly, and how we treat the workers who care for them.
Accurate numbers are important. We must not lose sight of the fact that each number represents a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, co-worker or neighbor whose life was cut short by Covid -19. Their absence leaves a huge hole in our hearts and our community. We owe them a frank examination of the circumstances that led to their deaths.
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