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N.Y. officials altered report to hide true count of nursing home COVID deaths, reports say

Protesters in New York over nursing home coronavirus response
Families of COVID-19 victims who died in nursing homes protest New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the crisis.
(Yuki Iwamura / Associated Press)

Top aides to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo altered a state Health Department report to hide the true number of people who died of COVID-19 in the state’s nursing homes, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported late Thursday.

The aides, including the secretary to the governor, Melissa DeRosa, pushed state health officials to alter the July 2020 report so that only residents who died inside long-term care facilities, and not those who became ill there and later died at a hospital, were counted, the newspapers reported, citing documents and people with knowledge of the administration’s internal discussions.

The report was designed and released to rebut criticism of Cuomo’s March 25, 2020, directive barring nursing homes from turning away recovering COVID-19 patients who were discharged from hospitals. Some nursing homes complained at the time that the policy could help spread the coronavirus.

The report concluded that the policy played no role in spreading infection.

The state’s analysis was based partly on what officials acknowledged at the time was an imprecise statistic. The report said 6,432 people had died in the state’s nursing homes.

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State officials acknowledged that the true number of deaths was higher because of the exclusion of patients who died in hospitals, but they declined at the time to give any estimate of that larger number of deaths, saying that the figures still needed to be verified.

Coronavirus cases have dropped at U.S. nursing homes and other long-term care facilities over the past few weeks. COVID-19 vaccines deserve part of the credit.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that the original drafts of the report had in fact included that larger number — more than 9,200 deaths — until Cuomo’s aides said it should be taken out.

State officials insisted Thursday that the edits were made because of concerns about accuracy, not to protect Cuomo’s reputation.

“While early versions of the report included out-of-facility deaths, the COVID task force was not satisfied that the data had been verified against hospital data, and so the final report used only data for in-facility deaths, which was disclosed in the report,” said Department of Health spokesman Gary Holmes.

Scientists, healthcare professionals and elected officials assailed the report at the time for flawed methodology and selective stats that obscured the actual impact of the directive.

The two governors were once lauded for pandemic leadership but now are fighting for political survival.

Cuomo had refused for months to release complete data on how the early stages of the pandemic hit nursing home residents. A court order and state attorney general’s report in January forced the state to acknowledge that the death toll among nursing home residents was higher than the previously publicized count.

DeRosa told lawmakers earlier this month that the administration didn’t turn over the data to legislators in August because of worries that the information would be used against them by the Trump administration, which had recently launched a Justice Department investigation into nursing home deaths.

“Basically, we froze, because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys, what we start saying, was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said.

Cuomo and his health commissioner recently defended the March 2020 directive, saying it was the best option at the time to help free up desperately needed beds at the state’s hospitals.

The measure would repeal the extraordinary powers they gave Cuomo at the start of the pandemic, limiting his directives to those “necessary to reduce the spread or increase vaccinations.”

“We made the right public health decision at the time. And faced with the same facts, we would make the same decision again,” Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said Feb. 19.

The state now acknowledges that at least 15,000 long-term care residents died, compared to the 8,700 figure that it publicized as of late January, which didn’t include nursing-home residents who died after being transferred to hospitals.


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