Public needed to know about COVID deaths in NY’s nursing homes

The state’s decision to classify COVID-19 deaths nursing home by the hospital where a person passed away, rather than the nursing home where they contracted the virus, is a big deal, despite what you hear from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Dr. Howard Zucker, state health commissioner.

For months, journalists, lawmakers and advocates have pressed for an accurate accounting of COVID-19 deaths tied to the state’s nursing homes. When that information was finally released — through a study by Attorney General Letitia James and not from Cuomo or Zucker — it turns out that nursing home deaths are almost double what had been previously reported. It was only when James’ report was released that Zucker released statistics through the state Department of Health.

Zucker’s response was to double down on the way the Department of Health has reported COVID-19 nursing home deaths for the past 10 months, blaming the Trump administration and nursing home operators, and refusing to admit more people contracted and died from COVID-19 in nursing homes than the state’s previously released statistics indicate. Cuomo blames politics and then argued during a news conference last week that the discrepancy in reporting doesn’t really matter.

“Who cares (if they) died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died,” Cuomo said.

Here’s why it matters.

The way the state counted nursing home deaths masked the true death rate, the impact of federal and state guidance sending those recovering from COVID-19 back into nursing homes, and the struggle of some nursing homes to keep the virus out of their facilities. The state’s use of statistics made nursing homes seem safer than they really were — meaning some families likely placed their loved ones in harm’s way based on misleading data. Information that took James months to compile could have been used in real time to help nursing homes better care for patients by directing additional resources to them.

James’ report doesn’t really answer the question of whether the state’s policy requiring nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients being discharged from hospitals helped spread COVID-19 among a population most vulnerable to the virus. It also doesn’t answer why nursing homes that struggled with staffing and personal protective equipment were able to continue operating in such circumstances.

Families placing their loved ones in nursing homes should have the peace of mind to know their loved ones are being taken care of even in the worst circumstances. The response by Cuomo and Zucker to James’ report shows they are not capable of a rational assessment of the state’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

The state Legislature should do such an assessment — and stick to its guns when it comes to the composition of the group rather than let Cuomo run roughshod over the process.