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Aug. 11, 2020, 12:30 p.m. EDT

New York’s true nursing home death toll cloaked in secrecy

Unlike every other state with major outbreaks, New York only counts residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there

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By Associated Press


AFP via Getty Images
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

NEW YORK (AP) — Riverdale Nursing Home in the Bronx appears, on paper, to have escaped the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, with an official state count of just four deaths in its 146-bed facility.

The truth, according to the home, is far worse: 21 dead, most transported to hospitals before they succumbed.

“It was a cascading effect,” administrator Emil Fuzayov recalled. “One after the other.”

New York’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes, already among the highest in the nation, could actually be a significant undercount. Unlike every other state with major outbreaks, New York only counts residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.

That statistic could add thousands to the state’s official care home death toll of just over 6,600. But so far the administration of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused to divulge the number, leading to speculation the state is manipulating the figures to make it appear it is doing a better than other states and to make a tragic situation less dire.

“That’s a problem, bro,” state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat, told New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during a legislative hearing on nursing homes earlier this month. “It seems, sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so that you can look better.”

How big a difference could it make? Since May, federal regulators have required nursing homes to submit data on coronavirus deaths each week, whether or not residents died in the facility or at a hospital. Because the requirement came after the height of New York’s outbreak, the available data is relatively small. According to the federal data, roughly a fifth of the state’s homes reported resident deaths from early June to mid July — a tally of 323 dead, 65 percent higher than the state’s count of 195 during that time period.

Even if half that undercount had held true from the start of the pandemic, that would translate into thousands more nursing home resident deaths than the state has acknowledged.

Another group of numbers also suggests an undercount. State health department surveys show 21,000 nursing home beds are lying empty this year, 13,000 more than expected — an increase of almost double the official state nursing home death tally. While some of that increase can be attributed to fewer new admissions and people pulling their loved ones out, it suggests that many others who aren’t there anymore died.

However flawed New York’s count, Cuomo has not been shy about comparing it to tallies in other states.

Nearly every time Cuomo is questioned about New York’s nursing home death toll, he brushes off criticism as politically motivated and notes that his state’s percentage of nursing home deaths out of its overall COVID-19 death toll is around 20%, far less than Pennsylvania’s 68%, Massachusetts’ 64% and New Jersey’s 44%.

“Look at the basic facts where New York is versus other states,” Cuomo said during a briefing Monday. “You look at where New York is as a percentage of nursing home deaths, it’s all the way at the bottom of the list.”

In another briefing last month, he touted New York’s percentage ranking as 35th in the nation. “Go talk to 34 other states first. Go talk to the Republican states now — Florida, Texas, Arizona — ask them what is happening in nursing homes. It’s all politics.”

Boston University geriatrics expert Thomas Perls said it doesn’t make sense that nursing home resident deaths as a percentage of total deaths in many nearby states are more than triple what was reported in New York.

“Whatever the cause, there is no way New York could be truly at 20%,” Perls said.

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