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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

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A running tally by The Associated Press shows that more than 68,200 residents and staff at nursing homes and long-term facilities across the nation have died from the coronarivus, out of more than 163,000 overall deaths.

For all 43 states that break out nursing home data, resident deaths make up 44% of total COVID deaths in their states, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Assuming the same proportion held in New York, that would translate to more than 11,000 nursing home deaths.

To be sure, comparing coronavirus deaths in nursing homes across states can be difficult because of the differences in how states conduct their counts. New York is among several states that include probable COVID-19 deaths as well as those confirmed by a test. Some states don’t count deaths from homes where fewer than five have died. Others don’t always give precise numbers, providing ranges instead. And all ultimately rely on the nursing homes themselves to provide the raw data.

“Everybody is doing it however they feel like doing it. We don’t have very good data. It’s just all over the place, all over the country,” said Toby Edelman of the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit representing nursing home residents.

New York health chief Zucker explained during the legislative hearing that New York only counts deaths on the nursing home property to avoid “double-counting” deaths in both the home and the hospital. And while he acknowledged the state keeps a running count of nursing home resident deaths at hospitals, he declined to provide even a rough estimate to lawmakers.

“I will not provide information that I have not ensured is absolutely accurate,” Zucker said. “This is too big an issue and it’s too serious an issue.”

Zucker promised to provide lawmakers the numbers as soon as that doublechecking is complete. They are still waiting. The AP has also been denied access to similar nursing home death data despite filing a public records request with the state health department nearly three months ago.

Dr. Michael Wasserman, president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, said it is unethical of New York to not break out the deaths of nursing home residents at hospitals. “From an epidemiological and scientific perspective, there is absolutely no reason not to count them.”

Nursing homes have become a particular sore point for the Cuomo administration, which has generally received praise for steps that flattened the curve of infections and New York’s highest-in-the-nation 32,781 overall deaths.

But a controversial March 25 order to send recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals into nursing homes that was designed to free up hospital bed space at the height of the pandemic has drawn withering criticism from relatives and patient advocates who contend it accelerated nursing home outbreaks.

Cuomo reversed the order under pressure in early May. And his health department later released an internal report that concluded asymptomatic nursing home staffers were the real spreaders of the virus, not the 6,300 recovering patients released from hospitals into nursing homes.

But epidemiologists and academics derided the study for a flawed methodology that sidestepped key questions and relied on selective stats, including the state’s official death toll figures.

“We’re trying to find out what worked and what didn’t work and that means trying to find patterns,” said Bill Hammond, who works on health policy for the nonprofit Empire Center think tank. “You can’t do that if you have the wrong data.”

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