The New York Times reported Cuomo's concealment of COVID-19 fatalities on April 28. Based on interviews and documents it scrutinized, figures reflecting the true number of deaths in nursing homes did not go public until months later. NYT said that the governor's most serious aides "engaged in a sustained effort" to prevent New York State Department of Health (DOH) officials – including Health Commissioner Howard Zucker – from "releasing the true death toll" to both state lawmakers and the general public.
The report also showed the extent of suppression health officials faced. A scientific paper incorporating the actual figures was never published and did not see the light of day. Two letters meant for state legislators – one by the DOH and another penned by Zucker himself – did not reach their recipients. Incidentally, these actions coincided with the period when Cuomo was working on a book regarding the pandemic – with the assistance of his top aide Melissa DeRosa and other advisers.
The April 28 NYT report came amid a probe Cuomo is facing with regard to his office allegedly provided false data regarding COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes last year. Back in March 2020, Cuomo issued an executive order mandating that nursing home residents who were hospitalized due to COVID-19 were to be sent back to their nursing homes – as long as providers could take care of them. He issued the order amid the order
Cuomo's order enabled nursing home residents infected with the Wuhan coronavirus to spread the pathogen to fellow residents. This resulted in the about 6,000 deaths estimated by the Cuomo administration. Meanwhile, the governor's office defended the mandate as a result of following federal health guidance. It also added that the order had the intent of addressing hospital capacity issues that time.
In late January 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James accused Cuomo of undercounting COVID-19 nursing home deaths by "as much as 50 percent." The attorney general's office had been conducting a separate investigation since March 2020, according to a Jan. 28 statement. In an example mentioned by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), one care home facility reported 11 COVID-19 deaths to DOH. However, the same facility told James's office that 40 people there died of COVID-19 – showing a discrepancy of 29 deaths.
The OAG statement also said that the probe uncovered the "lack of compliance with infection control protocols" occurring in some nursing homes. Some facilities failed to isolate infected residents, test employees for possible COVID-19 infection and provide personal protective equipment. These actions exposed elderly residents to an "increased risk of harm," the statement said.
Furthermore, the OAG statement revealed that care home facilities with low staffing ratings had more residents who died of COVID-19. Staffing ratings reflect the number of hours that care home workers assist residents. Nursing homes with low ratings eventually "snapped" when coronavirus infections spiked.
Of the 401 for-profit nursing homes in New York state, 280 facilities had the lowest staffing ratings. More than half of COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes occurred in these 280 locations. An example cited in the OAG report mentioned that only two nurse supervisors were in charge of an entire care home due to the lack of manpower. Furthermore, OAG probes revealed that because of understaffed nursing homes – sick staff members have had to work consecutive shifts.
The statement from James's office also slammed the Emergency Disaster Treatment Protection Act. The order by Cuomo signed on March 23 shielded parties from any lawsuits they might face. Under the act, health care professionals are protected from potential liability arising from "certain decisions, actions and/or omissions related to the care of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic."
"While it is reasonable to provide some protections for health care workers making impossible health care decisions in good faith during an unprecedented public health crisis, it would not be appropriate or just for nursing homes owners to interpret this action as providing blanket immunity for causing harm to residents," the OAG release remarked. Thus, James recommended that the act's immunity provisions be struck down "to ensure no one can evade potential accountability."
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