Editorial: Wanted: whole truth of nursing home deaths

Editorial: Wanted: whole truth of nursing home deaths

We now know that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration undercounted the coronavirus-related deaths of state nursing home residents by the thousands.

How do we know this?

State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report two weeks ago that said the state failed to report the deaths of nursing home residents who had died in hospitals and were not previously counted by the state as nursing home deaths.

This was confirmed hours later by the state Health Department, which added more than 3,800 deaths to its count of nursing home deaths and raised the total from 12,743 in February to more than 15,000.

This did not change the overall number of COVID-19 deaths in New York – now 45,500, the second-highest total among the states – but it is important data needed to understand where the disease struck and why.

We also know that Cuomo, who gained a national following during the early days of the pandemic for his daily television briefings in which he emphasized the need for using science to respond to the pandemic, has been anything but transparent about the number of nursing home deaths.

The administration released the latest figures as a result of a court order following a six-month battle between the Cuomo administration and the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank in Albany. The Empire Center resorted to filing a lawsuit to force the Health Department to release more complete data after it was denied that information under the state Freedom of Information Law.

State Republicans had also raised questions about nursing home deaths.

And the Trump administration’s Justice Department had requested information on the nursing homes deaths last summer.

But Republicans were not alone in seeking more information.

The Democratic-controlled state Legislature held hearings in early August in which legislators repeatedly questioned the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, on the full extent of deaths linked to nursing homes.

Lawmakers came away dissatisfied with Zucker’s failure to disclose the number of resident deaths outside nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

We now also know that Cuomo and his top aides intentionally covered up the death toll in the state’s nursing homes by withholding data to avoid potential investigations into state misconduct.

How do we know this?

The governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told Democratic lawmakers in a phone call to address the nursing home situation last week that “basically we froze,” after being asked by the Justice Department for information.

“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 you guys, and what we start saying was going to be used against us and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa told lawmakers, according to a partial transcript obtained by The New York Times.

This is as damning an admission as you can make. You froze when you were asked for the information? You didn’t know what to give state legislators? Really?

Let’s make this easy for the governor and his administration to understand. When government agencies or the press asks for public information, you give it to them.

Yes, the information provided might have been politically embarrassing. There is no conceivable scenario under which Donald Trump would not have used the information against Cuomo. Trump was already criticizing Cuomo – notwithstanding the then-president’s colossal failure in responding to the COVID pandemic.

But that should not matter.  The information the state held could have provided insight into weakness in nursing home regulations and oversight. And that’s more important during a pandemic than any political considerations. Or at least it ought to be.

In the face of blistering criticism from both sides of the aisle, Cuomo acknowledged Monday his administration’s lack of transparency.

He claimed the release of information to the state Legislature was delayed because his administration was busy with the federal request, which was made in late August.

“The governor’s explanation was quickly criticized by legislative leaders, who said they were not told that the delay was a result of a federal inquiry,” The New York Times reported. “They also questioned why it took Mr. Cuomo’s administration five months to respond to lawmakers after it had responded to the federal request in September.”

The report from James, a fellow Democrat, also casts a renewed light on a state directive that ordered nursing homes to accept and readmit patients who had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Health Department responded in July that most of the patients sent back to nursing homes “were no longer contagious when admitted and therefore were not a source of infection.” The agency said the virus was instead spread by employees who did not know they were contagious.

Forgive us for not wanting to take the Health Department’s word for this. We think the state Legislature should investigate to determine if that is true.

Cuomo has also said in response to critics, including then-President Trump, that the directive was consistent with federal guidance at the time.

This is true, but James said the governor’s policy outlined in the directive may have “resulted in additional fatalities.” It also means Cuomo may have blundered when he followed the Trump administration’s guidance. His unwillingness to release the full data seems damning proof that Cuomo did make the wrong call.

Likewise, Zucker was – strictly speaking – accurate when he said New York state’s website reported the deaths that occurred in nursing homes.

But the state’s figures were misleading. They did not include the death of nursing home residents in hospitals.

The state now acknowledges that the overall death toll related to nursing homes was 40 percent more than reported on the website when taking into account residents who died in hospitals.

James’ report is even more damaging, suggesting the state’s previous count could be off by as much as 50 percent.

That’s not a statistically insignificant number.

James’ report also found a number of nursing homes that “failed to comply with critical infection-control policies,” including those that did not isolate residents who had tested positive for the virus or screen employees for it.

The attorney general asked about a tenth of the state’s nursing homes for information about on-site and in-hospital deaths related to the virus and is continuing to investigate  more than 20 nursing homes across the state that “presented particular concern.”

The Legislature should investigate whether nursing homes followed state requirements and what kind of oversight those homes received from the state Health Department.

James’ report and news of DeRosa’s remarks have sparked a flurry of angry denunciations from Cuomo’s fellow Democrats among others. There are calls for censure, stripping the governor of his emergency powers during the pandemic, federal and state investigations and the resignations of DeRosa and other state officials.

“This is a betrayal of the public trust,” state Sen. Andrew Gournades, a Democrat from Brooklyn, said on Twitter, according to The Times. “There needs to be full accountability for what happened.”

State Assemblyman Ed Ra (R-Franklin Square) called for his fellow legislators to aggressively pursue the truth.

“I hope my colleagues in the Assembly are finally ready to subpoena top administration officials so we can get answers for thousands of families who lost loved ones. I hope my colleagues are finally ready to join us in revoking the governor’s emergency powers and restoring checks and balances. We’ve never needed them more,”  Ra said in a news release.

We agree.

Missing so far is public criticism from Nassau County Democrats.

We would like to think that the sight of 43 Republican senators choosing their party over their country in not convicting the former president in Saturday’s impeachment trial would show local Democrats what happens when politics gets in the way of justice.

Cuomo has preached the use of facts in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The state Legislature and federal government should answer his prayers.




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