NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo makes an announcement and holds media briefing at 3rd Avenue office. New York, NY – July 1, 2020 (Shutterstock)
By Joe Sexton and Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has yet to make public the names of dozens of nursing homes whose experiences could shed light on whether the administration’s controversial policy of sending hospital patients sick with COVID-19 into the vulnerable homes contributed to the state’s staggering loss of life.
Under the policy, more than 6,000 COVID-19 patients were sent from hospitals to nursing homes across the state, a move that scared and enraged many families worried about their loved ones being exposed to the deadly virus. To date, at least 6,500 nursing home residents have died of the virus, more than 6% of the state’s entire nursing home population.
According to a study released by the administration last week, 58 nursing homes in the state had not seen a case of COVID-19 among staff or residents before the arrival of one of the coronavirus patients from the hospital. But the report said nothing more about what happened at those homes — how many people had died or become infected, if any, and what role, if any, the arrival of the patients might have played in those outcomes.
Asked repeatedly by ProPublica about the fate of those 58 homes, spokespersons for the governor and his Health Department did not respond. In an interview last Friday, Jim Malatras, an adviser to Cuomo on the state’s response to the pandemic, said he did not know what had happened at the homes but would look into it.
That day, ProPublica made its first of numerous requests for the list of the 58 homes. The state issues regular public updates on deaths at individual nursing homes, so tabulating any loss of life at the 58 homes would not be hard.
Five days later, the administration has not produced the list of homes.
Shortly before publication, Health Department spokesman Jonah Bruno indicated that the state’s report might have inaccurately counted the homes that did not have a COVID-19 case before the admission of a hospital patient. He said the Health Department is now revising the list of homes based on updated or new data.
“As has been the case from the start, some facilities reported additional or updated information to DOH at a later date and we’re in the process of reconciling that data to ensure we continue providing the clearest possible picture to the public,” he said. “We anticipate this information will be posted in the next 72 hours. ProPublica was informed of this and decided to write an incomplete story anyway.”
Richard Gottfried, the Democratic chairman of the State Assembly’s Health Committee, said the state’s failure so far to make the list of homes public did not surprise him.
“Not only is it consistent with their handling of COVID-19 information, it is consistent with a lot of their reluctance to disclose information over the years,” Gottfried said.
In the report last week, the administration sought to downplay any role the transfers of COVID-19 patients into the state’s nursing homes played in the thousands of deaths since March. The report claimed infected workers, not potentially contagious patients, were the driving force behind the death tolls.
The report was met with widespread criticism, its methodology and findings questioned by epidemiologists, nursing home experts and elected officials of both parties in New York and Washington, D.C. In New York, Gottfried has called for an independent investigation of the state’s handling of nursing homes throughout the crisis. In Washington, Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican and the House’s minority whip, has blasted the Cuomo administration for failing to turn over materials dealing with the state’s nursing home policies for review by Congress.
In an emailed statement, Rich Azzopardi, a senior adviser to Cuomo, said Scalise’s inquiry was redundant and politically motivated.
“Congress already did oversight hearings on nursing homes during which New York was discussed in detail and the head of CDC said he wouldn’t speculate on causation between policies and fatalities,” he said. “Scalise’s feigned concern about these facilities is a partisan political ploy to distract from the Washington Republicans’ inept response to this pandemic.”
Richard Mollot, executive director of New York’s Long Term Care Community Coalition, said: “Dick Gottfried is right. We need to have a truly independent and rigorous assessment of what has gone on for that purpose and for the public’s benefit and the benefit of families and benefit of future residents.”
“We need all of the information that is available, period, about what transpired leading up to and during the COVID pandemic,” Mollot added. “Without that, we are hobbling our ability to understand what went on and therefore to address a second wave or remaining issues going forward.”
Steve McLaughlin, the Rensselaer county executive, has been an especially sharp critic of the Cuomo policy requiring homes to accept patients who might have still been contagious. He defied the directive and refused to allow the 300-bed nursing home run by the county to accept such patients. The home has yet to have a case of COVID-19 among its staff or residents. A private facility in the county took in at least four hospital transfers and suffered 18 deaths.
Asked about the unwillingness to date to make public the list of 58 homes, McLaughlin said, “If they don’t like what the data will show, you won’t see the data.”
Azzopardi said McLaughlin is “the last guy I’d listen to preach about data and facts.”
It is hardly the first time the administration has been criticized for a lack of transparency around its handling of the COVID-19 crisis in the state’s more than 600 nursing homes.
Many nursing home experts and families of residents said they were blindsided by the state’s March 25 directive saying no home could turn away a COVID-19 patient and none could test such patients before admitting them.
As well, the state’s official count of nursing home deaths doesn’t count residents who physically died in hospitals after becoming sick in nursing homes. Thus the most basic fact of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on homes — how many have died — is still not known.
“For weeks and weeks, I have been trying to get information like that from the Health Department,” Gottfried said. “If you’re shot down in the street and die in a hospital, that gets chalked up to our gun homicide statistics. And if you come from a nursing home with COVID-19 and die a few days later, that ought to count against the nursing home. A simple spreadsheet would keep all that separate.”
In its report, the administration minimized the likelihood that COVID-19 patients were still contagious, saying that transfers from hospitals typically happened well after the patients became sick. The median number of days before the transfer of the more than 6,000 patients was nine. The state’s report does not account for the fact that its own analysis shows half of the more than 6,000 transfers arrived at nursing homes fewer than nine days after falling ill.
The length of contagiousness for COVID-19 victims is not certain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that plainly on its website.