New York nursing home deaths at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic may have been undercounted by as much as two-thirds, according to new federal data. Already the highest in the US, the tally likely omits thousands.
The state’s official count of care home pandemic deaths – 6,600 – may be vastly undercounted, according to data from federal regulators revealed in a report from news agency AP on Tuesday that suggests the state deliberately omitted from its totals nursing home residents who died in hospital.
When regulators began requiring homes to include residents who died in a hospital in their casualty counts in May, the numbers soared to 65 percent more deaths than the official state count. Extrapolating even half of that discrepancy back to the start of the pandemic would mean thousands more died than were officially counted.
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Another hint that the death count could be depressed comes in counting empty nursing home beds. Some 21,000 are empty this year, according to state health department tallies – 13,000 more than expected. Some of that gap could be down to relatives having rescued their loved ones from what have been referred to as “coronavirus death traps,” but AP speculated that many of the vacancies are due to unreported deaths.
New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has defended the state’s case count, arguing nursing homes are only counting cases on their own property to avoid double-counting those hospitals might also include in their own tallies. While he admitted the state was now keeping track of care home residents who died in hospital, he refused to provide any numbers to state lawmakers, insisting the figures needed to be “double-checked.” It’s not clear how long that will take – AP has been waiting three months for similar numbers, after filing a public records request.
Zucker himself changed the way the state counted nursing home deaths back in April, cutting New York’s nursing home death count in half, but creating the problem he’s now attempting to defend. Even in May, healthcare think tank American Commitment was estimating the total number of nursing home deaths in New York at 12,000. The federal numbers thus remain on track with the suspicions that have been swirling among those in the know ever since.
New York continues to lead the nation in Covid-19 casualties, registering, as of Tuesday, more than 32,000 as having died with the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Despite this grisly achievement, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has praised his state’s pandemic response, noting that nursing home deaths comprised “only” 20 percent of its total Covid-19 mortality figures. Counting those care home residents who died in hospital, of course, would bring New York back in line with the rest of the country.
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Most New Yorkers would argue Cuomo has nothing to brag about – his controversial executive order requiring care facilities to admit sick patients from hospitals without testing them for the virus can be blamed for many of the nursing home casualties, however they’re counted. The governor has defended the order, and tried to blame the resulting deaths on everyone from asymptomatic healthcare workers to the failure of the facilities themselves to challenge his own order. But his decision to sneak a liability shield into law in April that will protect those facilities from lawsuits suggests he was well aware of the consequences.
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