(NEW YORK) — Hours after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a scathing report Thursday over how the state reported deaths at nursing homes due to COVID-19, Heath Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker went on the offensive.
Zucker claimed the attorney general’s report affirmed the total number of deaths overall and that the state has repeatedly said its policy is to count deaths by where they occurred.
“DOH does not disagree that the number of people transferred from a nursing home to a hospital is an important data point, and is in the midst of auditing this data from nursing homes,” Zucker said in a lengthy statement. “As the OAG report states, reporting from nursing homes is inconsistent and often inaccurate.”
However, critics have assailed state leaders for a policy that allowed coronavirus-positive hospital patients to be transferred from hospitals into homes at the beginning of the crisis, as New York was facing a hospital bed shortage.
While Zucker says James’ report shows that nearly all homes had the coronavirus in them by the time the policy was enacted on March 25, her report also says the policy, which was eventually repealed in May, did heighten the risk for residents.
Shortly after that policy was enacted, New York’s death rate skyrocketed. While New York officials were able to bend the curve and eventually produce positivity rates among the lowest in the nation, its death toll of 43,093 still is the highest in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.
During the summer, when questioned about the nursing home policy, Cuomo and other officials would refer to statistics showing New York had lower death rates in nursing homes than other states. Zucker repeated that in his statement Thursday, saying states like Pennsylvania, Florida, New Jersey and Massachusetts had a higher percentage of their deaths in nursing homes.
In September, a report by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services showed that New York ranked 20th in the country in nursing home deaths due to COVID-19.
Since the report was released, Republicans and Democrats have criticized the administration. Assemblyman Ron Kim, who chairs the chamber’s Committee on Aging, said the state needs a nonpartisan commission with subpoena power to look into the matter.
He also slammed Gov. Andrew Cuomo for giving nursing home executives blanket immunity and called for a repeal of Article 30-D so families can pursue legal remedies.
The “report on nursing homes shows us that New York State has committed a human rights violation by choosing to protect nursing home profits over the safety of older adults and vulnerable members,” he said in a statement.