The COVID-19 has been raging in New York for nearly a year. As of January 28, more than 34,500 New Yorkers have lost their lives to this deadly pandemic. The suffering that has resulted from the coronavirus cannot be quantified.
One of the most grievous aspects of New York’s experience with COVID-19 is the devastating impact it has had upon residents of nursing homes. Part of the reason that the coronavirus ravaged so many nursing homes is that on March 25, 2020, the New York State Department of Health directed nursing homes to accept patients with COVID-19 and obstinately failed to rescind that directive for several weeks.
Last August, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker appeared at legislative hearings and testified that the state didn’t know how many New York nursing home residents had died from COVID-19. (The figures released by the state included only the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 at nursing homes; they did not include the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 in hospitals.) The Empire Center for Public Policy sued the state under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) in September in an effort to obtain complete data. On January 25, 2021, after the state had continued to drag its feet for five months, Sen. James Skoufis (D-Newburgh) threatened to subpoena the Cuomo administration if it failed to provide the requested information at an upcoming hearing. Sen. Sue Serino (R-Hyde Park) went a step further, calling upon Sen. Skoufis—the chair of the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee—to serve a subpoena immediately. Sen. Serino said, “‘If we’re not getting the answers, what’s going on?’”
On January 28, 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James (D-NY) released a report entitled “Nursing Home Response to COVID-19 Pandemic.” According to the Attorney General’s report, “preliminary data” suggested that “COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes in New York state appear to be undercounted by DOH by approximately 50 percent.” Regarding the impact of the Department of Health’s catastrophic March 25 directive, the report is less definitive; the Attorney General cautiously concluded that “government guidance requiring the admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have put residents at increased risk of harm in some facilities and may have obscured the data available to assess that risk.”
Following the release of the Attorney General’s report, Commissioner Zucker issued a 17-paragraph statement defending the Department’s actions and acknowledging that the number of New York nursing home residents that are known or presumed to have died from COVID-19 totaled 12,743 as of January 19. Of course, we must ask the obvious question: If Commissioner Zucker could manage to come up with this figure less than a day after the Attorney General’s report was released, why couldn’t he have done so months earlier?
The release of the Attorney General’s report sent members of both parties into an uproar. Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) commented, “‘Since May of last year, we have worked tirelessly to shine a light on New York’s disastrous nursing home policies to ensure such a colossal public health failure never happens again. Instead of working with us, Governor Cuomo’s only response has been to ruthlessly attack anyone who questioned the state’s disastrous policies, including those from his party, deny any wrongdoing, and hide damning nursing home fatalities data that would implicate his administration.’” State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt called for Commissioner Zucker’s resignation, accusing him of “‘a gross dereliction of duty in the middle of the worst public health crisis that perhaps we have seen in our lifetime;’” the New York Post joined Leader Ortt in demanding the Commissioner’s departure. Asm. Ron Kim (D-Queens) questioned “‘why this administration chose to lie to the public for months.’” And Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay (R-Pulaski) added, “‘Our governor actually wrote a book about leadership in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as we learned today, and as many suspected, he never told the whole story.’”
At a January 29 press conference, Gov. Cuomo once again refused to apologize or take responsibility for the COVID-19 disaster at New York’s nursing homes. Instead, the Governor passed the buck to the federal government, argued that New York was “‘below the national average’” of COVID-19 nursing home resident fatalities, dismissed questions about his administration’s actions as political attacks, and asked, “‘But who cares — 33 [percent], 29 [percent] — died in the hospital, died in a nursing home? They died.’”
We do, Governor. We care. The truth matters.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms is thankful that at long last, we have an answer to the question about how many nursing home residents tragically lost their lives to this deadly virus. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but late is better than never.