New York Undercounted COVID Deaths in Nursing Homes by 50%, Report Says

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D.) / Getty Images
January 28, 2021

New York state health officials undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths linked to nursing homes by approximately 50 percent, according to a new report by the state attorney general.

The report, released Thursday following an investigation by Attorney General Letitia James, finds major discrepancies between the number of nursing home deaths that facilities reported to the attorney general's office and the number publicized by the state health department. It also points to the controversial order by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D.) requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients as a possible driver of fatalities.

The Department of Health vastly undercounted the number of deaths from the coronavirus linked to nursing homes, according to the report, because state officials chose not to count residents who died after being transferred to hospitals. "This preliminary data ... suggests that COVID-19 resident deaths associated with nursing homes in New York state appear to be undercounted by [the Department of Health] by approximately 50 percent," the report found.

The report also found significant undercounting of in-facility deaths at some nursing homes. The Department of Health undercounted deaths that took place at 55 of the nursing homes investigated by the attorney general's office by 19 percent. The attorney general's office said it is "investigating those circumstances where the discrepancies cannot reasonably be accounted for by error or the difference in the question posed."

Cuomo has been accused of exacerbating the high number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths in New York. In March 2020, Cuomo ordered nursing homes to admit residents who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. In May 2020, after thousands of deaths had been linked to nursing homes, he amended the order to require hospitals to obtain a negative test before transferring a patient to a nursing home. The governor later claimed that the readmission of coronavirus patients to nursing homes "never happened."

The attorney general's report indicated that Cuomo's March 2020 order "may have contributed to increased risk of nursing home resident infection, and subsequent fatalities." The report notes, however, that the order itself makes it difficult to find data proving a link between the guidance and nursing home deaths because it "prohibited nursing homes from requiring COVID-19 testing as a criterion for admission."

The report also determined a lack of compliance with infection control protocols at some nursing homes, including a failure to isolate infected residents, lax employee screening, and continued communal activities, contributed to COVID-19 fatalities. The current total reported death toll from the coronavirus at New York nursing homes is more than 8,600.