NY undercounted COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%: AG

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Dr. Shane Wilson performs rounds in a portion of Scotland County Hospital set up to isolate and treat COVID-19 patients Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in Memphis, Mo. The tiny hospital in rural northeast Missouri is seeing an alarming increase in coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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NEW YORK — New York undercounted coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%, according to a scathing report released by New York Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday.

James has, for months, been examining discrepancies between the number of deaths being reported by the state’s Department of Health, and the number of deaths reported by the homes themselves.

Her investigators looked at a sample of 62 of the state’s roughly 600 nursing homes. They reported 1,914 deaths of residents from COVID-19, while the state Department of Health logged only 1,229 deaths at those same facilities.

If that same pattern exists statewide, James’ report said, it would mean the state is underreporting deaths by nearly 56%.

Related: Latest coronavirus updates in New York: Thursday, January 28, 2021

Part of the gap is explained by a decision by New York’s health agency to exclude from its count the number of nursing home patients who die after being transferred to hospitals. Hospital and nursing home officials say the state has ready access to that figure.

Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has said at times that the state is working on compiling that data. His department has not responded to repeated requests by The Associated Press for that figure in recent weeks.

In a statement issued Thursday, Zucker took issue with the word undercount, insisting that deaths were calculated based on where the individual died, not where they contracted the virus — meaning those that died at a hospital that came from a nursing home were not counted as a nursing home death, but instead a hospital death.

“The OAG affirms that the total number of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes is full and accurate,” Zucker said. “New York State Department of Health has always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient, and separately reported the number of fatalities within nursing home facilities and has been clear about the nature of that reporting. Indeed, the OAG acknowledges…DOH was always clear that the data on its website pertains to in-facility fatalities and does not include deaths outside of a facility.”

As of Tuesday, the state was reporting 8,711 deaths in nursing homes statewide.

“The word ‘undercount’ implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong,” Zucker said Thursday. “In fact, the OAG report itself repudiates the suggestion that there was any ‘undercount’ of the total death number.”

Michael Arcuri, whose mother, Louise, died from COVID-19 pneumonia last April, had already sounded alarm bells about how the data was counted months ago.

“I’m not even surprised,” Arcuri said about the AG report.

Louise Arcuri got sick with fever on March 30 at Central Island Nursing Care in Plainview, Long Island — just five days after a state mandate allowed patients who had been treated in hospitals for COVID-19 to return to nursing facilities.

“On the 30th, in the middle of the night, we got the call she slipped into a coma and was sent to Plainview Hospital across the street,” Arcuri said.

After Arcuri’s mother died in mid-April at age 74, the grieving son said he had a hard time getting the death certificate.

“It took us months and months to actually get a copy,” Arcuri said.

When he received the document, Arcuri said he was disturbed about a line on his mother’s death certificate, line 4-G. It asked if his mother had been transferred from another facility to the hospital.

The line was left blank.

“She got sick in the nursing home,” Arcuri said emphatically.

He was haunted by the notion that his mother’s death would not be considered a nursing home fatality, so he fought to have the line filled in. Eventually, it was.

“Instead of typing it in, to look official, they hand wrote it in,” Arcuri told PIX11 during a break from work Thursday.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised to take a “special” effort to protect nursing homes early on last spring. He tasked James last year with investigating how nursing homes were complying with COVID-19 guidelines last year.

James said her review found that a lack of infection controls at nursing homes also put residents at increased risk of harm, while nursing homes that had lower federal scores for staffing had higher COVID-19 fatality rates.

“As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” said Attorney General James. “While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves and to spur increased action to protect our most vulnerable residents.”

The AG’s investigation also found some nursing homes did not comply with safety protocols, putting residents at risk.

Nursing homes had insufficient PPE and testing protocols for both staff and residents, with the risk increasing at for-profit facilities, the AG said.

More than 20 nursing homes were still under investigation as of the report’s release on Thursday.

Michael Arcuri feels fortunate he was able to visit his mother briefly before she died, putting on PPE before he went to her hospital room.

“One of the hardest things I ever did in my life was go into that ward,” Arcuri said. “It changed me. It changed me a lot.”

He had his left forearm covered with a colorful heart tattoo in his mother’s honor.

“Mom, fly with the angels,” it says.

Click here for the full report.

If you have concerns about nursing homes, click here to notify the the New York State Office of the Attorney General.

PIX11’s Corey Crockett contributed.

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