Beyond the health department’s undercounting of deaths, the investigation also found nursing homes’ lack of compliance with infection control protocols put residents at risk, and facilities that had lower pre-pandemic staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates. James’ office continues to investigate the allegations, including a deeper examination of practices at more than 20 nursing homes where reported conduct “presented particular concern.”
“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,” James said in a news release unveiling the report. “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.”
In early March 2020, the office began receiving complaints of COVID-related neglect and on April 23, the attorney general set up a hotline to take complaints of abuse and neglect. According to James’ office, the hotline received 770 complaints through Aug. 3 and another 179 complaints through Nov. 16.
The deeper investigations into specific nursing homes are as a result of preliminary findings which include:
The report also found that New York’s guidance from March requiring admission of COVID-19 patients into nursing homes may have increased the risk of others at the congregate facilities contracting the virus, a notion that a state-commissioned, internal report released in last year dismissed as a possibility.
Lawmakers and epidemiologists alike have been skeptical of the Department of Health report, issued in July, which absolved Cuomo’s administration of blame for thousands of nursing home deaths attributed to COVID-19. The report concluded that a controversial memo issued by the health agency in late March, as the pandemic surged, was not to blame. Instead, the report concluded the deaths occurred because staff working at the homes had brought the infectious disease into the facilities, months earlier, before the spread of coronavirus in the state was known.
Since that report was released, legislators have called for an independent investigation into the matter, challenging the reliability of an internal review of state practices. In fact, lawmakers even questioned whether the attorney general’s office could be impartial in an investigation. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried had challenged the efficacy of James’ office considering it regularly works with the health department and represents state agencies in lawsuits and other investigations.
The controversial memo issued by DOH on March 25 disallowed nursing homes from denying admission or readmission to residents based solely on a positive or suspected COVID-19 diagnosis. If a COVID-19-positive patient at a hospital was medically stable and needed nursing home care, many nursing homes believed the directive required them to accept that person.
DOH’s report last July – absolving itself of blame for the deaths – said the conclusions were supported by survey responses submitted to the agency by nursing homes. Yet DOH has since refused to provide the Times Union with the underlying nursing homes records forming the basis of the July 6 report. DOH cited two exemptions in denying the Times Union’s request, but refused to say how those exemptions applied to the specific records sought.