The push by New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s office to obscure the coronavirus death toll in state nursing homes was more widespread than initially thought, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
Senior aides attempted to prevent the New York State Health Department from releasing the true number of coronavirus victims in nursing homes over at least five months beginning in the spring of 2020, according to interviews and documents reviewed by the Times.
The apparent attempt to obscure the death toll came after Cuomo’s March 25, 2020, executive order mandating that nursing homes admit patients who tested positive for coronavirus. According to an analysis by the Empire Center, an Albany-based think tank, that order may have caused between several hundred to over one thousand additional deaths.
A draft report by the Health Department on coronavirus deaths in nursing homes identified 9,739 victims through the end of May. The draft noted that “approximately 35 percent” of all deaths in the state were among nursing home residents, according to the Times.
However, that draft was not released. The report released to the public claimed that just 21 percent of all coronavirus deaths in New York occurred among nursing home residents. The state only admitted publicly that 6,500 nursing home residents had died of coronavirus as late as August.
During an August legislative hearing on nursing home deaths, New York health commissioner Howard Zucker testified that the state was still attempting to gather accurate data on those deaths.
“When the data comes in,” Zucker said, “then I will be happy to provide that data to you.”
After that hearing, Cuomo adviser Melissa DeRosa asked then-adviser Gareth Rhodes to conduct an audit of the Health Department’s internal numbers, people familiar with the matter told the Times. Rhodes and state health officials completed their initial audit by the end of August, again finding that over 9,000 people died of coronavirus in state nursing homes by the end of May.
However, even after the Health Department sent the audit to the governor’s office in early September, the audit was never approved for release.
Cuomo reportedly asked for another audit of the numbers on October 12, one day before the publication of his book on fighting the pandemic. The book received an advance of over $4 million.
The new audit was completed by the end of October. Zucker wrote a draft letter to the State Assembly speaker, set for release in November, informing that at least 9,835 nursing home residents died of coronavirus by October 30. However, the letter was never sent.
Attorney General Letitia James alleged in a January 2021 report that the state had undercounted nursing home deaths by as much as 50 percent. Immediately following the report, Zucker released data on over 3,000 additional coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents, and published data on more deaths in the following days.
A lawsuit by the Empire Center forced the state to reveal all of its data on coronavirus deaths in nursing homes on February 10.