NY officials removed fuller tally of nursing home deaths

NEW YORK (AP) — Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration insisted Friday that a quest for scientific accuracy, not political concerns, prompted members of his COVID-19 task force to ask the state health department to delete data last summer from a report on nursing home patients killed by the coronavirus.

The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, citing documents and people with knowledge of the administration’s internal discussions, reported late Thursday that aides including secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa pushed state health officials to edit the July report so it counted only residents who died inside long-term care facilities, and not those who died later after being transferred to a hospital.

At the time, Cuomo was trying to deflect criticism that his administration hadn’t done enough to protect nursing home residents from the virus. About a third of the state’s nursing home fatalities were excluded from the report as a result of the change.

The revelations about the removal of the higher fatality number come as the Democrat also faces accusations he sexually harassed two former aides and a woman that he met at a wedding.

Cuomo had apologized Wednesday for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable” but rejected calls for his resignation and said he would fully cooperate with the state attorney general’s investigation into the sexual harassment allegations. Federal investigators are scrutinizing his administration’s handling of nursing home data.

Top Democrats in the state have said they want those investigations to conclude before they make a judgment about Cuomo’s conduct, but in the wake of Thursday night’s report, a few state lawmakers renewed calls for the governor to either resign or be ousted.

“And Cuomo hid the numbers. Impeach,” tweeted Queens Assembly member Ron Kim, who said Cuomo bullied him for criticizing how Cuomo withheld nursing home data.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the allegations that Cuomo aides deleted data from the report was “troubling” and said the White House “certainly would support any outside investigation.”

The July nursing home report was released to rebut criticism of Cuomo over a March 25 directive that barred nursing homes from rejecting recovering coronavirus patients being discharged from hospitals. Some nursing homes complained at the time that the policy could help spread the virus.

The report concluded the policy didn’t play a major role in spreading infection.

The state’s analysis was based partly on what officials acknowledged at the time was an imprecise statistic. The report said 6,432 people had died in the state’s nursing homes.

State officials acknowledged even then that the true number of deaths was higher because the report was excluding patients who died in hospitals.

But they declined at the time to give any estimate of that larger number of deaths, saying the numbers still needed to be verified.

In fact, the original drafts of the report had included that number, then more than 9,200 deaths, until Cuomo’s aides said it should be taken out.

State officials insisted Thursday that the edits were made because of concerns about accuracy. The administration initially released data about how many nursing home residents died at both hospitals and nursing homes, but quietly stopped in early May.

“While early versions of the report included out of facility deaths, the COVID task force was not satisfied that the data had been verified against hospital data and so the final report used only data for in facility deaths, which was disclosed in the report,” Department of Health Spokesperson Gary Holmes said.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to questions from The Associated Press about whether Cuomo himself was involved in removing the higher death total from the report.

Scientists, health care professionals and elected officials assailed the report at the time for flawed methodology and selective stats that sidestepped the actual impact of the directive.

The administration refused for months to release more complete data. A court order and state attorney general report in January forced the state to acknowledge the nursing home resident death toll was higher than the count previously made public.

DeRosa told lawmakers earlier this month that the administration didn’t turn over the data to legislators in August because of worries the information would be used against them by President Donald Trump’s administration.

“Basically, we froze, because then we were in a position where we weren’t sure if what we were going to give to the Department of Justice or what we give to you guys, what we start saying was going to be used against us while we weren’t sure if there was going to be an investigation,” DeRosa said.

Cuomo and his health commissioner recently defended the March directive, saying it was the best option at the time to help free up desperately needed beds at the state’s hospitals. And they’ve argued community spread is the biggest risk factor for nursing homes, and that it’s unlikely that most hospital patients treated for COVID-19 were contagious once they arrived.

“We made the right public health decision at the time. And faced with the same facts, we would make the same decision again,” Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said Feb. 19.

The state now acknowledges that at least 15,000 long-term care residents died, compared to a figure of 8,700 it had publicized as of late January that didn’t include residents who died after being transferred to hospitals.