ALBANY, New York (WWNY) – A scathing audit from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli concludes the state Department of Health under former Governor Cuomo under-reported COVID 19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent.
The audit, released this week, says the Department of Health (DOH) made a “deliberate decision” to understate the number of deaths “for certain periods during the pandemic.”
DiNapoli’s audit confirms and furthers what Attorney General Letitia James had already uncovered about COVID nursing home deaths. Her report forced then-governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration to revise upward the number of nursing home and adult care deaths from COVID to 15,000.
For months, and despite growing protests from family members of nursing home residents, Cuomo and his top aides insisted there was nothing wrong with their count of COVID deaths.
“I believe the State Department of Health. They gave their best guidance and made their best decisions on the facts they had,” Cuomo – who was still in office at the time – said in early 2021.
Administration officials would later claim they were concerned about over-stating COVID deaths, as a reason for only counting nursing home patients who died in the nursing home as COVID deaths, and not counting nursing home patients who were transferred to a hospital and then died.
By not counting all the deaths, New York’s COVID-19 statistics compared to other states looked better than they really were.
But in fact, DiNapoli’s auditors found that “instead of providing accurate and reliable information,” the Department of Health “conformed its presentation to the Executive’s (Cuomo’s) narrative, often presenting the data in a manner that misled the public.”
DiNapoli’s auditors estimate the Department of Health failed to account for roughly 4,100 COVID deaths. But because Department of Health officials were either slow to provide information, or outright refused to, the auditors say there is still no accurate total of COVID deaths in nursing homes.
In a response, DOH officials said they cooperated the best they could while continuing to deal with the pandemic.
They also said the Cuomo administration, not the Department of Health, decided what information was released.
“Our audit findings are extremely troubling,” DiNapoli said in a release. “The public was misled by those at the highest level of state government through distortion and suppression of the facts when New Yorkers deserved the truth.”
DiNapoli also said a lack of public health funding over the last decade left the Department of Health ill prepared for an outbreak.
DOH didn’t have the systems or staff in place that could have identified and helped limit the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes, DiNapoli said.
Auditors found that data from one of DOH’s key informational systems was not complete or reliable, and found that DOH was aware of this problem long before the pandemic, but never followed through on fixing it.
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