Cuomo still refuses to disclose total number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths: watchdog

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration is again refusing to release the total number of nursing home residents who’ve died from the coronavirus for at least another two months — until March 22 at the earliest, a watchdog group charged.

In a letter to the Empire Center for Public Policy on Wednesday, the state Health Department claimed that it needs another nine weeks and five days to comply with the legal request for a full accounting of nursing home deaths “because the records potentially responsive to your request are currently being reviewed for applicable exemptions, legal privileges and responsiveness.”

The Empire Center submitted its FOIL request on Aug. 3 seeking the total number of COVID-19 nursing home fatalities — those who died in nursing homes and those who were ill and died after being transported to hospitals.

The state Health Department is only publicly reporting residents who physically died in nursing homes – but not those who died after being sent to hospitals for medical care.

The state reports more than 8,201 residents died in nursing homes. But unreported nursing home deaths — those who were ill and died in the hospitals — could be in the thousands, said the Empire Center’s Bill Hammond.

“The state is stonewalling — plain and simple,” Hammond said in an interview Wednesday night.

“This would be like the New York City Police Department reporting homicides on weekdays and not weekends.”

Hammond said a full accounting of COVID-related nursing home deaths is accessible because the state’s reporting system –the Health Emergency Response Data System, or HERDS — asks nursing homes for a count of residents who died after being transferred to hospitals as well as those who died in their facilities.

A nursing home industry insider also said he was baffled by the delay.

“The DOH has minute-by-minute data of nursing home deaths. The state’s delayed response defeats the purpose of the Freedom of Information Law,” the source said.

In fact, DOH has fined nursing homes for being tardy in submitting daily reports that include data on coronavirus cases, leaving it open to charges of failing to practice what it preaches.

Still, DOH said it needs more time to gather the information.

“Please be advised this Office is unable to respond to your request by the date previously given to you because the records potentially responsive to your request are currently being reviewed for applicable exemptions, legal privileges and responsiveness,” said DOH records access officer Rosemarie Hewig said in the Jan. 13 response to the Empire Center’s Freedom of Information Law request.

Hewig did not rule out months of additional delays.

“We estimate that this Office will complete its process by March 22, 2021. The
Department will notify you in writing when/if the responsive materials are available for release or if the time needed to complete your request extends beyond the above date,” she said.

DOH spokesman Gary Holmes Wednesday night said the agency’s FOIL response speaks for itself and added, “We’re busy managing a pandemic response and vaccination distribution plan.”

Hammond, in a blog post, said, “It could not be more clear that the state is illegally hiding basic information about a public health crisis. The department’s excuses are an insult to the intelligence of every New Yorker, and the Cuomo administration’s stonewalling makes a mockery of the public’s right to know. It’s increasingly evident that the state will not release these records until compelled to do so by the courts.”

The Empire Center’s case to compel Albany to release the nursing home death information has been sitting before Albany state Supreme Court Justice Kimberly O’Connor since October 30.

Hammond said he did not know why the judge was taking so long to rule on the case.

Nursing home deaths from the coronavirus are rising again.

Despite restrictions on visitations, the DOH last week ordered nursing homes to ramp up COVID-19 testing of staffers from once weekly to twice weekly to contain the spread of the killer bug.

Cuomo has faced a firestorm of criticism for his nursing home policies during the pandemic, particularly a since-rescinded edict that required nursing homes to accept or readmit recovering COVID-19 patients released from hospitals.

Critics claimed the controversial transfer policy led to more nursing home deaths.

Cuomo, who said the coronavirus spread through nursing homes like “fire through dry grass,” pointed to a panned DOH report that claimed nursing home staffers and visitors unknowingly infected frail nursing residents, not the state’s transfer policy. He also said the state was merely following the guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, a claim disputed by Trump administration health officials.

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