How many nursing home deaths did NY have? We have no idea

Ed touched on this yesterday in a column regarding New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political song and dance regarding COVID-19 in his state. But one portion of this story deserves a closer look. Cuomo’s primary defense when people bring up his disastrous decision to force nursing homes and long-term care facilities to accept patients who tested positive for the novel coronavirus has been to call it a “political attack” and to point to the low percentage of deaths taking place in those facilities. But that number only looks low because somebody has been playing fast and loose with the math. In reality, we have no idea how many nursing home residents and workers died of the virus, and it could be as much as five times higher than what we’ve been told. (Associated Press)

Riverdale Nursing Home in the Bronx appears, on paper, to have escaped the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, with an official state count of just four deaths in its 146-bed facility.

The truth, according to the home, is far worse: 21 dead, most transported to hospitals before they succumbed.

“It was a cascading effect,” administrator Emil Fuzayov recalled. “One after the other.”

New York’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes, already among the highest in the nation, could actually be a significant undercount.

As the AP report points out, New York is the only state in the nation using this bizarre formula to calculate nursing home deaths. They’re only counting the people who physically expired on the premises of the nursing home. If they went into severe distress and had to be rushed to the hospital and they died there, they weren’t counted. If their alarmed family members came and took them out of the nursing home only to have them later expire at home, they similarly went uncounted.

How ridiculous is this? Even one of Cuomo’s fellow Democrats in the state senate, Gustavo Rivera, chimed in to say, “That’s a problem, bro.” He went on to point out the obvious conclusion that the Governor appeared to be defining the statistics differently so he could “look better.”

So how far off are the figures? That’s impossible to say definitively, but we have a few clues to go by. If the Riverdale Nursing Home is even close to being typical, the true number could be as much as five times higher than the stated total of roughly 6,600. But even if Riverdale is an outlier, the real number is still significantly higher. The New York Department of Health reports that there are currently 21,000 nursing home beds lying empty. That’s more than 13,000 lower than they had previously estimated.

Yes, it’s true that some of those vacancies could be due to fewer people being willing to move their older relatives into long term care facilities or pulling them out because of fears of the virus. But some significant number of those vacancies are undoubtedly the result of residents dying from COVID-19.

While it’s good to see outlets like the Associated Press tackling this question, it remains to be seen how much of an impact this coverage will have. Most of the media has provided Andrew Cuomo with cover in the form of fawning coverage of the daily pandemic updates he used to deliver. He was supposed to be a role model of leadership and there was briefly talk of him replacing Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential nominee. But Cuomo’s executive order forbidding nursing homes from refusing patients even if they had tested positive for the virus was nothing short of a disaster. The AP concludes by saying that the probable number of deaths in such facilities is at least 11,000, nearly double the “official” tally. And it could be considerably higher than that.