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New York Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes, attorney general’s report says

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The New York state Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents by approximately 50%, according to a report released Thursday by the state attorney general’s office.

Over the course of the pandemic, there have been at least 8,700 deaths in nursing homes statewide, according to the Department of Health. But the report by Attorney General Letitia James suggests that figure could be much higher.

“Preliminary data obtained by OAG suggests that many nursing home residents died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes, which is not reflected in DOH’s published total nursing home death data,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement. “Preliminary data also reflects apparent underreporting to DOH by some nursing homes of resident deaths occurring in nursing homes.”

The report preliminarily concludes that deaths were underreported based on a survey of 62 nursing homes, a roughly 10% sample of total facilities across the state.

The report, which did not name the nursing homes surveyed, detailed one facility where deaths were underreported to the Department of Health by as many as 29 deaths.

“A facility reported five confirmed and six presumed COVID-19 deaths at the facility as of August 3 to DOH. However, the facility reported to OAG a total of 27 COVID-19 deaths at the facility and 13 hospital deaths — a discrepancy of 29 deaths,” the report says.

James’ office continues to investigate the discrepancies, according to the report.

“OAG is investigating those circumstances where the discrepancies cannot reasonably be accounted for by error or the difference in the question posed,” the report said.

The Department of Health and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

The state’s handling of nursing homes and their residents amid the pandemic has been a subject of scrutiny, particularly after a March 25 order by the Department of Health mandated nursing homes must not deny readmission to residents “based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”

Cuomo announced a new policy on May 10, saying a hospital cannot discharge a patient to a nursing home unless they test negative for the virus.

State lawmakers have called for a full dataset since the summer.

The Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee demanded Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker turn over a full picture of the death count in August during a legislative hearing on Covid-19 in long-term care facilities and hospitals.

In response to the attorney generals’ report, committee leader Senator James Skoufis, a Democrat, called the continued lack of compliance “insulting and unacceptable” — hinting that a subpoena is not out of the question.

The report “further underscores the need for transparency and accountability within the Department of Health,” Skoufis said in a statement to CNN, adding that the commissioner’s “unresponsiveness to the Legislature’s many questions and concerns is insulting and unacceptable.”

“While his next appearance before the Legislature was delayed until late February, it is my full expectation that he provides answers by the time of his testimony, otherwise he can anticipate an unpleasant and uncomfortable hearing. Without answers by then, I will support a move to compel the information from DOH,” Skoufis said.

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