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Woman questions if mother's COVID death was "buried" in New York nursing home fatality count

N.Y. admits error over nursing home COVID data
New York governor faces questions over early reporting of nursing home COVID-19 deaths 05:22

Critics of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are accusing his administration of hiding nursing home death data, as they came under fire for a policy some allege may have led to more coronavirus-linked deaths. 

The governor denies he or his administration did anything wrong — but some relatives of those who died disagree.

"There just is no sense of peace," said Lorry Sullivan, who is still grieving the loss of her mother, Lorraine, in April.

Sullivan told CBS News' Mola Lenghi she was baking a birthday cake for her mother's 89th birthday when she got the call that her mother had died after contracting COVID-19 at Our Lady of Consolation, a nursing and rehab facility in New York. 

Asked what she would say to others who have loved ones in nursing homes, Sullivan warned "I would not put anybody who belongs to me in a nursing home. I wouldn't."

Nationwide, more than 125,000 nursing home residents have died of coronavirus. 

In a call with Democratic lawmakers recently, an aide to the governor said coronavirus death numbers were "withheld" over fears the Trump administration would use the data against them. On Monday, Cuomo said delaying the release of data was a mistake, but claimed all deaths were fully and publicly reported, and the number of deaths connected to nursing homes had not been underreported.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James alleged that the state undercounted deaths at its nursing homes by as much as 50% — it is currently estimated to be around 15,000.

"Now I don't even know if she was a number," Lorry Sullivan said of her mother. "Was she counted, was she one of the numbers that was buried?"

Governor Cuomo and the State Department of Health have been heavily criticized for directing nursing homes in March to take in coronavirus patients to relieve stress on hospitals. Although the directive was amended in May, the governor defended it in a Monday press conference.

"Residents who were leaving the hospitals were not likely to be contagious," Cuomo said. "They were going to be what's called, 'co-horted,' cared for in areas that are separate."

But a CBS News investigation in August found that may not always have been the case.

A former employee at Our Lady of Consolation, where Sullivan's mother died, said that the facility took in COVID-positive patients from hospitals in March and April, and that healthy residents were put in rooms with those who were infected.

"COVID did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals. COVID got into the nursing homes by staff," Cuomo said Monday.

Catholic Health released a statement on behalf of Our Lady of Consolation, stating they cannot comment on individual cases but are focused on delivering "high-quality, compassionate care," and "strive to protect all residents and staff."

New York's Department of Health said they were launching an investigation into the facility over the former employee's allegations after CBS News' reporting in August. When asked about the status of the investigation, the department said Monday they found no citations specific to infection control practices.

There is some evidence coronavirus cases are declining in nursing homes due to COVID-19 vaccinations, but death rates are still high. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute, Indiana had the highest rate of nursing home deaths as of mid-January with more than three deaths for every 100 residents. The number was followed by nearly three in 100 residents in Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

In New York, there are more than one and a half nursing home deaths per 100 residents.

For Sullivan, however, it is hard to move forward without knowing exactly how her mother was infected or what her final days were like.

"These things matter to families. They matter," she said.

Sullivan said she did not know if she would ever find closure, tearfully asking: "How can you get closure when you don't know anything?"

CBS News filed a Freedom of Information request in July asking the Cuomo administration and the Department of Health how many nursing homes were given taxpayer money to take in coronavirus-positive patients. The state replied in late January, saying they do not maintain those records. CBS News is filing an appeal.

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