New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report on Thursday alleging the New York State Department of Health may have undercounted "by as much as 50%."
"A larger number of nursing home residents died from COVID-19 than the New York State Department of Health's (DOH) published nursing home data reflected and may have been undercounted by as much as 50%," reads a press release from the attorney general's office unveiling the report.
According to James, the discrepancy is primarily due to the Health Department's nursing home death data not accounting for nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 in hospitals after being transferred from their nursing homes.
New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker released his own statement in response to the report on Thursday. Zucker took issue with James' undercount allegation, noting that all COVID-19 deaths are being accounted for based on the location they took place, not the victim's origin.
"The word 'undercount' implies there are more total fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong," Zucker wrote.
"The OAG's report is only referring to the count of people who were in nursing homes but transferred to hospitals and later died. The OAG suggests that all should be counted as nursing home deaths and not hospital deaths even though they died in hospitals," he wrote. "That does not in any way change the total count of deaths but is instead a question of allocating the number of deaths between hospitals and nursing homes. DOH has consistently made clear that our numbers are reported based on the place of death."
Zucker said his office is in agreement with James' that "the number of people transferred from a nursing home to a hospital is an important data point," adding that DOH is "in the midst of auditing this data from nursing homes."
"As the OAG report states, reporting from nursing homes is inconsistent and often inaccurate," he wrote.
James' investigation "also revealed that nursing homes' lack of compliance with infection control protocols put residents at increased risk of harm, and facilities that had lower pre-pandemic staffing ratings had higher COVID-19 fatality rates," reads the release. "Based on these findings and subsequent investigation, Attorney General James is conducting ongoing investigations into more than 20 nursing homes whose reported conduct during the first wave of the pandemic presented particular concern."
The state health department agreed that the Attorney General's findings of wrongdoing by certain nursing "are reprehensible," and "to that end, DOH continues to follow up on all allegations of misconduct by operators and is actively working in partnership with the OAG to enforce the law accordingly."
COVID-19 has devastated America's nursing homes, killing more than 100,000 residents and workers — a significant percentage of the over 400,000 people who have died by the virus in the U.S. over the course of the pandemic. Florida, a state with a large elderly population, reports that about 36% of the its overall COVID-19 deaths have been residents of long-term care facilities, according to CBS Miami.