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NY Attorney General Accuses Health Department Of Undercounting COVID-Related Deaths At Nursing Homes

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- A damning new report from New York Attorney General Letitia James accuses the Cuomo Administration of grossly undercounting coronavirus deaths linked to nursing homes.

It says the official nursing home death toll  may be "undercounted by approximately 50%," because the state did not include nursing home residents who died off-site at hospitals, CBS2's Tony Aiello reported Thursday.

Families of the dead have long complained the state mishandled the crisis in nursing homes and may have tried to obscure the number of deaths.

"I love my mom. I miss her every single day. My life has been impacted in a way that will never, never be the same without her," Suffolk County resident Vivian Zayas told CBS2's Ali Bauman.

Last March, Zayas' mother began feeling sick in her West Islip nursing home. When she couldn't breathe, the nursing home moved her to a nearby hospital, where she tested positive for COVID and died two days later.

"The death certificate does not have any entry of where she was transferred from, so I thought she would be one of those that would be lost in this count," Zayas said.

Watch Tony Aiello's report --

The attorney general's office said they received hundreds of complaints to its COVID-neglect hotline, which was set up in April 2020.

"It's a combination of sadness and anger because we've known all along that they were keeping information from us," Zayas said.

There is bipartisan criticism of the Cuomo Administration in reaction to the report.

"I think the Attorney General's report gives so many constituents and so many people across the state a sense of relief, that here's someone who's willing to stick up for us and tell the truth that there is an underreporting," said Assemblyman Ron Kim.

"The deception and the betrayal is just excruciatingly painful to people who lost loved ones and those individuals who made these decisions from the governor on down need to be held accountable," said Duchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

MORE: Families Of COVID-19 Victims Who Died In Nursing Homes Call For Investigation Into NYS Department Of Health's Directive

On March 1, 2020, after coronavirus swept through a Seattle-area nursing home, it was clear those facilities were particularly vulnerable.

The report says the Cuomo Administration's March 25, 2020 memo telling nursing homes to accept patients who had tested positive, "may have put residents at an increased risk."

"We knew going into this pandemic that the greatest exposure was in fact in nursing homes. We saw it on the West Coast," Molinaro said.

"My father got it in the nursing home, and then we brought him home," Cobble Hill resident Daniel Arbeeny said.

Arbeeny took his father out of the nursing home when he had a fever last March. Once home, the 89-year-old tested positive for COVID and died within a week.

"Let us know how bad it was. We know it. We lived it. Give us the numbers. Give us the truth," Arbeeny said.

The report also criticizes nursing homes for issues including:

  • infection control,
  • insufficient staffing,
  • and lack of PPE.

The attorney general says 20 of New York's 619 nursing homes are getting extra scrutiny as the investigation continues.

New York republicans are calling for the ouster of New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker.

Late Thursday, Dr. Zucker released a statement disputing the use of the word "undercount." It said in part:

The New York State Office of the Attorney General report is clear that there was no undercount of the total death toll from this once-in-a-century pandemic. The OAG affirms that the total number of deaths in hospital and nursing homes is full and accurate. New York State Department of Health has always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient, and separately reported the number of fatalities within nursing home facilities and has been clear about the nature of that reporting.... The word "undercount" implies there are more fatalities than have been reported; this is factually wrong. In fact, the OAG report itself repudiates the suggestion that there was any "undercount" of the total death number.

LINK: Click here to read the full statement

Zucker said the state is "auditing" nursing homes to determine how many residents died after transfer to hospitals.

CBS2's Tony Aiello and Ali Bauman contributed to this report.


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