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NY’s Nursing Home COVID-19 Death Toll Grows

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at his briefing May 5, 2020.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo at his briefing May 5, 2020.

The average number of daily deaths in New York due to COVID-19 has decreased in recent days, with 230 reported on Monday, an increase of four from Sunday. But the state is now adding 1,700 more deaths at nursing homes in the past few weeks that are believed to be from the virus.

The new numbers from the state Health Department, first reported by the Associated Press, now includes deaths presumed to be from the corona virus along with confirmed deaths. It brings the total to 4,813 people passing away at nursing homes from COVID-19 since March 1.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, at his daily briefing Tuesday, says the state is now asking for both categories from nursing homes, but he says he expects even those numbers to change as health officials try to further verify the cause of the presumed deaths.

“I would take all of these numbers now with a grain of salt,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo says nursing homes were always going to be “a target” in a pandemic that more severely attacks the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Cuomo aide Jim Malatras, says the state already took a number of “aggressive” steps to try to protect the residents, including a now two-month long ban on visitors, and requiring that staff wear personal protective gear like masks and gloves, and have their temperatures taken at the beginning of their shifts.

COVID-19 positive patients are separated from the rest of the nursing home residents. New York has continued a controversial practice of requiring that nursing homes readmit COVID positive residents who had to be hospitalized back into their facilities. Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker has argued that the nursing homes are the residents’ homes, and they can’t be barred from returning to them.

The state recently changed a rule that allowed nursing home workers who tested positive for the virus but were asymptomatic to continue to report to work. The CDC still permits the practice. 

The state’s Attorney General, Tish James, is investigating reports from families who say the nursing homes kept them in the dark about the condition of their COVID positive relatives, and in some cases, took days to notify them of the residents’ deaths.

The news of the previously unreported deaths angered state Assemblyman Ron Kim, the sponsor of a bill to strengthen protections for nursing home residents during a pandemic. Kim, in a statement, that Cuomo and his health department “completely failed at protecting our most vulnerable New Yorkers”, and he said “heads should role” and that the governor and Commissioner Zucker should apologize for the undercounting in recent weeks.

Cuomo says if there is anything his administration can learn from how the nursing homes have been handled during the pandemic, they will make changes going forward, and dealing with the expected second wave of the virus later this year. 

The governor also called for more consideration for the human cost of reopening the country back up too quickly. The governor on Monday laid out a careful plan for a gradual reopening of the state, which includes four phases of business reopenings, and many rules on social distancing and personal protective gear.   

The governor compared it to the faster reopenings now taking place in 30 other states. The faster track to ending shutdowns in many states led a key coronavirus forecaster used by the White House to double the rate of deaths predicted from the virus in the U.S. to 134,000.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in mid-April predicted 60,000 total deaths.

The governor, saying the discussion is really about how much a human life is worth, compared life to potential economic gain.

“That’s the real discussion that no one is admitting openly or freely,” Cuomo said. “A human life is priceless. Period.”

Cuomo also took issue with comments President Donald Trump made to the New York Post, where Trump said he doesn’t want the federal government to bail out blue states whose budgets are suffering from the effects of the virus.

New York facing a $13 billion deficit, largely due to revenue declines from the economic shutdown.

Cuomo says it’s not a blue state versus red state issue, and that many states run by Republican governors are also facing large shortfalls.

“The states make up the nation and we need financial help because of the coronavirus situation, and this is not any mismanagement by the states,” said Cuomo. “If anything the mismanagement has been on behalf of the federal government.”

The governor says the federal government has allowed an imbalance to exist for decades. New York and other large states run by Democrats have paid billions more dollars in taxes to the federal government than they receive back in programs and benefits. Cuomo says blue states have essentially been bailing out red states for years.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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