Two New York state assemblymen have written to President Biden, asking for his help in accessing data on nursing home deaths during the pandemic. They say previous attempts to obtain this information, both from federal and state agencies, were ignored.
Republican state Assemblyman Kevin Byrne and Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim sent the letter the day before Biden was inaugurated to try with a new administration fresh into office.
“I wish President Biden success ‘cause that’s our country’s success, and I think this would be a really good, good start,” Byrne says. “He’s talked about healing and unity, I think this would help those families who lost loved ones from nursing homes heal, and I hope he listens.”
Byrne says the letter follows months of work, including legislative hearings and forums, and other letters.
“I wrote a letter with a group of legislators to the CDC requesting that they would update their guidance to try to make sure that these numbers were fully disclosed so we had a true count on how many residents from nursing homes died of COVID-19. We got rebuffed with basically a bureaucratic letter that just restated the rules that we already stated in our letter to them,” Byrne says. “Then I wrote a letter to President Trump as a bit of a last-ditch effort with another contingent of state legislators, and we did not get a response.”
Byrne, who is the Assembly ranking member on the Health Committee, says he reached out to Kim, who is the Assembly chair on the Committee on Aging, knowing he has been speaking out on the issue. Kim lost an uncle who was in a nursing home to COVID. Byrne says similar requests to the state Department of Health were also ignored. New York state Department of Health Spokesman Gary Holmes says, “We share the members’ optimism for the new administration and their eagerness to protect our most vulnerable residents. We’re doing that by continuing to manage a pandemic response while prioritizing this community as part of the state’s comprehensive vaccination distribution plan. As we’ve said repeatedly, the information they are seeking will be released once it has been appropriately reconciled.”
The letter from the assemblymen says Biden has the executive power to have the Centers for Disease Control mandate the necessary retrospective reporting to make this information public without further delay. The letter goes on to say that, unlike many other states, New York does not provide requested information about COVID-19 nursing home deaths for residents who died in a hospital or outside of the nursing facility. Byrne, whose 94th District includes portions of Putnam and Westchester Counties, says the CDC does now mandate this information be reported directly from these facilities. However, that began in mid-May after the many nursing homes already bore the full impact of the first wave; and the mandate was never made to apply retrospectively.
“And I do believe that the state’s Department of Health has an obligation to disclose the number of COVID-19 deaths, the total number from before mid-May, and, I think, at some point, they’re going to have to do it. The commissioner, during our legislative hearings, said that he would, but he was concerned about double counting and things of that nature,” says Byrne. “The reality is that was many, many months ago, and we really need these answers now if we’re going to try to make changes and better prepare for the future to ensure that we can avoid unnecessary deaths or harm to our fellow New Yorkers.”
Byrne says the letter to President Biden is a last-ditch effort.
“Even if this just puts public pressure to convince the Department of Health to release those numbers, I would be happy with that,” Byrne says. “I don’t need President Biden to come in. I’m just doing it because I don’t know where else to go, and he has the power to make it happen, so I’m hoping that he does it.”
In September, the nonpartisan Empire Center filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health after DOH refused to release records showing the full count of coronavirus deaths among nursing home residents. The Empire Center earlier in January wrote to the judge on the case, notifying her that DOH now states that it may or may not disclose the records by March 22. Empire Center Senior Fellow for Health Policy Bill Hammond:
“The state is being very evasive about this topic. And they’ve resisted all attempts, both my own, my own attempt to obtain through FOIL, and questions from the legislature during public hearings. The Justice Department asked them for the information and reportedly has met resistance,” Hammond says. “So it should be kind of all hands on deck to get this information. And, and the letter, although it’s unclear how the Biden administration will respond, it’s nice to see that you can get a bipartisan cooperation, an agreement that this data should come out.”
In New York, as of January 20, more than 8,500 confirmed and presumed deaths from COVID-19 have occurred inside nursing homes.