Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the state has started tracking the number of deaths from the virus in nursing homes, but it seems some are still masking the grim reality inside.
Isabella Center, a nursing home in Washington Heights owned by the nonprofit health system MJHS, reported 13 deaths from COVID-19 to the state. In reality, at least 98 residents have died since the start of the pandemic, according to a new investigation by NY1.
“The numbers that will be announced over the next few days about COVID-related deaths at Isabella will be disturbing,” Loyola Princivil-Barnett, chief operating officer at Isabella, said in a statement responding to the investigation Thursday.
She said Isabella has been following state and federal guidelines for infection control but said the lack of access to testing for coronavirus has “hampered our ability to further limit loss of life by swiftly separating anyone with the virus.”
Some of the deaths that went unreported took place in a hospital, rather than onsite at the nursing home; others were suspected, but not confirmed, coronavirus cases. A refrigerated trailer on the premises that houses dead bodies has reportedly been visible to nursing home residents, but hidden from the public passing by outside by a tarp hung over the fence.
Asked at his presser Friday whether there would be sanctions for nursing homes that underreport deaths from COVID-19, Governor Andrew Cuomo noted that the number of suspected, but unconfirmed, COVID-19 deaths is “a little squishy, by definition.”
“I can see where there is a vagueness in that category,” he said. “But they submit these numbers under penalty of perjury. You violate, you commit fraud, that is a criminal offense, period. So they can be prosecuted criminally for fraud on any of these reporting numbers.”
According to the state Department of Health, all nursing homes are required to submit daily census reports that include occupancy, suspected cases, positive cases, fatalities, and equipment needs. DOH says it has investigated any facility that has had a positive or suspected case and that it is now rolling out a new initiative called “COVIDeo” in which the director of infection control at a nursing home does a video chat with DOH while walking them through the facility.
Although nursing homes are regulated by the state, Mayor Bill de Blasio said at his Friday press briefing that the city and state must work together to minimize the toll of the virus.
“The city has been trying to provide help in any way we can,” said de Blasio, who called the death toll at Isabella “absolutely horrifying.”
He said the city provided Isabella with personal protective equipment, including 12,000 N-95 masks. “I want to figure out what we can do better--all of us,” he added.
The state has come under fire recently for its mandate that nursing homes must admit COVID-19 patients being discharged from the hospital. Cuomo reaffirmed the policy at his press briefing Sunday, saying that if a nursing home can’t accommodate a patient because of a shortage of protective equipment, staff, or quarantine space, they could transfer the patient to another facility.
“A nursing home can only provide care for a patient who they believe they can provide adequate care for,’’ Cuomo said. “If they cannot provide adequate care for a patient, they must transfer that patient.”
For the families of nursing home residents, the situation has been particularly difficult because of policies prohibiting visitors during the coronavirus outbreak.
“They did not inform us that COVID-19 was at the facility,” Xiomara Garcia-King told NY1. Garcia-King is the daughter of Toribio Antonio Garcia, 62, who passed away at Isabella nine days after arriving there for rehabilitation following a tracheotomy surgery. “We believe he deteriorated because of their lack of response.”
Before he died, Garcia scribbled a note, saying, “I need help.”