In the weeks since an investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James cited the state health department for misrepresenting the number of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents, the picture has become bleaker.
Following a lawsuit filed by the Albany-based think tank, the Empire Center, a judge ordered the state to release more details on how the pandemic struck these facilities. But while the state shared some new data over the weekend, there are still a lot of unknowns.
Bill Hammond, a senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center, crafted the Freedom of Information Act request that resulted in the organization's lawsuit against Governor Andrew Cuomo's administration. He told Gothamist/WNYC the latest release adds some context to how nursing homes and other long-term care facilities were affected by the coronavirus pandemic but doesn't go far enough.
"If the NYPD suddenly decided to report only crimes that happened during the week and then when this was discovered, and people said, 'well, can you give us the numbers for the weekend?' And they said, 'well, we're reconciling that data. We'll get back to you in a year.' I don't think anybody would stand for that," Hammond said.
A state health department spokesman says they are still finalizing their response to the Freedom of Information request and plan to eventually update their public-facing websites.
The Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond, spoke with WNYC host Sean Carlson about the new data and what’s still unknown:
Can you tell us what this new data that the state released adds to what we already knew about the scope of coronavirus deaths in nursing homes in New York?
As you said in response to the attorney general's lawsuit, the commissioner put out statewide totals that included about 4,000 additional deaths that we didn't know about before that, where residents of nursing homes have been transferred to hospitals.
What came out over the weekend was a breakdown of where the residents lived, both in terms of individual nursing homes and the counties where those homes are. In addition, they did a similar reveal relating to adult care facilities and assisted living facilities.
These are places that provide nonmedical support for their residents. And that was another 1,500 people who had died while in hospitals.
Are there any trends in that data? Does it show that coronavirus cases have hit nursing homes in any one particular area more?
We knew this was bad in nursing homes, and now we know it was about 50 or 60% worse than we realize.
In terms of regional hotspots, I haven't actually had the chance to make any kind of calculation of that. The big picture is that the spring wave was concentrated downstate, and the winter wave was more severe upstate. I'm expecting that these additional deaths will follow that same pattern, but I can't really say because I haven't looked at that.
We should note, too, that the State Health Department did not release this information voluntarily. It released the data after the Empire Center filed a lawsuit over a Freedom of Information Act request and after the investigation by the state attorney general's office. So given that, is there more information out there that we just don't know yet about the fuller picture of how nursing homes handled the pandemic?
In broad terms, what they've given out is cumulative totals throughout the pandemic. And my request also asked for the daily tallies in each nursing home on each day. It's a lot of detail.
It doesn't necessarily contain any huge new revelations, but it would give us the ability to see how the pandemic progressed over time and potentially to examine the impact of specific decisions and policies and developments that happened, which is important if you want to understand the best practices if you want to know things not to do the next time we're in a situation like this.
Can you speak more about that? How does the state's apparent reluctance to release this kind of data affect our ability to understand and respond to the pandemic?
We should not have had to have this fight. This was pretty basic information. The analogy I've been drawing is if the NYPD suddenly decided to report only crimes that happened during the week and then when this was discovered, and people said, "well, can you give us the numbers for the weekend?" And they said, "well, we're reconciling that data. We'll get back to you in a year." I don't think anybody would stand for that.
This was information that was of intense public interest. And the health department, the agency that's supposed to be guiding us through the pandemic, was refusing to release public information.
They should have been putting it out proactively. And then in addition to holding back this data, they were saying things that were misleading. They would often say that the state's record compared to other states was good, and that was based on partial data, and it turned out to be false.
And I don't want to take the legislature off the hook either. They empowered the governor to run things during this pandemic, and then they have not adequately challenged him to the full extent of their abilities. You have to have high ranking elected officials who are going to play by the rules. If you have somebody who's unwilling to abide by those norms, I'm not sure there's any system that's going to corral them.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.