New poll shows widespread mistrust of how nursing home deaths were reported

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo returns ventilators to the Pathways Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Niskayuna on April 12, 2020 after Pathways Nursing home made an unsolicited contribution of the machines to New York state as part of the ongoing efforts against COVID-19. The Governor’s Office is facing scrutiny over its handling of the COVID response in relation to nursing homes and long-term care facilities in New York.

A new Quinnipiac poll released Thursday shows that three-quarters of New York registered voters believe Governor Andrew Cuomo did something wrong when it comes to his handling of the way nursing home deaths during the coronavirus pandemic were reported.

A slim majority of voters — 51 percent — say they believe he did something unethical but not illegal; 24 percent say they think he did something illegal; and 16 percent say they think he did nothing wrong.  

The poll asked 935 registered New York voters which comes closest to your view: “[Gov. Cuomo] did something illegal, he did something unethical but nothing illegal, or he did not do anything wrong?

The Quinnipiac poll was conducted March 2 and 3 and has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Fifty-three percent of Republican voters responded to the question saying the governor did something illegal. Only 9 percent of Democratic voters say he did.

Thirty-six percent of Republican voters and 59 percent of New York Democrats say the governor did something “unethical but not illegal” in his “handling of the way nursing home deaths during the coronavirus pandemic were reported.” 

Twenty-three percent of Democrats say the governor did nothing wrong.

From Thursday’s Quinnipiac poll

The poll numbers were published on the same day as a New York Times article reporting that Cuomo Administration officials last summer rewrote a Department of Health report to remove data on nursing home deaths.

The Times reports that the number of nursing home deaths — more than 9,000 by that point in June 2020 — was not public, and the governor’s senior aides wanted to keep it that way. 

They rewrote the report to take it out, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The New York Times.

On January 28, Attorney General Letita James released her office’s 76-page report on the ongoing investigations of nursing home responses regarding COVID-19. The investigations started statewide last March in light of allegations of patient neglect and failure to follow COVID-19 protocols. 

According to the report, the New York Department of Health undercounted the death toll in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent. The DOH report excluded residents who died after being transported to hospitals. 

The investigations also confirmed the lack of adherence to infection control protocols that put both residents and facility workers at risk. 

Among those reports were allegations that several nursing homes around the state failed to plan and take proper infection control measures, including:

  • Failing to properly isolate residents who tested positive for COVID-19;
  • Failing to adequately screen or test employees for COVID-19;
  • Demanding that sick employees continue to work and care for residents or face retaliation or termination;
  • Failing to train employees in infection control protocols; and
  • Failing to obtain, fit, and train caregivers with personal protection equipment. 

“As the pandemic and our investigations continue, it is imperative that we understand why the residents of nursing homes in New York unnecessarily suffered at such an alarming rate,” said Attorney General James. “While we cannot bring back the individuals we lost to this crisis, this report seeks to offer transparency that the public deserves and to spur increased action to protect our most vulnerable residents. Nursing homes residents and workers deserve to live and work in safe environments, and I will continue to work hard to safeguard this basic right during this precarious time.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference on January 29 with state Health Commissioner, Dr Howard Zucker, to respond to the AG report.

“A key point, and this is a very important point to emphasize, is that the total number [of] deaths does not change. That number has not changed, and we put that out. And to misrepresent that number actually is factually inaccurate,” Zucker said. “And so in the report, when they said there was undercounting, that’s just factually inaccurate and we wanted to get that out.

“And governor, as you have said on all of these presentations, reporting the number of deaths is always the hardest number to report out there and we wanted to be sure that those numbers were accurate,” Zucker said.

New York State Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

On Wednesday, the state Assembly passed 10 bills all addressing issues specifically related to nursing homes, long-term care facilities and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislative package includes a bill that would codify New York regulations and federal law that establish certain requirements prior to an individual being transferred or discharged from a residential health care facility (A.3919, Hevesi).

Legislation also passed on Wednesday to repeal Article 30-D of the Public Health Law, also known as the Emergency or Disaster Treatment Protection Act, to ensure that health care facilities, administrators and executives are held accountable for harm and damages incurred (A.3397, Kim).

The bill memo for A.3397 states that “As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed in New York state, it is now apparent that negligence by administrators and executives of nursing homes has occurred at an extraordinary degree.  

“The consequences have been tragic: as of early May 2020, nearly 5,000 of New York’s elderly and most vulnerable residents have succumbed to this disease, and to date, there has been zero accountability nor transparency for these preventable deaths. 

“Article 30-D egregiously uses severe liability standards as a means to insulate health care facilities and specifically, administrators and executives of such facilities, from any civil or criminal liability for negligence,” the bill memo continues. “Repealing this article is a much-needed step to holding health care administrators accountable and doing everything possible to stop even more preventable deaths from happening.”