Betsy McCaughey: Cuomo nursing home scandal – Deaths likely closer to 10,000 and it gets worse

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COVID-19 has already killed thousands of nursing home residents in New York. An estimated 10,000 or more, double what the state reports. It’s hard to know what’s worse, the dying or the lying.

Under criticism for forcing nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is trying to shift the blame to President Trump. “Don’t criticize the state for following the president’s policy,” Cuomo said at his Saturday news conference. The governor points to a Trump administration statement issued on March 13.

Sorry, Governor, but you’re twisting what the statement said. The administration recommended nursing homes should admit patients even if they were coming from a hospital battling COVID-19, not that patients with COVID-19 themselves should be admitted.

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To the contrary, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was emphatic about the dangers of allowing COVID-19 to invade a nursing home. On March 18, the CDC stated that “once COVID-19 has been introduced into a long term care facility, it has the potential to result in high attack rates among residents, staff members, and visitors.” The agency warned “it is critical that long-term care facilities implement active measures to prevent introduction of COVID-19.”

One week later, on March 25, Cuomo’s Health Department mandated that nursing homes accept COVID patients and barred homes from requiring COVID tests for admission. Facilities had to fly blind, not knowing which incoming patients endangered residents and staff.

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As soon as the mandate was announced, the national association of nursing home doctors protested that Cuomo’s policy posed “a clear and present danger to all of the residents of a nursing home.” The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a patient advocacy group, urged Cuomo to change course.

But the state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker,  doubled down, as deaths soared, and instead began fudging the death statistics to conceal the carnage.

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At the outset of the pandemic, New York reported how many nursing home residents died from COVID-19, whether they died at the home or after being hospitalized. That’s standard. But as the toll escalated, the state Health Department quietly shifted to reporting only deaths at the homes, omitting those who succumbed after going to a hospital.

It’s likely 10,000 nursing home residents have died in New York from COVID-19, about double what the Cuomo administration is reporting. That estimate has also been put forward by health care think tank American Commitment.

Cuomo bragged last week that New York ranks 34th in per capita nursing home deaths. It’s a phony number – another whopper.

Many mistakes have been made so far during this pandemic. Mistakes are inevitable, and we should all be working together to rectify them and plan for a better response next time.

But the evidence suggests New York’s decision mandating nursing homes take COVID patients wasn’t just bungling  It’s about money. Two other states started to impose a similarly lethal policy and quickly pulled back, as deaths rose.

State health officials consistently put the interests of the hospital industry ahead of the needs of the public. That’s the painful lesson of this nursing home debacle. 

New York stuck with the lethal policy until May 10, way too long. Why? Hospitals inundated with COVID-19 patients insisted on clearing out the elderly and sending them to whatever nursing homes had empty beds. The state Health Department willingly complied, nursing home residents  be damned.

In New York, the Health Department works for the hospital industry, not for patients and families.  The Greater New York Hospital Association (GNYHA) bundles millions of dollars from the hospitals and funnels the money to New York politicians, including Cuomo and the state Democratic Party’s housekeeping committee. Hospital interests give more and hold more sway in Albany even than the real estate industry or Wall Street. Often it’s GYNHA’s president, Ken Raske, who gets a prized seat at Cuomo's table at political dinners.

The state Health Department, in return, does the hospital industry’s bidding, tolerating hospital infection rates worse than the national average and hiding outbreaks of deadly diseases like Candida auris at hospitals, when the public has a right to know. 

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State health officials consistently put the interests of the hospital industry ahead of the needs of the public. That’s the painful lesson of this nursing home debacle.

New Yorkers need a Health Department that doesn’t sell out to the highest bidder. And a state health commissioner who tells the truth.

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