It’s taken the state Department of Health three years to finally offer more accurate information on the human toll extracted in the first year of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The agency misled New Yorkers about the number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19. The state DOH began listing individuals who died in nursing homes as a result of the virus, but it failed to count nursing home residents who died in hospitals and in their homes under the same category.
Then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo used this false narrative to deceive people about how well nursing homes throughout the state were doing when it came to caring for patients during the pandemic. A report issued in early 2021 by the office of state Attorney General Letitia A. James documented how the state DOH had undercounted these deaths.
One problem with how the agency accounted for the COVID-19 fatalities of all nursing home residents is that it didn’t use data from death certificates in its listing. This skewed the picture of what was happening with this demographic.
Bill Hammond, the senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany, recent reported how the state DOH has finally begun listing more accurate information.
“The state Health Department has belatedly published a more complete COVID death count for the pandemic’s first year, accounting for more than 6,000 victims who were left out of the state’s previous tallies because they died at home. In a report last week on the state’s leading causes of death, the department put the number of COVID death in 2020 at 36,337, which is 21% higher than the figure in its online database,” Hammond wrote Friday in an article on the Empire Center’s website. “This marks the first time the state has disclosed pandemic data drawn from death certificates rather than its Health Emergency Response Data System, or HERDS. While HERDS draws information only from hospitals, nursing homes and other similar facilities, death certificates reflect the full range of pandemic losses — including the roughly one in five deaths that occurred outside of institutions. The more complete accounting shows that COVID-19 was New York City’s No. 1 cause of death in 2020 and the No. 2 cause statewide. The state’s age-adjusted death rate surged 30% — including 54% in New York City — and life expectancy dropped by 1.6 to 3.4 years depending on age. The findings parallel those in a similar report issued the same day by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Although other agencies, including the city health department and the CDC, used death certificates to track COVID since early in the pandemic, the state Health Department did not follow suit. In 2021, the Health Department turned down the Empire Center’s request for complete death data, including deaths outside institutions. It claimed that state law declares ‘no certified death record shall be subject to disclosure’ under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. That was a misquote of Public Health Law Section 4174, which actually says ‘no certified copy or certified transcript of a death record shall be subject to disclosure’ (emphasis added). The center was requesting tabular data based on death records — the same type of information the Health Department is disclosing now — not certified copies or transcripts of individual certificates.”
While it’s good that the state DOH has adjusted its listing to reflect a fuller picture of what occurred, this is a reminder of how a public health agency mishandled the situation. Lives are at stake during health care crises, and it’s not acceptable to have state authorities present a false picture of how we’re being affected. We need to demand better.
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