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Audit finds NY health department understated the number of COVID nursing home deaths

 New York State Tom DiNapoli in Hudson, NY
Ashley Hupfl
Ashley Hupfl
New York State Tom DiNapoli in Hudson, NY

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyday life in New York, a new report finds the state Department of Health was unprepared to respond to disease outbreaks in nursing homes – and undercounted the number of COVID-19 deaths there. New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a Democrat, released the auditTuesday night, saying a “persistent lack of funding for public health over the last decade forced DOH to operate without critical information systems and staff” that could have identified and limited the spread of COVID in nursing homes.

DiNapoli’s report also finds the Department of Health didn’t provide accurate COVID-19 death counts to the public and “became entangled in the undercounting of those deaths” as then-Governor Andrew Cuomo took control of information provided to the public.

The audit also finds the Department of Health understated the number of nursing homes from COVID by 4,100, and by more than 50 percent at some points during the pandemic. The DOH was unable to explain the discrepancies, according to DiNapoli.

DiNapoli also finds the Department of Health was slow to respond to a federal directive to survey nursing homes for infection control problems during the pandemic. And he says the department didn’t adequately use the data it collects to detect emerging infectious diseases or shape disease control policies.

DiNapoli recommends the Executive Chamber improve internal control, cooperation with state oversight inquiries, external reporting and communication. It is now run by Governor Kathy Hochul — who replaced Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, in August when he resigned over a raft of scandals including his handling of the pandemic.

The Department of Health agreed with some of the recommendations but took exception to parts of the audit.

State Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat, said in a statement that DiNapoli “affirms many of the findings that we uncovered last year about the state’s response to COVID, most notably that DOH and the former governor undercounted the number of deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent.”

Cuomo has denied undercounting the COVID deaths and said his administration was following federal guidance. He says investigations into the matter were politically motivated.

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Ian Pickus