The New York Daily News published an op-ed from New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli today. The full op-ed is below:
New York City just marked the two-year anniversary of the first confirmed death from COVID-19 and the start of the pandemic that we are still trying to recover from economically and emotionally. Part of that recovery is a reckoning with how we responded to it.
My office’s recent audit examines how the state Department of Health (DOH) collected and used data from nursing homes to curb the virus’ spread. DOH was not prepared when the COVID-19 pandemic reached New York. It didn’t have the controls and procedures in place to stop a viral spread in nursing homes. Persistent underinvestment in public health has left DOH without critical resources and underequipped to deal with events such as the pandemic.
Early in the pandemic, as the virus rapidly spread, DOH’s poor data collection undercounted — by more than 50% at times — the COVID-related deaths of New Yorkers living in nursing homes. DOH staff was working tirelessly, but from April 12, 2020, to Feb. 3, 2021, the agency used alternating ways of reporting nursing home deaths with little public explanation. Over those 10 months, it failed to report at least 4,100 lives lost to COVID-19.
When it finally got a handle on tracking COVID nursing home deaths, and knew the correct numbers, the numbers continued to be underreported.
The public was misled by the highest level of state government and given a distorted version of reality that suppressed facts when they deserved the truth. It is unacceptable that we still don’t know just how many nursing home residents died.
Besides not being prepared, DOH was slow to carry out the federal government’s order that it assess whether nursing homes were keeping residents out of harm’s way. As we learned, many did not.
The agency surveyed just 20% of facilities between March 23 and May 30, 2020, compared to more than 90% in some other states. It had to hire temporary employees to do the surveys because it was understaffed.
When DOH did get to work and identified the various problems and violations at nursing homes, it issued 602 violations. My audit, however, could find no evidence that the majority of these problems (69%) were actually fixed.
This is a fundamental problem that goes beyond COVID to broader infection control. When DOH collects data, it is not using it to ensure problems are corrected and that outbreaks, regional trends or emerging infectious diseases are detected and tracked.
Crisis brought New Yorkers together after 9/11 and during the COVID pandemic. Our appreciation for one another is deeper in stressful times. We applauded the heroism of the doctors, nurses, EMTs, and all frontline workers from the subway system to the corner deli who kept our city going.
But we also have to reckon with what we did wrong or we risk endangering New Yorkers’ lives by repeating those mistakes in the future.
Of the New Yorkers who died from the COVID-19 virus, more than 15,000 of them were living in nursing homes.
Some today choose to smear those who report the facts as playing politics but nothing could be further from the truth. Families who were misled about their loved one’s deaths don’t care about politics. They want to finally get to the truth and some honest answers.
New York needs to heal and move forward. My recent audit hopefully helps fill in some of the missing facts in that story.
As we move forward, we need to recognize that New York has to do a better job of caring for and protecting vulnerable people, including nursing home residents. This is just the latest audit to find shortfalls and problems with these facilities. Since most residents of nursing homes are seniors, this also highlights shortcomings with how society services its older members.
Whether it’s programs that deliver meals to the housebound or how seniors’ complaints about their care and conditions are handled, the public services seniors rely on need greater priority and attention statewide.
That means making sure that resources are there to fix the problems that exist.
President Biden in February called on Congress to provide additional funding to support health and safety inspections at nursing homes. I am urging our congressional representatives to support this initiative. These funds could significantly help DOH improve its data systems and examine workforce needs and help local county health departments, who are critical in helping the agency respond to outbreaks and curb the spread of infection.
We need to increase resources to expand the use of infection control data to improve our response to the ongoing pandemic and future public health crises. I hope our current administration, including new leadership at the DOH, respond positively to our recommendations. We must avoid a repeat of past tragedies and learn from the mistakes of the worst of the COVID experience.