By Nick Reisman City of Albany
Last year, Danny Arbeeny’s father died after contracting COVID-19 while living in a nursing home. The report released on Thursday by Attorney General Letitia James on nursing home deaths provides a modicum of closure after a dark year.
“It brings a sense of peace to me and so many of the other COVID orphans who we have gotten to know now,” Arbeeny said.
Arbeeny’s father was among the thousands of New York nursing home residents who likely contracted COVID-19 in a long-term care facility, but died in a hospital.
His death was not included in an official nursing home death toll maintained by New York. The attorney general’s investigated surveyed 62 nursing homes in New York — concluding that in many instances nursing home residents contracted COVID-19, but later died in a hospital and led to an undercount.
For nearly a year, New York heath officials have not released the full death toll in nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, something family members of those who have died in nursing homes have called for to get more disclosure of why their loved ones.
On Thursday, Attorney General Letitia James in a bombshell investigation found the state had been underreporting those deaths by as much as 50% — a key claim Health Commissioner Howard Zucker denies.
Marcella Goheen, whose husband is in a nursing home, says the discussion over numbers should not make people forget the lives that have been lost.
“Every person that lives in a nursing home counts as a person, as a human being and as a human right, a civil right and a disability right to be cared for,” she said. “When COVID entered the scene and infiltrated these places, I think what happened is what everybody is saying is happening: Nobody knew what to do.”
Advocates for nursing home residents and greater oversight were not surprised by the report, which also examined under staffing and a lack of personal protective equipment in the early days of the pandemic last March.
“The fact that there is such a big discrepancy between the reporting of the DOH and what the attorney general’s office found is disconcerting, but it’s not a surprise,” said Maria Alvarez, the executive director of the Statewide Senior Action Council. “These were things we saw in the newspaper and saw all along.”
The report highlighted the need for boosting oversight, including the state’s ombudsman program for inspections, Alvarez said.
Industry officials like Stephen Hanse of the New York Health Facilities Association say nursing homes and long-term care centers are safe for family members and residents.
“The levels of protections and safeguards that are being implemented by providers in partnership with the state, individuals can feel very safe in our facilities,” Hanse said.
But for family members like Danny Arbeeny, questions remain over why nursing homes were required to take in COVID positive patients — questions he says could avoid more pain in the future for those with loved ones in nursing homes.
Parts of the James report largely backed up the Cuomo administration’s public statements on a March 25 discharge order: The state was adhering to federal guidelines, and statutory protections are in place — statements seized on by Zucker’s statement.
“What happened and how did they come to this very unscientific and deadly decision,” Arbeeny said, “so that this never happens again.”