EDITORIAL: Lawmakers need accurate figures on covid nursing home deaths

Lawmakers challenge health commissioner on count
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Monday

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

If you don’t know how bad a problem is, it’s difficult to come up with a solution for it.

So it’s understandable why state lawmakers were frustrated with the testimony of state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker on Monday during the first of two scheduled legislative hearings on the nursing home crisis in the state.

One of the greatest tragedies of the coronavirus pandemic has been the number of deaths that have occurred in nursing homes and long-term health facilities, where a heavy concentration of vulnerable elderly and infirm reside.

At issue is the number of people the state lists as having died at nursing homes due to the virus. The state lists the number at around 6,500. But that number doesn’t include patients who were transferred from nursing homes to hospitals, where they later died.

Adding those in could add hundreds or thousands of deaths to the tally.

Lawmakers and health professionals need accurate figures to determine the sources of covid infections and deaths to make policy and law, and to reach conclusions about whether current staffing and health protections at nursing homes are adequate.

An accurate number also would help lawmakers do a better job evaluating the Cuomo administration’s response to the crisis and help them better direct funding and legislation to where it’s most needed.

Lawmakers accused Zucker of trying to downplay the nursing home deaths.

Downplaying the number of deaths to keep the governor’s numbers artificially low is straight out of the Trump “more testing means more cases” playbook.

It’s dishonest and unhelpful.

Zucker said he just didn’t want to confuse people by combining nursing home deaths and hospital deaths, perhaps counting some patients twice and skewing the numbers.

But other states, including California, somehow manage to separate the numbers without creating confusion.

Would it really be that difficult to list numbers of deaths in nursing homes, number of deaths of nursing home patients after being transferred to hospitals, and the total number of hospital deaths with and without nursing home figures included? Would it be that confusing?

Zucker said he would eventually get the numbers for lawmakers. The question, then, is why didn’t he have them available Monday. He knew he would be asked about them. Another stall tactic? 

The citizens need to trust their government to manage this crisis.

Honesty in reporting the scope of the problem is the key to that trust — and to coming up with effective solutions that save lives.

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