Although less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives in long-term care facilities, nursing home residents accounted for at least 32 percent of the country’s coronavirus-related deaths as of May 2021. Experts at the Atlantic’s Covid Tracking Project estimate that because of unreported deaths from the earliest part of the pandemic, non-standardized state reporting, and limited federal reporting requirements, the true number is even higher.
In addition to these existing data collection problems, top officials in the New York governor’s office deliberately pushed the state’s health department to undercount coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes. In January 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report alleging that the state’s practice of only counting those who died on nursing home property led to deaths being undercounted by as much as 50 percent.
Less than a month later, in a leaked recording, Melissa DeRosa, one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top aides, acknowledged that the governor’s office “froze” when the Department of Justice requested information about nursing home deaths in the summer of 2020. DeRosa also said New York officials hesitated to share data because they feared it would be used against the governor or that it would spark a Justice Department investigation. In early March, the New York Times reported that during that summer, Cuomo aides rewrote reports from state health officials, removing the number of nursing home residents who had died from Covid-19. The health department did not release more complete data until February 2021.
Cuomo’s aides had also, according to a later Times article, blocked state health officials’ attempts to release an accurate count of nursing home deaths for at least five months. This obstruction included not publishing a scientific paper that stated that nursing home residents had accounted for “approximately 35 percent” of all coronavirus-related deaths in New York through the end of May 2020, instead releasing a version of the report that claimed the figure was only 21 percent.
American Oversight is investigating the actions taken by Cuomo’s aides to thwart transparency about New York’s pandemic response, and has sent requests to the state’s Department of Health, Department of Financial Services, and Office of the Governor requesting communications of Cuomo’s aides. We also sent requests to New York and New Jersey’s health departments asking for guidance and communications related to the spread of the pandemic in nursing homes.