Editorial | New York failing nursing home patients during COVID-19 pandemic, and beyond

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in New York
Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) wheel a man out of the Cobble Hill Health Center nursing home during an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Like an iceberg, the most damning details of Attorney General Letitia James’ report on COVID-19 nursing home resident deaths in New York lie below the surface of the most prominent points. 

The state Health Department, as James reported, undercounted the COVID-19 fatalities in New York — a subject that opponents of Governor Andrew Cuomo have tried to weaponize against him in recent months. The report also found that the state’s own guidance for admitting COVID-19 positive patients into nursing homes may have contributed to the spread. 

It may be tempting for cynical partisans to read the report and cry out “I told you so!”, but not so fast. The fact that the undercounting happened isn’t necessarily evidence of criminal wrongdoing — at least not yet. 

In many ways, the findings about the nursing homes themselves are far more horrific. 

Too many facilities, according to James, did not comply with infection protocols — which caused a rapid spread of the illness among staff and patients. Workers lacked the proper PPE and testing. 

The lowest-rated nursing homes, under U.S. Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services Staffing reviews, had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths. The current state reimbursement system, James noted, also allowed unscrupulous nursing home owners to financially profit off the pandemic rather than focus on protecting their clients and workers.

James’ report must propel an effort to hold those responsible for this situation to account, and to dramatically reform the New York nursing care industry, across the board. 

State lawmakers should pursue an independent investigation into state COVID-19 policy as well as the actions of nursing homes during the pandemic. The attorney general should continue her investigation and, where appropriate, seek civil or criminal legal action.

Finally, Albany lawmakers must pass in this session comprehensive nursing home reform that sets higher safety standards and eliminates the ability of unscrupulous operators to make a quick buck off minimal standards of care. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, horrific as it has been, has also proved enlightening in exposing long-ignored societal problems. It’s launched movements to finally end societal inequality that has festered for generations, and blunted progress. 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we would realize that New York has been failing the most vulnerable New Yorkers for years. 

We must now confront that inconvenient truth, and take the needed measures to prevent future tragedies.