ALBANY, New York – A third-party auditor will review New York state government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including efforts by the previous governor’s administration to downplay the number of deaths among nursing home residents.
The state plans to select an auditor who will have to submit a final report by the end of 2023, according to a schedule released Tuesday by the office of current Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat. Initial findings are expected in May.
The report will include planning guidance for future emergencies and examine issues from transferring patients to nursing homes to reopening schools and businesses to efforts to purchase needed medical supplies.
The governor, who is running for his first full term in November and won the recent Democratic gubernatorial primary in June, pledged in mid-March to eventually launch a review of the state’s response to COVID-19.
Critics, including Republicans and Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, said the Hochul administration waited too long to launch an investigation.
Hochul’s spokeswoman, Hazel Crampton-Hayes, said the timing of the investigation was unrelated to politics.
“New Yorkers who have lived through being at the epicenter of a global pandemic, lost loved ones and endured economic hardship deserve thoughtful, meaningful and independent after-action review, and we will not rush this important work to the political calendar.” Crampton-Hayes said in a statement.
Several state agencies have already examined New York’s response to the pandemic — including an ongoing investigation into nursing homes led by state Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat.
It is not clear what new information this probe may reveal. The auditor would not have subpoena powers, for example. That contrasts with an investigation led by James into sexual harassment allegations against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat.
The auditor will also report directly to Hochul’s office.
“In this regard, the flow of information is controlled by the governor’s office, not an independent commission,” said John Daly, an elder abuse attorney.
The Democratic-led Legislature failed to approve a bill to create a bipartisan subpoena committee to examine New York’s response to COVID-19 in nursing homes.
Kim said auditors should examine the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, including the impact of the Cuomo administration’s efforts to conceal the death toll by excluding deaths outside the facility.
That total excludes the deaths of more than 4,000 New Yorkers, according to numbers released by the state in January 2021 after a damning attorney general’s report. The James report also found that a lack of infection control in nursing homes puts residents at increased risk of disability.
What “was the intent behind hiding the exact death toll that prevented lawmakers from intervening sooner on behalf of their panicked constituents?” Kim, the Queens lawmaker who said his uncle died of suspected COVID-19 at a New York nursing home, it said in a statement.
Cuomo and his administration have used this incomplete data to falsely claim that New York’s rate of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents is among the lowest in the country. A March report by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli called that claim “misleading” and said Cuomo officials should have known his data was not comparable to other states that include non-hospital deaths.
Kim also wants a review of a March 2020 directive that barred nursing homes from turning away recovering coronavirus patients discharged from hospitals.
The James report found that the directive “may have contributed to an increased risk of nursing home infection and subsequent deaths.”
But James said the state needs more data and analysis to conclusively prove such a link.
Kim said auditors should investigate a state law that gives nursing homes and hospitals one of the nation’s broadest legal protections from both lawsuits and criminal prosecution.
Meanwhile, DiNapoli found that “persistent underinvestment in public health” may have hampered New York’s pandemic response as local and state health agencies struggle with inadequate staffing.
Hospitals, fearing supply shortages in the spring of 2020, have instituted policies in some cases requiring the use of one surgical mask for a week.
In early 2020, as concerns about COVID-19 grew, Zucker repeatedly assured the public that New York City had sufficient supplies of medical supplies.
But an AP review of government spending reports found that Zucker’s agency didn’t begin spending well above average on medical supplies until March 19, when spending jumped from $1.6 million to $9 million.
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External review planned for New York City’s response to COVID-19
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