ALBANY — New York’s biggest concentration of COVID-19 deaths has come at state-licensed nursing homes — though the state has so far opted to keep a lid on the identity of the specific facilities.
A total of 860 New Yorkers have died from the virus at nursing homes since the pandemic reached the state five weeks ago, according to new state data.
And while the Cuomo administration in recent days enhanced the amount of data it makes available to the public regarding virus infections, the state Department of Health is so refraining from identifying the specific nursing homes where the contagion has taken lives.
The tally of infections at nursing homes and prisons — both representing places where scores of people live in close quarters — is growing daily, just as the state’s overall death toll is also mounting.
Total statewide deaths so far stood at 5,489 Tuesday, April 8, up 731 in one day — the highest number of fatalities since the first death last month.
However, late Tuesday, New York City officials said it counted 806 fatalities alone in the city’s five boroughs over the previous 24 hours, portending another alarming increase in deaths when the statewide data is updated Wednesday.
Though state officials imposed bans on visits to nursing home patients to curb the spread, patient deaths have now been recorded at nearly 300 facilities across the state. State Health Department officials say they are not revealing the locations of the homes because to do so could violate patient privacy rights.
But Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said it is in the interests of patient safety and public health to make such information available to the public.
“There is no privacy issue here, because we don’t want to know individual identifying information,” he said. “We don’t want to know the names of the patients who died. We want statistics. And if you tell us that people at Nursing Home XYZ died, that doesn’t tell us who they were.”
“I think families of nursing home residents have a legitimate interest in the COVID-19 situation at a given nursing home,” said the veteran lawmaker, who is also an attorney. “I’m sure no nursing home wants to be in the paper as to how many patients have died there from coronavirus. But people have a legitimate right to know.”
In some instances, local health officials have confirmed numbers of infections at specific homes. The Times Herald Record newspaper reported last week that Orange County has five nursing homes where patients have tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday, the Buffalo News reported 41 patients at Father Baker Manor, an Orchard Park nursing home, are being treated for COVID-19 infections after the statistic was announced by Catholic Health officials.
Michael Burgess, the former commissioner of the state Office on Aging, expressed surprise that state officials were keeping private the identities of nursing homes where residents have tested positive.
“We should be fostering the release of us much information as we can,” Burgess told CNHI. “It is strange that the state isn’t providing more information.”
A new online toolbar released by the state Department of Health offers a more data-rich package of COVID-19 deaths, infections and number of tests administered than what had been previously available, with daily updates and a breakdown of age ranges of those who have tested positive.
The Cuomo administration is planning to add racial and ethnic demographic information once it acquires it from local coroners, according to Melissa DeRosa, secretary to the governor.
Advocates for inmates with geriatric inmates and those with significant health problems are also calling for more data to be released from the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, the agency that oversees both the prison and parole systems.
While DOCCS does make daily updates available on the number of staffers and inmates who have been infected or are being quarantined, it has avoided disclosing the locations of the prisons involved.
Dave George, associate director for Release Aging People in Prison Campaign, said more complete data is crucial because “COVID-19 impacts hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives intersect every day with the state prison system.”
“Public health officials have been pretty clear in saying prisons and nursing homes are two of the worst places for this virus to live because it spread so rapidly across a population that is particularly vulnerable,” George said.
As of Tuesday, 319 DOCCS employees have confirmed cases of the virus, while 55 inmates and 15 parolees have tested positive, agency officials said.
How much data is released by county governments is determined by those municipalities, though they also feed the state’s data collection efforts. Some counties are identifying the towns, villages or cities where those who test positive reside, while others do not.
Lissa Harris, a journalist who has been reporting on the pandemic in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills for an online news site called The River, said while she is pleased the state has beefed up its demographic data, “I still have a lot of questions about what it means.
“How is it decided what county to put a case into?” she said, suggesting counties may not be acknowledging all confirmed positive test results in their jurisdictions. “How is reporting (data) different between counties, and are they getting consistent guidance on that from the state? How are suspected COVID-19 deaths handled for people that haven’t been tested?”
The data made available by the Department of Health revealed 61% of the New Yorkers who have died from the virus are males. The total number of people statewide who have tested positive stood at 138,863, or 40.3% of the 340,058 individuals who have been tested.
Of the fatalities, people ages 29 or less represented less than one percent of the total. Nearly two out of three of those who have died from the infection have been at least 70 years old, the state data shows.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, significantly altered his planned executive order to have National Guard soldiers take up to 20% of the supply of ventilators and other equipment kept by upstate hospitals and move them downstate.
“In the executive order issued today, there is no longer a 20% requirement, it was written as ‘may’ and not ‘shall,’ and will not be managed by the National Guard and instead coordinated by the Department of Health working with the support of the Hospital Association of New York State,” Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Saratoga County, said in a statement.
She suggested bipartisan opposition caused Cuomo to retreat from his initial plan.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.