Nearly one quarter of New York state’s COVID-19 victims have died in nursing homes and psychiatric facilities — and yet, the death toll is likely much higher as some homes purposefully underreport their deaths, experts allege.
“I’ve gotten phone calls from children of people at facilities who were told affirmatively that there were no deaths at the facility, and it just wasn’t true,” said John Dalli, a Brooklyn-based attorney who specializes in elder abuse. “[Reporting] is not being done with these COVID deaths. They’re just not doing it.”
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities must disclose the number of residents who die from the novel coronavirus — or who they suspect died of the virus — to the state’s Department of Health, according to an April 17 executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Failure to accurately report these numbers can result in a $2,000 fine per unreported death, the revocation of the facility’s license, or even criminal prosecution, Cuomo said on May 1.
However, insiders claim that the Health Department’s reliance on self-reported numbers allows facilities to vastly underreport fatalities.
At the 271-bed King David Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Gravesend, administrators have disclosed three confirmed COVID-19 deaths and two suspected fatalities, according to the state’s official tally.
But some families have accused the center’s staff of leaving deceased coronavirus victims in their beds and failing to notify families and authorities of the deaths, according to a group of local politicians, who wrote a letter to the home’s administrators blasting them for a “complete abdication” of their responsibilities.
“We have heard reports that your facility has left deceased residents in their bed, transferred patients to hospitals without notifying their families, and failed to report the number of COVID-positive cases at the King David Center to the health authorities,” wrote Congressman Max Rose, State Senator Diane Savino, and Councilmen Mark Treyger and Justin Brannan on May 6.
Oceanview Manor Home for Adults on W. 33rd Street in Coney Island faces similar accusations. The facility has reported no deaths to the state — and neither have any other facilities owned by Oceanview’s parent company, Gefen Senior Care.
Dalli, however, said that he’s heard of at least two residents who have died at the psychiatric home, according to his clients.
“I know of at least two families who have lost loved ones at Oceanview Manor,” he said, alleging that the home failed to notify families about the outbreak. “They were not told about any COVID-positive residents or deaths … but later learned that there were deaths.”
Representatives from Gefen Senior Care did not respond to a request for comment about the accusations.
Some nursing homes lower their death toll by categorizing likely COVID-19 deaths as pneumonia-related because of a lack of testing, Coney Island Councilman Mark Treyger said nursing home staffers told him.
“Because they had a lack of testing and doctors, they just diagnose people with pneumonia,” he said. “When you don’t have access to tests, it gives them this loophole.”
The Health Department’s loose guidelines also contribute to the lowered death count by not requiring nursing homes to report deaths that occurred outside the facility, Treyger added.
“It’s not clear to me if they’re distinguishing residents that they transferred to the hospital and died there from residents at the facility who died from the virus,” said Treyger, whose Coney Island district includes Oceanview Manor. “And we don’t know if they’re required to report retroactively.”
Some families plan to sue the homes for their allegedly subpar care, but a provision Cuomo quietly included in the state’s budget bill in late March safeguards homes from most lawsuits during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuomo’s aides say the measure allows the homes — as well as hospitals and other healthcare facilities — to stay afloat during the crisis, but Dalli argues that the move, which was encouraged by the influential nursing home lobby, reduces accountability.
“Unless a resident can prove gross negligence occurred in the nursing home, the nursing home is not going to be held legally responsible for any of these deaths,” he said.
A representative for the Allure Group, which operates the King David Center, said that the home is following state regulations and has done everything in its power to stop the spread of the virus.
“We are following all federal, state and city regulations as they evolve with respect to treating and reporting COVID-19 cases which includes a daily report to the NYS Dept. of Health,” said Richard Brum. “We will continue to follow the reporting requirements to the letter of the law.”
Many critics concede that the homes faced an uphill battle with the virus, and blame their high death rates primarily on Cuomo’s March 25th executive order mandating that nursing homes can’t turn away residents who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“They were forced to take patients without testing them,” said Daniel Arbeeny, a Cobble Hill resident whose father died from COVID-19, which he most likely contracted at the Cobble Hill Health Center. “They were dealt a bad deck of cards.”
Cuomo effectively redacted the rule on May 10 following criticism.