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Audit confirms DOH was ill-prepared to respond, undercounted COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli released an audit yesterday that found the state Department of Health (DOH) was ill-prepared to respond to infectious disease outbreaks at nursing home pre-pandemic and underreported COVID-19 death counts at the behest of the Executive.

The audit released on Tuesday, March 15 found that chronic lack of funding for public health over the past decade “forced DOH to operate without critical information systems and staff that could have identified and helped limit the spread of COVID-19 at nursing homes.”

The state DOH was also slow to respond to a federal directive to conduct surveys of nursing homes for infection control problems, surveying a mere 20% of facilities between March 23 and May 30, 2020, says the audit report.

The audit also confirms some of the findings in NY Attorney General Letitia James’ earlier report, including that DOH “understated the number of nursing home deaths due to COVID-19 by at least 4,100, and at times during the pandemic by more than 50%,” according to the Office of the State Comptroller’s press release.

It states the DOH became “entangled” in underreporting COVID-19 death counts as the Executive took control of information released to the public.

RELATED: REPORT: New York may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths by 50%

The actual number of New York nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 is still unknown.

“Our audit findings are extremely troubling. The public was misled by those at the highest level of state government through distortion and suppression of the facts when New Yorkers deserved the truth,” said DiNapoli. “The pandemic is not over, and I am hopeful the current administration will make changes to improve accountability and protect lives. An important step would be for DOH to provide the families who lost loved ones with answers as to the actual number of nursing homes residents who died. These families are still grieving, and they deserve no less.”

The press release also notes the DOH impeded the audit by delaying requested data, limiting auditors’ contact with program staff, failing to provided supporting documentation, and not answering questions posed by auditors during meetings.

“This audit affirms many of the findings that we uncovered last year about the state’s response to COVID, most notably that DOH and the former governor undercounted the number of deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50 percent,” said James in a press release. “I am grateful to Comptroller DiNapoli for bringing much needed transparency to this critical issue. My office will continue to monitor nursing home conditions and ensure the safety of our most vulnerable residents. If anyone has concerns about nursing home conditions, I urge them to contact my office.”

Attorney General James is urging anyone with information or concerns about nursing home conditions to file a complaint online or by calling (833) 249-8499.