Over 4,300 people who were recovering from coronavirus were sent to nursing homes under a New York Health Department directive, possibly accelerating outbreaks in those institutions that claimed over 5,800 nursing and adult care facilities throughout the state, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
Much remains unknown about the coronavirus, but that the elderly are particularly vulnerable to the virus is one of the few things that was definitively demonstrated early in the pandemic. The New York directive was the “single dumbest decision anyone could make if they wanted to kill people,” Daniel Arbeeny, who pulled his father out of a nursing home experiencing an outbreak, told the AP. “... We knew the most vulnerable—the elderly and compromised—are in nursing homes and rehab centers.” Arbeeny’s father later died.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he was following guidelines issued by Donald Trump’s administration, and he’s defended the policy of moving coronavirus patients to nursing homes to reporters by saying: “Any nursing home could just say, ‘I can’t handle a COVID person in my facility.’” He also denied any link to the surge of deaths in those facilities. As the AP noted, the order (rescinded on May 10) contained no clear instructions for institutions to reject a recovering patient with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus; it instead stated that “no resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the (nursing home) solely based” on coronavirus status. The order was implemented on March 25 and the Health Department didn’t release guidance stating homes could refuse the patients if they were unprepared to handle them until April 29, according to the AP.
The order was issued at a time when state officials, including Cuomo, were warning that hospitals in the city could become overwhelmed by an influx of people sick with the coronavirus—a situation that did arise, despite claims by some contrarians otherwise. A recent report from Vital Strategies, a nonprofit founded by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Dr. Tom Frieden, estimated that the pandemic shaved five years off New Yorkers’ life expectancy.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to say with any certainty how many of the infections were directly caused by the patient transfers or had another cause like infected employees or existing residents. But the AP cited the specific example of one nursing home that felt as though it was compelled to accept covid-19 patients, with dozens of residents later dying from the illness:
Gurwin Jewish, a 460-bed home on Long Island, seemed well-prepared for the coronavirus in early March, with movable walls to seal off hallways for the infected. But after the state order, a trickle of recovering COVID-19 patients from local hospitals turned into a flood of 58 people.
More walls were put up, but other residents nonetheless began falling sick and dying. In the end, 47 Gurwin residents died of confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
The state order “put staff and residents at great risk,” CEO Stuart Almer said. “We can’t draw a straight line from bringing in someone positive to someone catching the disease, but we’re talking about elderly, fragile and vulnerable residents.”
The Associated Press reported that their tally shows over 35,500 people have died from coronavirus outbreaks at such facilities nationally—which would blow past a third of the 95,276 confirmed deaths from the virus on the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tracker. Both numbers are likely an undercount.
According to the AP, the Health Department stated it does not currently have a tally of how many patients were transferred to nursing homes or adult care facilities under the order and has launched a survey of over 1,150 nursing homes throughout the state.
Cuomo announced an investigation of nursing homes that had failed to provide enough personal protective equipment to employees in April, though that itself followed his insistence that the state had provided adequate supplies despite that being “not our job.” Per City and State NY, executives in the nursing home industry said that they had not in fact been given nearly enough PPE to deal with the crisis and that the patient transfer order had been devastating. The Health Department additionally failed to collect data on deaths at nursing homes, leading to significant undercounting.
“They’re death pits,” former New York lieutenant governor and Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths founder Betsy McCaughey told the New York Times. “These nursing homes are already overwhelmed. They’re crowded and they’re understaffed. One Covid-positive patient in a nursing home produces carnage.”
“Cuomo has blood on his hands,” one anonymous executive from a Queens nursing home told the New York Post, adding that some of the patients had arrived alongside a box of body bags. “He really does. There’s no way to sugarcoat this. Why in the world would you be sending coronavirus patients to a nursing home, where the most vulnerable population to this disease resides?”