Nearly half of Western New Yorkers dead of COVID-19 are nursing home residents, according to data released by the New York State Department of Health Monday.
Thirty-four Western New York nursing homes residents, including 29 in Erie County, have died of the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus as of Sunday. Western New York’s eight counties had publicly reported only 73 total deaths as of Sunday. That means of all Western New York COVID-19 deaths, about 46% are nursing home residents.
The numbers confirm what public health officials have warned since the pandemic began: nursing homes are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
“It's extremely sad, but it's not surprising,” said Lindsay Heckler, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo. “When you have many people with high medical needs and multiple comorbidities, this is the population that is, quite frankly, most vulnerable to this virus.”
The state Department of Health reported over the weekend that nearly 2,000 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 statewide and that more than half of the state’s approximately 620 nursing homes have had residents or staff test positive for COVID-19.
It released counties’ individual death statistics Monday amid increasing calls for more transparency. However, even after the release of the data Monday, many families and advocates of nursing home residents still feel the state still isn’t being transparent enough.
“It really is just the first step to what is needed in order to fully disclose what is going on in our state's nursing homes,” Heckler said.
Heckler feels the state should disclose the number of deaths at each nursing home in the state, as well as the number of total cases at each nursing home.
“Disclosing this information really is a public health necessity,” she said. “And it's important in order to properly gauge the problem, what is going on in our nursing homes, raise awareness to the issues, but also direct needed resources to nursing homes.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has argued that disclosing the number of COVID-19 cases at a specific nursing home would violate HIPAA, the federal government's health care privacy law.
Heckler disagrees. She said although nursing homes are residents’ homes, disclosing the number of cases there “doesn’t really infringe on the right to privacy.”
Plus, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced April 2 it’s partially suspending HIPAA enforcement, as not to punish any “good faith uses and disclosures of protected health information."
A few nursing homes have chosen to publicly disclose their COVID-19 numbers. Father Baker Manor in Orchard Park announced last week that 41 residents have tested positive, while Wyoming County Skilled Nursing Facility in Warsaw has confirmed five total cases and three deaths, two of which occurred this weekend.
Although believing the public should know which nursing homes have cases, Heckler noted having cases does not necessarily guarantee a nursing home neglected its infection control policies.
“Because one of the challenges with COVID-19 is people can be asymptomatic but spreading the virus,” she explained. “So unless they had a way and widespread means to do rapid tests of every staff member … odds are you may miss someone who may have the virus but aren't displaying the symptoms.”
In addition to counties’ nursing home deaths, the state also released counties’ adult care facility deaths. Western New York had four adult care facility deaths as of Sunday, according to the data, including one in Erie County and three in Niagara County.
The state’s rollout of the data was anything but smooth.
It initially only reported the number of nursing home and adult care facility residents who died in a nursing home or adult care facility, discounting another nearly 1,400 residents who died in a hospital or hospice care. After reporters called attention to this, the state released data to include all nursing home and adult care residents who died of COVID-19, regardless of where they died.
The state data also falsely reported that 30 adult care facility residents had died in Wyoming County, despite the fact Wyoming County has reported only three total deaths. After WBFO called attention to this, the state issued a corrected data file showing that zero adult care facility residents had died in Wyoming County.
While nursing home residents account for about 46% of Western New York’s COVID-19 deaths, nursing home residents account for only about 19% of the state’s total 10,056 deaths.
New York state represents many of the nursing home deaths nationwide. NBC News tallied 2,246 COVID-19 deaths associated with nursing homes in 24 states on Saturday, with nearly 60% of those deaths occurring in New York.
Heckler is concerned that even those numbers may be underreported. The state’s data only includes nursing home residents who actually tested positive for COVID-19 before they died, confirmed state Department of Health spokesperson Jeffrey Hammond in an email.
“So what about the people who have (died), but were not tested?” Heckler said.