Gov. Andrew Cuomo with Melissa DeRosa and Commissioner of Health Howard Zucker at a briefing in summer 2020. Photo: Governor's office Flickr

The State Department of Health lacked transparency and misled the public during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an audit report released yesterday by the State Comptroller’s Office.

Instead of providing accurate and reliable information during a public health emergency, the report says, the health department conformed its presentation of data and information to the narrative then being advanced by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, his top aides, and former health commissioner Howard Zucker, the report concludes.

As a result, the audit says, the health department understated the number of deaths at nursing homes by as much as 50%, failing to publicly account for about 4,100 deaths between April 2020 and February 2021 — at a time when the Cuomo administration was under increasing scrutiny over his administration’s reporting on nursing home deaths and whether the data was being intentionally concealed or manipulated. The administration had internal data showing 13,147 nursing home deaths were reported as of Feb. 3, 2021, but it publicly reported only 9,076 deaths, the audit states.

“The Department’s reporting of COVID-19–related nursing home deaths throughout the pandemic has consistently lacked transparency, and was at times inaccurate, inconsistent, incomplete and/or not amenable to analysis,” according to the report.

For almost a year, the department “frequently changed its basis for the public reporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes…with virtually no explanation publicly as to why it changed,” the report says.

The comptroller’s audit determined that 13,919 nursing home residents died due to COVID-19 between March 4, 2020 and May 23, 2021. Nearly 70% of those deaths occurred during the first wave of the pandemic — between March 4 and July 15, 2020. As of yesterday. 15,360 nursing home residents in N.Y. had died due to COVID-19, according to state data.

The audit report presents similar findings to those reported in January 2021 by N.Y. Attorney General Letitia James.

“Our audit findings are extremely troubling,” State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a statement.

“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,” DiNapoli said.

The 41-page report also says the health department was not fully cooperative with the audit.

“We experienced delays during the audit, with requests for information languishing at times for months,” the audit report states. “Further, Department officials frequently would not answer our questions posed during scheduled meetings, and instead asked us to submit our questions in writing afterward, to be answered at a later date.”

The health department would not provide auditors with a breakdown by name of the nursing home residents who died from COVID-19, and the actual number of nursing home residents who died is still uncertain, the comptroller’s office said in a statement yesterday.

“The pandemic is not over, and I am hopeful the current administration will make changes to improve accountability and protect lives,” DiNapoli said yesterday. “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 audit also revealed that, on many key indicators, New York significantly trailed other states in surveying nursing homes and developing strategies to stop infections from spreading in facilities.

Related coverage: As coronavirus began to escalate, state officials ordered nursing homes to accept COVID patients (April 17, 2020.)

The state agency was not prepared to respond to the crisis in the most effective way, according to the audit. It lacked effective data and information systems and an established system of proactive infection control reviews for congregate care facilities.

It also lacked the resources for “rapid and sustained public health interventions,” including surveillance and the infection control and mitigation efforts necessary to curtail transmission of the virus, according to the report.

The department’s inability to effectively prepare for and respond to the crisis may have been the result of “persistent underinvestment in public health over the last decade,” the comptroller’s report says.

The comptroller’s office faulted the health department for a failure to broadly analyze available data, coming from different sources, to detect interfaculty outbreaks.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.