Nursing home families still in the dark after Gov. Cuomo’s COVID disaster

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s now-notorious decision to force nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients was based neither on science nor common sense. Even back then, we knew as much — and rushed to remove our 89-year-old father, Norman Arbeeny, from his nursing home in Brooklyn. Already infected, he died at home on April 21, 2020.

We need answers: substantive, accurate accounting.

Science back then told us that a COVID-positive patient was infecting about three others. Meanwhile, Cuomo claimed a year ago — falsely, we now know — that some 6,000 COVID patients were sent into nursing homes. So we extrapolated then that the total extra nursing home death tally could be as high as 18,000.

Yet as recently as a few months ago, the Cuomo administration was still wrongly reporting only approximately 6,500 deaths. In reality, 9,000 COVID-positive patients were discharged into nursing homes; the true nursing home death toll as a result of Cuomo’s order is closer to a staggering 15,000.

In January 2021, state Attorney General Letitia James proved grieving families like ours correct with a report concluding that the Cuomo administration had concealed the true count of COVID deaths in nursing homes by up to 50 percent. Even the “corrected” tally fails to include patients like our father, who caught COVID in a nursing home but died at home.

Government omission is betrayal of trust.

This is the Empire State’s latter-day Watergate. Only in this cover-up, thousands died. Cuomo’s betrayal will require an all-of-government response from our statewide elected officials, lest public confidence never be repaired. Obviously, we can’t rely on Cuomo. Our attorney general has taken some action, and our US senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are focused on federal pandemic relief.

That leaves one powerful statewide official who has been missing in action.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is independently elected and has the authority to audit and hold accountable state and local government. His mission is transparency and to seek the truth wherever it leads. Unfortunately, DiNapoli has declined to assert this power during the pandemic. In fact, he has conducted not one audit of any substantive COVID-related issue, let alone of the nursing home scandal that resulted in the deaths of thousands of New Yorkers.

In May 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic, after the governor had issued and rescinded his deadly nursing home directive, DiNapoli decided to audit equine health and safety. One of DiNapoli’s latest audits is of parking fine collections in the Big Apple. This week, he did officially request that the attorney general investigate the governor’s grotesque book deal, for which we commend him.

However, he punted the nursing home investigation back to James, stating that nothing prevents her from investigating potential criminal violations and that a referral from his office is unnecessary. Even an unnecessary yet symbolic referral would have been a meaningful response for the thousands of New Yorkers who lost loved ones in nursing homes. And why hasn’t he done any of his own audits into any of these matters?

If DiNapoli wants to get in the game and do his job to seek the truth, he needs to probe the origins of the March 25, 2020, nursing home order, including all communications of outside parties who took part. He also needs to uncover whether the 600 nursing homes were equipped to accept COVID-positive patients and, if not, why.

We need to know who tallied the state Department of Health’s nursing home COVID death count data, and exactly what the agency knew when. We also need the number of nursing home discharges who, like our father, caught COVID in a nursing home but later died at home.

Along the way, DiNapoli should look into the credible claims that Cuomo lined up COVID testing for family and other connected people during the initial months of the pandemic. The taxpayers deserve to know these names.

Last March, I cried on the phone with the state Health Department to be approved for a COVID test, while the well-connected were getting house calls. The state comptroller’s audit authority is vast and powerful and needs to be used to seek the truth.

DiNapoli needs to do his job and make sure our father and thousands of other New Yorkers’ deaths will finally be counted.

Daniel and Peter Arbeeny are fifth-generation residents of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

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