New data released by the New York State Department of Health revealed that the Ambassador of Scarsdale, an assisted living facility on Saxon Woods Road, recorded 19 confirmed COVID-19 deaths — the most fatalities out of the 142 assisted living facilities in the state.
The new statewide data, which includes deaths of nursing home and assisted living facility residents who were transferred to hospitals before dying, was released after the Department of Health was court ordered to comply with a Freedom of Information Law request from the Empire Center, a New York-based think tank.
According to a statement issued on Feb. 13 by Jean Dunphy, president of the Ambassador, the assisted living facility experienced its first COVID-19 death on March 31, 2020. By the end of the following month, the death toll at the Ambassador had risen to 19. According to Dunphy, they contained the virus within the facility within approximately 25 days. She said there have been no positive COVID-19 cases or deaths since April 2020.
Although the DOH is reporting 19 deaths at the Ambassador, according to Dunphy’s statement, 18 residents at the facility died, which included nine residents in hospice care and nine residents off-site. Dunphy did not respond to questions about this discrepancy by press time.
A phone interview that was scheduled between the Inquirer and Dunphy for Tuesday, Feb. 16, was canceled by Dunphy 15 minutes prior. She cited the need to oversee administering 250 vaccines and has not returned any more messages from the Inquirer as of press time.
In a previous article in the Inquirer [“Family members, seniors cope with isolation, stress at senior living facility,” May 1, 2020], the Ambassador didn’t respond to an April 27 request regarding how many seniors at the facility had been stricken with or died due to COVID-19.
According to the New York State Department of Health, the Ambassador has 138 beds, including 39 enhanced assisted living residence beds and 22 special needs assisted living residence beds. It is unknown how many of the 138 beds at the facility were occupied in March-April 2020, but if they were operating at full capacity, then 13.7% of the Ambassador’s residents died due to COVID-19.
At the Ambassador, 9 of the 19 confirmed deaths were residents who were transported and died outside of the facility, meaning almost half of the residents who died at the Ambassador did so after being moved out by emergency personnel. According to data from the DOH, residents who died outside of their assisted living facility did so in a “hospital-other.”
The Ambassador accounted for 14% of overall deaths at assisted living facilities in Westchester County and 2% in the state. According to the COVID Tracking Project, although less than 1% of the American population lives in long-term care facilities, residents in the facilities account for 36% of COVID-19 deaths nationwide.
The Birchwood Suites in Suffolk County, the Atria Park of Great Neck in Nassau County and The Bristal at Lynbrook in Nassau County weren’t far behind the Ambassador, each with 18 deaths recorded as of Feb. 15.
Dunphy wrote that the Ambassador requested an on-site inspection in early 2020. The inspection was carried out and approved by Dr. Snigdha Vallabhaneni, an infectious disease specialist from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in March. When contacted by the Inquirer, Vallabhaneni said questions needed to be forwarded to the Department of Health (DOH) per CDC procedures. The DOH didn’t respond to questions as of press time.
As reported previously in the Inquirer, the Ambassador requested families not to visit loved ones beginning March 4, 2020, and residents were being kept in isolation for their own protection.
In late March 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration directed nursing homes and assisted living facilities to return residents stricken with coronavirus in hospitals to their respective facilities. The thought process was to open up hospital bed capacity, which was being strained as the virus began to spread. On March 13, 2020, Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released guidance that nursing homes could accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals as long as the facility was able to follow CDC guidance for transmission-based precautions. The CDC released similar guidance a week later.
In her statement, Dunphy wrote that the large number of reported deaths was due to the facility accepting residents back to the Ambassador for hospice care, which she said was “inevitable,” given that the facility provided end-of-life care.
She wrote that the facility was staying in line with a directive from the DOH to return residents in hospitals back to their assisted living facility in order to expand hospital capacity.
“On paper, that number looks relatively high, assuming all care facilities reported as required, which is yet unclear, but paper is not what counts here,” wrote Dunphy, referencing the facility’s high death rate. “Our residents, our loved ones count, and we went beyond the extra mile. We gave refuge and care when others could not. We offered deep humanity when the world was in turmoil. We are grateful to have a team that was willing to make enormous sacrifices, turn up for others in a time of immense uncertainty and face an enormous battle.”
But according to a 37-page report released by the New York State Department of Health (last revised on Feb. 11, 2021), it pinned 37,500 nursing home staff members for spreading the virus within their own facilities and not on the state administration’s directive to bring back residents from the hospital.
According to Dunphy, the Ambassador’s COVID-19 positivity percentage among employees was 0.06% with four employees having tested positive and 6,175 COVID-19 tests conducted on employees.
More recently, Cuomo’s administration has come under fire for allegedly withholding the full scope of the state’s nursing home and assisted living facilities death statistics.
In August 2020, the New York State Legislature questioned DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker regarding COVID-19 and nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Later that month, the Legislature sent a letter to the DOH seeking additional comments.
In January, New York State Attorney General Letitia James issued a 76-page report on nursing homes during the pandemic, which suggested that COVID-19 nursing home resident deaths appeared to be undercounted by the DOH by approximately 50%.
Last week, a tape obtained by the New York Post reported that Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, told democratic lawmakers that the governor’s office “froze” after receiving a letter from President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) for an investigation into nursing home deaths. She went on to say the administration was worried that the data they planned to provide the DOJ and the state was “going to be used against us.”
After media reports began circulating on the call, DeRosa issued a statement explaining that the administration had informed the Legislature that they needed to focus on the DOJ’s inquiry before fulfilling the Legislature’s request, which was why there was a delay in providing information.
“Crucial information should never be withheld from entities that are empowered to pursue oversight. This was always about getting the truth and allowing information to guide our response,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who represents the 35th Senate District which includes Scarsdale, said in a press release. “That is why we had multiple hearings and another hearing scheduled for this month. And why we requested this information in the first place. Politics should not be part of this tragic pandemic and our responses to it must be led by policy, not politics.”
During a press conference on Feb. 12, Cuomo accepted blame for not providing information in a timely fashion, which exacerbated “skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories, which furthered the confusion.”
“To be clear, all the deaths in the nursing homes and in the hospitals were always fully publicly and accurately reported,” he said. “The numbers were the numbers, always.”