The state Health Department released a flurry of 20 COVID-related data sets this week, taking its biggest step yet toward full transparency about the state’s pandemic response.

The records were released on Monday to the Empire Center under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). They provide new details on a range of topics, including:

  • Infections and deaths among home care recipients,
  • Equipment and supply purchases totaling almost $900 million,
  • Vaccination rates by age, sex and race,
  • The availability of hospital and intensive care beds as waves rose and fell,
  • Testing results from public and private schools during the 2020-21 academic year, and
  • Forms used by contact tracers for interviewing and monitoring infected individuals.

The center is posting pandemic records as it receives them on the Data & Statistics page of its website.

In hopes of shining more light on a public health crisis that has killed 58,000 New Yorkers, the Empire Center filed 62 pandemic-related FOIL requests with the Health Department in June. The department initially responded to most of those requests with stalling tactics that had become notorious under former Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the delays continued after Governor Hochul took office in August.

Last month, the Empire Center appealed the postponement of 32 requests, arguing that the department was taking too long to respond and failing to commit to a deadline as the law requires. Instead of denying those appeals as it had in the past, the department chose instead to release most of the data in question – a concrete sign that the Hochul administration is being more forthcoming with pandemic records.

The process is not over. The state has denied or limited some requests on grounds that the Empire Center considers invalid and intends to challenge. Much of what it did release is incomplete or heavily redacted in the name of protecting medical privacy. Some requests were referred to other agencies that have not yet responded.

Still, the Health Department has provided definitive responses to all but one of its pending requests, as follows:

  • Records provided – 43
    • Complete: 15
    • With redactions: 15
    • Incomplete or partial: 9
    • Incorrect: 1
    • Records to be provided gradually through early January: 2
    • In the mail: 1
  • Denied – 14
    • No records available: 6
    • “Not accessible through FOIL”: 4
    • Confidential by law: 2
    • Request overly broad: 1
    • Request requires unreasonable effort: 1
  • Pending – 5
    • With the Health Department: 1
    • With other agencies: 4

By issuing decisions instead of repeatedly postponing action – which was the pattern in the past – the department has paved the way for potentially closing gaps in the public record through negotiation and compromise instead of litigation.

Probably the most serious shortcoming of the department’s reporting involves the pandemic’s grimmest benchmark: deaths.

The Hochul administration has acknowledged an overall COVID toll of more than 58,000, but – in a continuation of a policy set by Cuomo – it provides the dates and locations only for the 46,000 deaths that occurred in hospitals and nursing homes and were laboratory-confirmed.

The center requested an accounting by date and ZIP code of all COVID-related deaths, including those that occurred outside of institutions and without a laboratory test. The department denied the request, saying, in part: “The DOH does not compile the data by zip code because doing so would produce data too granular for publication. In other words, compiling the dataset by zip code would produce numbers small enough to potentially identify individuals.”

The center believes the department should be able to provide more data by ZIP code level, as New York City already does. If that is not feasible, however, it should be publishing a complete accounting of deaths using a less specific location, such as county of residence.

Another key gap in the public record concerns infections among nursing homes employees in the late winter and early spring of 2020, when the pandemic was at its peak.

In a controversial July 2020 report, the department argued that high death rates among nursing home residents in April could be tied to infections unwittingly carried into the facilities by staff members in March. Officials bolstered that argument with data gathered in a survey of nursing homes, but they used that data selectively and misleadingly.

That report was part of what became a months-long misinformation campaign about the pandemic in New York nursing homes that contributed to Cuomo’s political downfall.

Fully releasing the results of that survey is crucial to setting the record straight – and drawing the right lessons from last year’s tragedy.

About the Author

Bill Hammond

As the Empire Center’s senior fellow for health policy, Bill Hammond tracks fast-moving developments in New York’s massive health care industry, with a focus on how decisions made in Albany and Washington affect the well-being of patients, providers, taxpayers and the state’s economy.

Read more by Bill Hammond

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