The vacancy rate in New York’s nursing homes has more than doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that the death toll among residents may be thousands higher than officially reported.

According to the state Health Department’s weekly census of nursing homes, 21 percent of nursing home beds were vacant as of May 20, up from an average of 8 percent over the previous two years.


This is an installment in a special series of #NYCoronavirus chronicles by Empire Center analysts, focused on New York’s state and local policy response to the coronavirus pandemic.


That 13-point increase suggests that the total number of nursing home residents across the state, which is normally about 100,000, had declined by roughly 13,000 in the space of nine weeks.

That’s more than double the official count of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, which was 5,710 through May 20 and stood at 6,260 as of Sunday.

Not all of the newly empty beds can be directly attributed to coronavirus. Nursing home officials report that new admissions have slowed dramatically during the crisis – due to a general decline in medical care and concern among patients and family members about conditions in the homes. This means that patients who die from any cause are less likely to be replaced.

Source: NYS Health Department

Yet it’s clear that the state is undercounting nursing home deaths, because it instructs homes to report only patients who die within their facilities, not those who are transported to a hospital first.

How much difference that policy makes can be seen by comparing the state’s numbers with weekly data collected by the federal Centers for Disease Control, which counts the deaths of all nursing home residents regardless of where they occur.

The CDC’s first round of reports on May 24 are not useful for comparison because the agency allowed homes to retroactively include all deaths since Jan. 1, but did not require it. Reports since then have counted only deaths in the previous week.

From May 24 to June 14, the CDC tallied 656 deaths attributed to coronavirus in New York nursing homes, or just over one-third of all patient deaths during that period. The state’s count of COVID fatalities during those same weeks was only 383 – implying that 42 percent of the patients counted by the CDC had been transferred to hospitals before they died.

If that same ratio has held throughout the crisis, the true toll of coronavirus in New York’s nursing homes would be almost double the state’s official number, or more than 10,000.

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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