The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No, there weren’t thousands of covid deaths in New York that no one reported

What the revision to New York’s coronavirus death total means

William Samuels delivers caskets to a funeral home during the pandemic in Queens in March 2020. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
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During a Wednesday interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) — at that point on the job for less than 40 hours — announced that her state was going to provide a more accurate accounting of fatalities related to covid-19 moving forward.

“We’re now releasing more data than had been released before publicly, so people know the nursing home deaths and the hospital deaths are consistent with what’s being displayed by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention],” Hochul said. “There’s a lot of things that weren’t happening, and I’m going to make them happen. Transparency will be the hallmark of my administration.”

Intentionally or not, this was an indictment of her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, in two ways. The first was her pointed reference to the need for transparency, something that was not a hallmark of Cuomo’s time in office. That’s particularly true on this specific issue: Cuomo was roundly and justifiably criticized for trying to play down the number of covid-related deaths that had occurred at state nursing homes until New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) publicly provided a more accurate set of numbers. Until that point, nursing home death data provided by New York included only those who had died at the homes, not residents who were transferred to hospitals before succumbing.

Hochul’s decision to more accurately report all covid-related deaths in New York prompted the Associated Press to put out a breaking news alert: “New York Gov. Kathy Hochul acknowledges nearly 12,000 more deaths in the state from covid-19 than had been publicized by her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo.” This was a function, in part, of the news outlet’s Marina Villeneuve having pressed the state on its reported data last month; Hochul’s announcement resolved the discrepancy in reporting that Villeneuve had noticed.

But in part because of Cuomo’s history of trying to hide the ball on coronavirus deaths, the AP’s announcement was quickly interpreted to mean that the number of deaths from the coronavirus in New York state was actually 12,000 higher than had been known, which would mean an increase in total deaths of 28 percent. This, however, is not the case.

The important part of the AP’s announcement is the phrasing “than had been publicized.” State numbers presented on New York’s covid dashboard included only deaths reported through a state data-collection system by health care facilities, meaning deaths that occurred in hospitals or at places such as nursing homes after positive coronavirus tests. This data excluded deaths that occurred in other types of facilities or in private homes, or deaths that weren’t preceded by a confirmed coronavirus test. (The AP’s story makes this clear.)

The result is that the state tracker highlighted 43,415 deaths (as of writing) as reported through its system, while it reported 55,395 deaths to the CDC, a figure now included on the state dashboard. That’s the 12,000-death discrepancy.

Importantly, most tallies of deaths in New York already included the larger number of deaths. The Washington Post’s dashboard, for example, currently shows 53,929 deaths in New York state. The New York Times reports 53,662. The CDC’s total (broken out into the state and New York City) indicates 53,930 deaths. Those are still lower than the state totals, but not dramatically so. And, of course, these third-party figures generally lag state totals.

In other words, analyses of the effects of the pandemic on New York that used CDC data or numbers from media outlets were not compromised by the numbers reported by the state data released under Cuomo. There were not thousands of deaths that went unreported and which Hochul is now bringing to light, as was the case with James’s report on nursing home deaths. Instead, Cuomo was using a narrow definition of covid-related deaths (presumably to make his administration look better) that wasn’t the norm elsewhere.

On brand, certainly. But the shift here is largely one of transparency and directness, as Hochul said — not one of accuracy.


This article originally misspelled Marina Villeneuve's last name. It has been corrected.