Is the Erie County Health Department being transparent about COVID-19 in nursing homes?

Posted at 6:28 PM, Dec 09, 2020

ERIE COUNTY, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Erie County Department of Health reported 58.5% of COVID related deaths in Erie County from the beginning of November to December 4th came from nursing homes or assisted livings.

“I think everybody has a right to know how our most vulnerable population is doing,” Karim Abdulla, a member of Finnerty Osterreicher and Abdulla and expert on Freedom of Information Law, said.

The 7 Eyewitness News I-Team submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Erie County Department of Health asking for:

  • A week by week list COVID-19 positive rates above 5% for individual Erie County nursing homes and assisted livings from March 16th to November 25th and how many residents tested positive out of the total residing there
  • How many COVID positive Erie County nursing home and assisted living residents died from March 16th to November 25th including date the individual died and the nursing home and assisted living where they resided

The Health Department acknowledged the request on December 3rd, saying "Due to circumstances beyond our control, we may need up to 120 business days to complete this request."

By law, a public agency has only 20 days to provide the information or deny the request unless there is a specific reason for the delay.

“In this case, as far as I know, it doesn't seem like the agency has provided you with a specific reason that the records can't be provided,” Abdullah said.

Abdullah said this delay is a reason for concern.

"Whenever we see a lack of transparency on behalf of government agencies, we're concerned," Abdulla said.

Erie County Health Commsisioner Dr. Gale Burstein has at least some of the information readily available. On Monday, she revealed 58.5% of COVID related deaths since November have come from congregate living facilities.

“As of this past Friday, 100 of the 171 COVID associated deaths that have occurred since November involve people living in congregate living facilities, so that would be nursing homes, assisted livings, health care facilities,” Dr. Burstein said Monday.

“It does seem to be strange that they are able to present this information to the public on one hand, but claim to not be able to provide it to you except after 120 days,” Abdulla said.

The Erie County Health Department has also started sending information about nursing homes with positive rates above 5% to the Erie County Legislature, which is the same information the I-Team has requested.

Republican Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo said making that happen wasn't easy.

“So finally there was pressure put on the administration not only from the media, but then the entire legislature passed a resolution requiring them to provide that data to us in a timely fashion. It still took about three weeks before they got us any information,” Lorigo said.

But that's not the only data the legislator asked the Department of Health to provide.

"“We have asked for information going back several months... We have asked for information regarding nursing homes. We've asked for information regarding overall deaths. They tell us they don't have it. We know that they do. They just refuse to share it,” Lorigo said.

If you have concerns about a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living, or have lost a love one due to a COVID-19 outbreak in a nursing home or assisted living, email 7 Eyewitness News I-Team reporter Olivia Proia at olivia.proia@wkbw.com.