More than 600 residents have died from COVID-19 at 25 New York City nursing homes that received clean bills of health for controlling the spread of infections, state Department of Health inspection reports obtained by THE CITY show.

Those facilities include homes with some of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the nation — including the Sapphire Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Flushing, which reports 54 residents died of confirmed or presumed COVID.

THE CITY obtained 35 out of the 79 reports the state Department of Health says it has conducted with a focus on infection control after coronavirus arrived in New York. The city has 173 nursing homes in total.

An April 2 inspection at Sapphire, which has 227 beds, found the Queens facility in compliance with infection-control regulations.

Two weeks later, a second review — after families spoke out about the spread of illness between roommates and rooms — again determined “the facility was in substantial compliance,” with zero deficiencies.

At the Franklin Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, also in Flushing, 60 residents — nearly one in five — succumbed to the virus. Its May 4 inspection report found no problems.

Also passing its May 11 infection-control inspection was New York State Veterans Home in St. Albans, Queens. Staff there previously told THE CITY that the state Health Department-run home failed to separate COVID-positive and uninfected residents, something that was a violation at other facilities.

Caregivers at the veterans’ home have identified 48 dead since the start of the outbreak. The officially reported coronavirus toll there is still 35. (See chart below for more inspection results.)

The management of the homes did not respond to requests for comment.

“It’s very shocking that at the apex of this pandemic, our inspectors went in and reported that that there’s nothing out of the ordinary when it’s clear that the infection rate had spread,” said Assemblymember Ron Kim (D-Queens), whose district includes Sapphire and the Franklin Center.

After family members of Sapphire residents had complained about conditions there, he contacted the governor’s office and called for a state inspection. Despite repeated requests, Kim said he never received the results.

“Anyone with loved ones stuck in nursing homes know first-hand that there is something wrong going on,” he said.

Needed Distance

In all, the state Department of Health says it has conducted 79 such inspections in the five boroughs as the coronavirus rampaged through nursing homes — claiming 2,450 lives so far in New York City long-term care facilities, by the city health department’s count.

The inspections come after federal health officials in early March ordered state health departments to ensure that facilities followed infection-control rules.

Only 10 of the 35 reports reviewed by THE CITY found violations, including failure to wear masks, social distance or separate infected roommates from uninfected ones.

The results so far disappointed a leading nursing home watchdog.

“Based on the reality of the pandemic and how it impacted the nursing homes sector, I thought that some of these reports would have come back differently,” said Deirdre Garrett-Scott, director of the New York City area’s state long term care ombudsman program, a federally funded consumer advocacy group for nursing home residents.

In some cases outside New York City, inspections have been conducted entirely or partially by video chat. Using this technology increases the number of investigations that can be conducted concurrently, a state Department of Health official said. The department is also investigating more than 2,700 complaints against nursing homes across the state.

DOH would not respond to questions about how many nursing home inspectors the state employs. A job posting on the department’s website recruiting registered nurses describes what the work involves and says the department “has an ongoing need for persons qualified for appointment to these positions and will accept applications at any time.”

In special instructions to state inspectors, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires that at least some part of the inspections must be conducted on site, said Toby Edelman, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

“How could they see what is really happening if they are depending on someone to pick what is seen?” she said. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Risky Conduct Caught

Infection control violations that inspectors did find at New York City nursing homes included:

• Staff members who didn’t change their personal protective equipment between patients

• Employees gathered without keeping at least six feet apart, as well as residents insufficiently distanced from one other

• Residents with COVID-19 who were not separated from those who didn’t have it

• Residents and staff who were not wearing face masks to reduce their risk of infection

Some facilities were additionally cited for failing to report to a federal database the COVID-related deaths of residents in the nursing home or who were transferred to hospitals and died there.

In a few cases, DOH gave nursing homes a deadline for providing a plan to correct and prevent the violations, letters reviewed by THE CITY indicate.

In addition to inspections, DOH says it has contacted every nursing home with suspected or positive COVID-19 cases, and holds conference calls with long term care provider association twice a week.

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