ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10)- The COVID-19 pandemic was especially tough for people with a family member or friend in a nursing home and for nursing home residents themselves. With visitation limited to keep vulnerable nursing home residents from being exposed to COVID, people resorted to unique ways of staying in touch with their loved ones.

Oftentimes family or friends act as nursing home residents’ advocates. Talking to aides, nurses, doctors, administration, and filing complaints on their behalf. The COVID pandemic affected many things but the New York State Department of Health (DOH) said it did not affect the number of nursing home complaints it received, according to DOH Deputy Director of Communications, Jeff Hammond.

In the past four to five years the DOH received an average of 11,000-13,000 nursing home complaints annually. During pandemic years, they received 11,705 complaints in 2020 and 12,840 in 2021. Both years were within the average range of years prior to the pandemic.

Complaints rarely lead to a citation. The DOH received 51,919 nursing home complaints from Feb. 1, 2018, to Jan. 31, 2020, according to the DOH’s NYS Health Profiles, resulting in 10,395 inspections. Just 4.5% of initial complaints (2,325) lead to a citation.

Unfortunately, COVID has prompted many health care workers to leave their positions, or health care altogether. Unlike doctors’ offices, hospitals, and outpatient health facilities, where employee numbers have rebounded, the American Health Care Association (AHCA) and National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL) said employees aren’t returning to long-term care employers.

From February 2020 to January 2022 hospital employment fell 2% and home health employment fell 1.7%. Employment in physician offices and outpatient care sites grew by 2.2% and 1.1% respectively. But nursing home employment dropped by 15% (238,000 employees), and assisted living dropped by 6.7%.

The need for long-term health care workers could affect the kind of care residents receive. Hammond wants people to know the DOH has many tools to help New Yorkers compare nursing homes, in addition to being able to file a formal complaint. The DOH also has a guide to help people choose a nursing home that’s right for them.

Nursing home profiles are available on the DOH’s NYS Health Profiles website. The site provides information about all nursing homes in the state including rankings for care, resident safety, complaints received by the DOH, and citations. Citations, as well as actions taken by the facility, are available in detail.

People should feel comfortable filing a complaint against a nursing home, Hammond said. The DOH protects the identity of anyone who submits a complaint and follows up on all complaints, prioritizing those about more serious allegations. They also notify people who file a complaint of the outcomes and/or actions taken.

Complaints can be filed online through the DOH’s NYS Health Profiles website. They can also be made through the Centralized Complaint Intake center by calling 1-888-201-4563