Official grilled on nursing home deaths

Courtesy of the state Department of HealthState Health Department Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker delivers a briefing in Manhattan on July 6 on the department’s report following an investigation into controversy surrounding the state’s COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and adult-care facilities.

ALBANY — Unknown facts about the new coronavirus COVID-19 mainly contributed to the thousands of state virus deaths in nursing homes and adult-care facilities, state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said during a Legislature hearing Monday.

Bipartisan lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly put Zucker in the hot seat Monday during the first in a series of public hearings on New York’s handling of COVID-19 in adult-care facilities.

Several Democrats and Republicans in the Health, Aging and Investigations and Government Operations committees questioned Zucker for several hours Monday about more than 6,300 people who died in New York nursing homes in connection to COVID-19. The fatalities in adult care facilities count for about 25% of the state’s 25,172 deaths to date.

At the start of Monday’s hearing, Zucker, with state Department of Financial Services Deputy Superintendent and Special Counsel Gareth Rhodes, gave a presentation summarizing the Health Department’s July 6 report on the COVID-19 fatalities in adult-care facilities, which found staff and visitors brought the virus into adult-care facilities. The state released the self-published Health Department report last month amid mounting calls by state and federal lawmakers for an investigation of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes.

“Of the 310 nursing homes that admitted COVID patients from hospitals, 304 already had COVID in their facility,” Zucker said. “It’s unfortunate, it is sad, but 98% of nursing homes already had COVID in their nursing homes.

“COVID-19 is a new disease,” Zucker added. “Early on, we did not know how widespread it was in our communities.”

More than 101,000 residents live in one of 613 nursing-home or adult-care facilities in the state. About 37,000 nursing home staff — or 24% of the state’s nursing home workforce — were infected with COVID-19 by mid-May.

Nursing home staff first reported having COVID-19 symptoms Feb. 24, Zucker said, which is before the state developed a COVID-19 test.

“Let’s stand at that moment in time,” Zucker said. “Back then, we were not even screening for symptoms yet. Testing was not available. The extent asymptomatic individuals could transmit disease was not fully known in March.”

The virus arrived in New York after more than 3 million European travelers landed in state airports between January and March. The unknown community transmission combined with insufficient testing at the start of the pandemic were detrimental to adult-care facilities, which house the most at-risk patients.

“With health already compromised by age and underlying conditions they [nursing home residents] died in numbers that are too high to bear,” Zucker said. “As we learn more about COVID-19, we will learn more facts, but we will always make the decisions based on the scientific data available at the time.”

Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, said the Legislature needs to get to the bottom of what happened with the state’s COVID-19 response in nursing homes.

“It’s inexcusable,” he added.

State Sen. Robert Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, said in a statement that Senate Republicans renewed calls for the Senate to use its subpoena power.

“Today, the Senate Republican Conference came to get real answers for our families, but the Department of Health commissioner came without any data and simply parroted the official story line of the Cuomo Administration,” Ortt said. “We again renew our call to use the Senate’s subpoena power, which enables us to obtain records and vital testimony from any person in the DOH and the Cuomo Administration involved in this so we can finally get the answers New Yorkers deserve.”

Officials and lawmakers have criticized a March 25 Health Department memo that mandated nursing homes cannot discriminate against residents by not readmitting people who test positive for the coronavirus, saying infected nursing home patients brought the virus with them when they returned to the facility, or home, to recover.

Several lawmakers asked Zucker how many New York nursing home residents died in state hospitals. Zucker declined to give a figure several times, saying he did not have an accurate number with him. The commissioner would not provide an estimate.

“I need to be sure it’s accurate,” he said. “I’m not prepared to give you a specific number. I need to be sure that information is accurate and correct.”

Lawmakers questioned Zucker about the confusion in the memo language, which stated residents cannot be denied re-entry into a nursing home — their home — based on a medical diagnosis such as contracting COVID-19.

“I know it seems like semantics, but it’s not,” the commissioner said. “‘No resident shall be denied’ does not equal ‘not accept.’”

Zucker, on Monday and through the past month, repeatedly called the March 25 memo controversy part of a “false narrative.”

Nursing home fatalities peaked April 8 — the same as the rest of the state — but preceded a spike in nursing home patients with COVID-19 entering New York hospitals. Hospital admissions peaked April 14. April 8 marks 23 days after the peak of first nursing home infections among staff, Zucker said.

“If the March 25 guidance is the main driver in deaths... the peak in admissions preceded the deaths, but it happened the other way around,” Zucker said. “When you look at the curve when the admissions of residents was increasing, the deaths were decreasing. It contradicts the false narrative circulating the March 25 memo.”

The March 25 memo remains in effect.

The state performed 1,300 inspections of nursing homes throughout the pandemic, or more than one inspection per facility, and gave adult-care facilities 14 million pieces of personal protective equipment including gloves, gowns, face shields and masks.

The hearing will continue at 10 a.m. Aug. 10.

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