Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner sweated out a grilling by state lawmakers Monday on the state’s controversial policy compelling nursing homes to take on coronavirus-positive seniors at the height of the pandemic.
“Death was present and harrowing in New York State’s nursing homes,” said state Senate Investigations Committee Chair James Skoufis, noting that the facilities have seen over 6,000 pandemic-related deaths.
“Governor Cuomo has rightly described the virus ripping through nursing homes as ‘a fire through dry grass,’ ” continued Skoufis (D-Hudson Valley). “It’s now up to the Legislature to determine who lit the match and understand how and why the fire fanned out.”
First to try to account for the tragic toll was state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, who signed off on the now-infamous March 25 directive barring nursing homes from turning away the coronavirus-positive.
“The false narrative is that COVID-positive residents brought into the nursing homes were from the hospitals,” Zucker testified.
“The facts show that 310 nursing homes admitted COVID-positive patients from hospitals, and of those 310, 304 already had COVID in their facility,” he continued, citing data found in review published last month by the DOH.
“It is unfortunate, it is sad,” Zucker said. “But it is true. Ninety-eight percent of nursing homes already had COVID … and those are the facts.”
While deflecting blame from the Cuomo administration, Zucker said that it was important to get to the bottom of the surging deaths.
“When we saw the rise in nursing home deaths, like so many other states I kept asking myself: what happened, what happened?” he said. “It matters to prevent it from happening again and it matters to bring closure to all those families who lost somebody.”
While Cuomo has frequently painted criticism over the policy as a partisan issue, some of the most blistering fastballs Zucker faced were hurled by Democratic lawmakers.
Much ire was voiced over inconsistencies in the DOH’s data reporting, including the department’s decision to stop reporting nursing home resident deaths occurring in hospitals midway through the pandemic, in May.
“It’s my opinion that your administration’s definition truly misrepresents the scale of this crisis as a result. So let’s try and get the full picture here and now: how many of New York’s nursing home residents died in hospitals?” asked Skoufis.
An evasive Zucker refused to be pinned down on a hard number, citing a “need to be sure it’s absolutely accurate.”
Pressed Skoufis, “You don’t have a ballpark that you can give? So the total official number is about 6,500. Are we talking with the hospital deaths: 8,000? 10,000? 15,000? What are we looking at?”
Zucker again declined to commit.
“I’m not prepared to give you a specific number. We are in the middle of a pandemic obviously, we always forget about that sometimes,” he said. “We are looking at all the numbers, we are looking at the data, when the data comes in and I have an opportunity to piece through that, then I will be happy to provide that data to you and to the other members of the committee.”
State Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-The Bronx) was even more critical.
“None of us is trying to castigate y’all here for the very difficult work that had to be done,” he said. “But it seems to me that patting ourselves on the back for victory is a little bit far-fetched, considering that we have still more deaths than anyone else in the country, both in nursing homes and overall deaths.
“The concern here, sir, is it seems that that definition you have to admit that maybe you never will that the fact that the definition was changed, that the report at a certain date included those numbers and then afterward did not, it seems that what y’all are doing is just trying to minimize.”
Zucker defended his agency.
“We have been incredibly transparent on information,” he said. “I will not provide information unless I am sure it’s absolutely accurate and out there.”
Rivera was unswayed.
“It seems sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so you can look better,” he said. “That is a problem.”
Others who testified Monday included representatives from downstate facilities, including Neil Heyman of the Southern New York Association, and Michael Balboni of the Greater New York Health Care Facilities Association.
“This pandemic has shown the world that the ability to provide real time information as to the threat and spread of this virus, supply the necessary personal protective equipment and help design surge staffing, was sorely lacking….because we had never done this before,” Balboni explained to lawmakers.
A second hearing focusing on upstate facilities is slated for Aug. 10.