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State health department study: Asymptomatic staff likely brought virus into nursing homes

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker issued a report Monday on the likely cause of deaths from COVID-19 in New York’s nursing homes that he said shows the virus came in through infected staff, not through hospital readmissions.

The study comes as Governor Andrew Cuomo canceled the state fair and said he could not guarantee that schools will reopen in the fall.

Cuomo has been criticized for a March 25 directive that required nursing homes to accept residents with COVID-19 back from hospitals.

Zucker presented data that indicates, through antibody tests, that the virus might actually have come from asymptomatic staff, and it might have been present earlier than anyone initially thought, as early as mid- to late February. About a quarter of the state’s 158,000 nursing home employees got the virus this spring. Also, visitors were still permitted at nursing homes until mid-March.

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Zucker said the peak of deaths in nursing homes that were most affected by the virus corresponded with high death rates in their surrounding communities.

And he said the timing of the deaths show that the hospital readmission could not have been the driver for increased infections at nursing homes. The number of deaths at the homes reached its highest point on April 8, a week before the death rates peaked at hospitals on April 14. He said if admissions were driving the fatalities, the order of the peak deaths and peak admissions would have been reversed.

Zucker also said when nursing home residents were returned from the hospitals to the homes, most were no longer contagious.

"The data shows that the nursing home residents got COVID from the staff and presumably also those who visited them,” Zucker said.

The health commissioner said no one understood the disease early on or realized how widespread it was in the community.

“And therefore, it was able to be introduced into a vulnerable population,” he said.

Zucker said the staff is not to blame for unintentionally bringing in the infections, and he said current policy is to test all nursing home employees for the coronavirus each week.

Cuomo, speaking at his own briefing Monday, blamed the federal government for not alerting the nation to the presence of the virus in the United States earlier, so that preventive measures could have been taken sooner. And he said critics of his past nursing home policies are promoting a “political conspiracy theory.”

“It has no basis in fact,” Cuomo said. “It was pure politics and it was ugly politics.”

The March 25 order for nursing homes to accept infected residents back from hospitals was rescinded on May 10. The governor’s chief of staff, Melissa DeRosa, said that was done out of “an abundance of caution,” and she said at that time, the health department had not yet gathered data about the health of nursing home staff.

“We still didn’t know then what we know now,” DeRosa said.

The Senate Republican Minority Leader, Robert Ortt, is calling for an independent investigation on what he calls the “botched” March 125th directive. He says the report shows a “failure” by Cuomo to “to accept responsibility for their disastrous response”. And he says its “outrageous” to blame family members, who he says have suffered devastating losses, for bringing in the virus.

The governor also announced that the State Fair will not be held this year. Cuomo has invested in the fair’s infrastructure and promoted the event during his nine years in office. He said he’s greatly disappointed, but believes it would be unsafe to hold it now.

“That makes me personally very unhappy, but that is where we are,” the governor said.

Cuomo said he’s still not certain whether schools will reopen in the fall, though he is asking the state’s over 700 school districts to come up with plans for full or partial reopening under various scenarios.

“Every school district is coming up with a plan to reopen. That doesn’t mean they are reopening,” Cuomo said. “When we get the data, we will make a decision.”

The governor said he does not believe it is yet safe to permit indoor dining in New York City, or to allow malls, theaters and gyms to open statewide. He said his team is looking into how to refit air conditioning systems and air filters that could make the spaces safer and more protective against harmful droplets of the virus lingering in the enclosed spaces.

Cuomo said the growing infection rate in many other states is “frightening” and warns that if New Yorkers don’t follow the rules to wear masks and to social distance, the virus could spread again in the state.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.