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Cuomo's health commissioner faces questions from lawmakers over nursing home policy

Aug 3, 2020

The New York State Legislature on Monday held the first of two hearings on the thousands of COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents.

Questions to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, focused on a controversial March 25 directive that required nursing homes to take back COVID-19 patients from hospitals.

Critics of the policy, which continued from late March until mid-May, include right-leaning Republicans as well as some progressive Democrats in the Legislature. They say it led to unnecessary deaths, as nursing home residents readmitted to the homes may have spread the virus to other sick and vulnerable residents.

Zucker began his testimony by repeating the results of a recent study released by the health department, which determined that the virus was actually brought into the homes earlier than previously thought, in late February, by asymptomatic staff and visitors. He pointed to data that shows the disease peaked in nursing homes on April 8, but did not reach its high point in hospitals until April 14, one week later.

“It is unfortunate. It is sad. But it is true,” Zucker said. “Ninety-eight percent of nursing homes already had COVID in their nursing homes, and those are the facts.”

Critics have said that the study lacks a key data point, though: the number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 while they were in the hospital. They say without that information, it’s not possible to determine whether the report’s conclusion is true, and if the over 6,500 nursing home deaths reported so far could actually be much higher.

Sen. James Skoufis, who chairs the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, asked Zucker if he could provide those numbers.

“Are we talking with the hospital deaths, 8,000, 10,000, 15,000?” Skoufis asked. “What are we looking at?”

Zucker answered that he’s not ready to do so yet.

“I’m not prepared to give you a specific number,” Zucker told lawmakers. “When the data comes in, and I have an opportunity to piece through it, then I’ll be happy to provide that data to you and to the other members of the committee.”

Skoufis said he’s puzzled that the numbers are not yet available, after seeing Zucker participate in several months of daily coronavirus briefings with Cuomo that emphasized their reliance on science and data.

“It perplexes me that an administration that has prided itself, and rightfully so, over these past five months for making data-driven decisions,” Skoufis said, “that you don’t have this fundamental information.”

Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera questioned Zucker about the early days of the pandemic, when the health department was reporting the number of nursing home resident deaths due to the virus in hospitals. That policy was later reversed.

“And then at one point, you stopped doing that,” Rivera said. “Is that correct or incorrect?”

Zucker told Rivera that the state stopped counting the nursing home residents who died of the virus in hospitals because health officials worried that they would mistakenly be “counted twice.”

Rivera was not convinced.

“Nobody says that you went into these nursing homes and threw people off a flight of stairs,” said Rivera, who added that the information is essential for making better decisions about the health and safety of nursing home residents and staff going forward.

“It seems, sir, that in this case you are choosing to define it differently so that you can look better,” said Rivera. “And that is a problem.”

Zucker answered that the administration has been “incredibly transparent” throughout its reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.

Republicans on the committees, who are in the minority parties in both houses, said they were dissatisfied with what they called Zucker’s “empty testimony,” and called on the Legislature to use its subpoena powers to get more answers.

The hearings continued throughout the day Monday. A second day of testimony is scheduled for Aug. 10.