ALBANY — As partisan mudslinging continues over the COVID-19 death toll in New York nursing homes, there is movement toward a review of the causes but still no firm plans for one.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top aides continue to deflect blame to the Republican Trump administration, while state and federal Republican lawmakers continue to seek a review of Cuomo’s actions.
As recently as Tuesday, the White House hammered at Cuomo on the nursing home death toll, saying his decisions caused the high death toll in New York’s nursing homes.
Cuomo’s office pushed right back, saying the state Department of Health was following federal guidelines when it made those decisions.
State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, offered a different approach this week, calling for bipartisan oversight of a nonpartisan review by independent medical experts of what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.
The proposal appears to be a nonstarter, however.
Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said a similar Republican proposal was offered as an amendment to a COVID research measure in the Assembly. Steck cast the only Democratic vote in favor of conducting the nursing home review — all other Democrats in the Democratic-controlled chamber voted against it.
“I certainly think that’s something that needs to be looked into, but given the prior vote, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Steck said Thursday.
The state Assembly leadership had made no decision on whether to hold hearings but the Senate leadership was finalizing dates late last week for two such hearings, the Buffalo News reported.
Tedisco, a minority member for 36 of his nearly 38 years in the Assembly and Senate, said he’s been able to build momentum for his proposals before, even if his name was stripped off of them, and he’s shopping around for cosponsors for this latest proposal.
“I’ve always gotten traction on ideas that have merit,” he said.
The chairman of the state Senate’s Health Committee told The Daily Gazette on Thursday that the Senate is going in a different direction from what Tedisco proposes — hearings, and it will hold them soon.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, said via email:
“I am not familiar with Senator Tedisco’s proposal, but the Senate is planning to hold hearings in the near future on how COVID-19 has impacted nursing homes and the entire long-term care community in an effort to review what governmental policies and provider practices contributed to poor outcomes, what could be done differently, and what policy changes need to be implemented to improve the experience of patients, families, and providers.”
Apprised of this, Tedisco responded:
“I appreciate the Chairman’s decision to heed my call and our conference’s call for holding legislative hearings on this issue. It’s something that I again called for this week along with my proposed legislation for a bipartisan independent investigation into the deaths of 6,200 nursing home residents so we can take the politics out of this issue and allow a commission made up of health care policy experts examine what happened. I don’t think there can be enough entities reviewing this issue and sharing conclusions for full and total transparency about the decision-making leading to the deaths of over 6,200 residents. The families deserve that. I thank Senator Rivera for agreeing to hold these hearings.”
Various round numbers are offered for the COVID death toll among New York nursing home residents, all of them higher than 6,000, which would be about a quarter of New York’s official death toll.
Just how many nursing home residents have died is hard to say.
The New York state Department of Health initially refused to provide numbers, then provided partial numbers based on partial and inaccurate data self-reported by facilities, then got more accurate data but co-mingled it with deaths not occurring in nursing homes, making an accurate total all but impossible to determine.
To this day, there is not a total number of nursing home deaths listed on the state database, just the number of deaths in dozens of counties and scores of facilities. And the nursing home death toll counts only the residents who actually died in the facility, not those who died at a hospital or relative’s home.
The number 6,200 is often presented as a total for New York nursing home deaths, exactly 25% of a total 24,800 COVID deaths statewide as of Wednesday.
The federal government says there have been about 30,000 nursing home deaths nationwide, 25% of about 120,000 COVID deaths nationwide.
An Associated Press analysis put the national nursing home death toll much higher — about 45,500 earlier this month.
An additional but much smaller number of COVID deaths have occurred in assisted living facilities and other group-living settings for the elderly, whose residents typically are healthier and less fragile than those of nursing homes.
MARCH 25 ORDER
The focal point of criticism of Cuomo is the state’s order on March 25 that nursing homes could not refuse to readmit COVID-positive residents discharged from hospitals and could not require COVID tests before readmission or admission.
Cuomo has been the highly visible leader of the state’s response to the pandemic, and opinion polls suggest he is widely appreciated for it.
Cuomo has deflected praise and credit onto the people of New York, saying it was their actions that beat back the pandemic, but he has deflected criticism as well — and seldom more often than with nursing homes.
During his now-concluded series of daily briefings, Cuomo sparred repeatedly with reporters pressing him on nursing homes, deftly evading criticism and admitting neither fault nor error.
Cuomo and top aides on June 17 told a persistent reporter that:
- They were following federal guidance with the March 25 order sending recovering COVID patients back to their nursing homes.
- That order came from the Health Department, by the way, not the governor.
- There was no consistent cause-effect relationship between nursing homes readmitting sick residents and other residents catching COVID, therefore the two aren’t not correlated.
- It’s dangerous to keep senior citizens in the hospital for two weeks after they are well enough to be discharged, as they could get sick again.
Cuomo and his aides didn’t note that:
- The governor has extensively criticized and departed from federal guidelines throughout the pandemic.
- The state Health Department doesn’t operate independently from the Governor’s Office.
- Cuomo ordered May 10 that nursing homes not readmit residents who were ready for discharge from hospitals but still tested positive for COVID.
- The May 10 order resulted in numerous elderly patients languishing in hospitals when they were ready to be discharged.
The package of nursing home pandemic safety legislation amending state Public Health Law that was approved by the Legislature in late May and signed last week (without fanfare) by Cuomo is forward-looking, Steck said. It imposes duties the facilities must carry out for the safety of their residents — submit to the state an annual pandemic emergency plan, including a communication plan with families; plans to protect staff, residents and families against infection; and plans to preserve a resident’s place at the facility if he or she is hospitalized.
The measure does not address the shortcomings of the past few months.