CAPITOL — State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was grilled at length Monday on the Cuomo administration’s policies in place at New York nursing homes as thousands of residents died of COVID-19.
Republican legislators at the state and federal level have heavily criticized Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the decisions his administration made as the death toll soared. Monday’s joint Assembly-Senate hearing featured pointed questions by both Democrats and Republicans, and Zucker batted each back in turn.
The goal of the marathon hearing Monday was to understand what happened and keep it from happening again, Sen. Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said by way of introduction.
Several other legislators gave their own statements of introduction, some of them calling for politics to not be part of the hearing, but the running criticism of the Cuomo administration’s policies was unavoidably present even when unspoken, and Zucker devoted his own introductory statement largely to defense.
The Department of Health’s order on March 25 that nursing homes not deny admission to COVID-positive patients solely because they had the virus did not cause the deaths of over 6,000 nursing home residents, Zucker said, repeating the data points of a study the state DOH conducted on itself.
Infected staff members and possibly infected friends and relatives visiting the nursing homes transmitted the virus to the fragile elderly residents who subsequently died in great number, the report concluded.
More than a dozen senators and Assembly members peppered Zucker with questions, sometimes cutting him off when he spoke of the larger picture and repeating talking points rather than providing the specific answers or details they sought.
Q: Why is the state providing a misleading death toll by not counting nursing home residents who died in hospitals?
A: We want to get accurate numbers before we report them.
Q: How about just a ballpark total?
Q: Are there any regrets about how the nursing home situation was handled?
A: The COVID crisis is still underway.
Q: Any consideration of an independent review of the situation and how it unfolded?
A: That’s a question for the future, the pandemic is still underway.
Q: If the state believes the March 25 directive did not cause nursing home deaths, why did the governor reverse that directive in May?
A: He didn’t, the March 25 directive is still in place.
Q: If infected patients didn’t cause nursing home contagion, why were isolation facilities set up for them?
A: To reserve hospital space for the feared COVID-19 surge.
Q: Why is it OK for prisons to resume visitation but not elder-care facilities?
A: To help ensure there is no resurgence of COVID-19 at nursing homes.
Q: How about allowing outdoor patient-family visits at nursing homes?
A: We’re looking at options on that.
Q: Why are you making nursing homes go 28 days without an infection before allowing visitors?
A: That’s a double incubation period, to be extra careful.
Q: Will the state analyze the disparity between infection rates in nearby nursing homes within the same community?
A: We’re always looking for data. We agree that it needs to be analyzed, but analyses must wait until the crisis is over.
Q: Is your department fully independent of the Governor’s Office?
A: No, we all work together; that collaborative approach is what has made the state’s fight against COVID so successful thus far.
Q: Is there any evidence visitors actually brought COVID into the nursing homes, and now must be barred?
A: That’s the presumption.
Q: Did you anticipate someone at this hearing would want to know the actual number of nursing home deaths?
Q: But you didn’t generate the number for us.
A: No, not until I’m sure it’s accurate.
Around the 90-minute mark, Rivera pressed Zucker on the death toll.
“In the beginning of the pandemic, nursing home patients who were admitted to hospitals who died were counted towards the deaths of that nursing home. And then at one point, you stopped doing that. Is that correct or incorrect?” Rivera asked.
“The worry,” Zucker started to say, “is you’ll wind up counting that two times —”
Rivera: “Is it that correct or incorrect? This is the crux to me.”
Zucker: “We don’t want to double-count.”
Rivera: “No other state keeps the numbers like this. Is that incorrect?”
Zucker: “The issue is there was a lot of confusion up front …”
Numerous critics have faulted the state Department of Health’s study on nursing home deaths. Above and beyond the idea of the DOH self-investigating its own policies and conduct, and concluding they were free of blame, the study never quantifies the problem — the state doesn’t know or won’t say how many people died of COVID-19 infections contracted in nursing homes or other elder-care facilities.
The study cites 6,432 deaths as tallied by the New York Times on June 27.
The DOH has made the point previously that the situation was all but untenable for several weeks as the pandemic hit New York first and hardest. An overwhelmed medical community tried and failed to keep accurate track and provide accurate daily reports to the state from 613 nursing homes amid a public health crisis on a scale not seen in 102 years.
Zucker made only passing reference to that reality Monday, instead using his time to defend the Cuomo administration’s policies and strategies in the state that has had the most COVID-19 deaths in the nation, both inside and outside nursing homes.
At one point, he explained the state’s cautious stance on allowing nursing homes to start letting visitors back in after five months, and on all the other COVID precautions some people have been chafing about.
“I am still worried every day, I am working every day on this issue, and the reality is that I don’t want it coming back to New York,” Zucker said. “And many of the questions that have been raised [here today], my answers are to make sure that this doesn’t come back to New York, or doesn’t uptick in New York.”
Another hearing is scheduled Aug. 10.