ALBANY — Republican senators on Monday renewed their long-running push for a deeper investigation of COVID in New York state nursing homes, and of whether the policies of then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo increased the number of deaths.
The move came three weeks after the state’s new Health Commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett, told some of the same senators she was not familiar with the Cuomo administration’s now-well known order on March 25, 2020, that nursing homes not block admission of new residents based solely on their COVID-positive status.
Bassett said Jan. 19 she would not attempt to unravel the policies and actions of the previous administration.
The senators have introduced legislation that would force her to do so, and to publicly report the results.
The state Department of Health’s response Monday:
“While the New York State Department of Health does not comment on proposed legislation, we are committed to protecting nursing home residents during this pandemic which includes supporting the vaccination and booster doses for residents and staff, ensuring facilities adhere to strong infection control measures and issuing guidance on nursing home visitation. These steps are working, as evidenced by the decrease in cases among nursing home residents.”
New York’s official death toll at elder-care facilities stood at 17,155 on Sunday, the great bulk of them (15,216) at nursing homes, which typically have a more frail population than assisted living facilities (921 deaths to date) and other adult care facilities (1,018 deaths.)
The concentration of weak elderly people living in close quarters was a deadly combination before the COVID vaccine came into widespread use; the normal seasonal flu has spread in nursing homes with similar speed and impact in some years.
Nursing home residents account for roughly 23% of all COVID deaths in New York state, but a federal survey performed several years before the pandemic showed they accounted for only about 0.5% of the state’s population.
State Sens. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, and Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, pressed Bassett during her confirmation hearing Jan. 19 to dig into the factors behind the high COVID death rate in nursing homes.
“We have to look at the past to see what mistakes were made and not do those again, see what we did right and enhance on those actions,” Tedisco said Monday. He said Cuomo had variously blamed the federal Centers for Disease Control, President Trump, hospitals and nursing homes for contagion in nursing homes but had never taken responsibility himself.
Asked Jan. 19 how she’d avoid making a mistake as commissioner without reviewing the actions of her predecessor, Bassett said she is a physician first, and would never give or follow advice to the detriment of patient health.
The two Republican senators have sponsored proposed legislation that would compel the commissioner to audit her department’s actions during the pandemic and issue a public report within 90 days on its findings and recommendations.
They also plan to propose a bill to designate March 25th as “We Care Remembrance Day.”
The Senate is firmly within Democratic control, as is the Assembly.
The nursing home death toll became a major political liability for Cuomo, earning him the scornful nickname #GrannyKiller in some circles.
Cuomo and then-Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker denied that the order of March 25, 2020, contributed to the spike in nursing home deaths but countermanded the order only seven weeks later.
The administration at first would not quantify nursing home deaths and then began publishing far-too-low numbers. Cuomo and Zucker were unfazed by criticism, essentially responding that they were providing a deliberately false total to avoid presenting an accidentally false number.
A scathing report by state Attorney General Letitia James led the Cuomo administration to raise the publicly reported death toll by 46% in late January 2021.
But that still wasn’t accurate.
In early February 2021, victory in a long-running Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the Empire Center for Public Policy think tank forced the state to release the full, official death toll, which again was higher than previously stated.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported in February 2021 that 9,056 recovering nursing home patients were taken in by nursing homes statewide from March 25 to May 10 — 40% more than the administration had disclosed.
Also that month, top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa acknowledged withholding information about nursing home COVID from the Legislature.
In the eight-county Capital Region through Sunday, COVID is confirmed or presumed to be the cause of death of 665 elder-care facility residents, the wide majority (568) of them nursing home residents.
- Albany County has had the most nursing home deaths, 140, but Rensselaer County (99) has had more per-capita.
- Saratoga County has had the most assisted living facility deaths, 23, but Schenectady County (22) has had the most per-capita.
- Columbia County’s eight deaths at other adult care facilities are the most of any county in the region.
- Capital Region nursing homes with the highest reported death tolls are Wesley in Saratoga Springs, 39; Glens Falls Center, 34; Teresian House in Albany, 31; The Grand (Barnwell), 28; and Greene Meadows, 28.
In the six-county Mohawk Valley region through Sunday, COVID is confirmed or presumed to be the cause of death of 541 elder-care facility residents, the vast majority (505) of them nursing home residents.
- Oneida County has had the most nursing home deaths at 267 but Montgomery County (86) has had more per-capita.
- Oneida County accounted for all eight of the assisted living facility deaths in the region.
- Oneida County also accounted for most of the deaths at other adult care facilities in the Mohawk Valley — 21.
- Mohawk Valley nursing homes with the highest reported death tolls are Katherine Luther, 47; Fulton Center in Gloversville, 44; Presbyterian Home, 26; Wilkinson in Amsterdam, 25; and The Grand (Rome) 23.
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