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Cuomo: State left information 'void' that sowed mistrust on nursing home deaths

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his administration accurately reported

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his administration accurately reported the amount of nursing home deaths caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but acknowledged that "there was a delay" in providing relevant information on nursing home deaths to the state Legislature, the public and the press. Credit: NYS Governor's Office

This story was reported by Michael Gormley, Bart Jones and Olivia Winslow. It was written by Jones.

Under fire for his handling of nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday said officials did all they could to prevent spread of the virus but he accepted responsibility for creating a "void" that led to misinformation and even conspiracy theories about the state's actions.

Cuomo said his team never withheld information from state legislators about nursing home deaths, but could have done more to explain to the public and the media why his aides were prioritizing a request from the U.S. Department of Justice.

But some lawmakers, including a fellow Democrat, said Cuomo was not being truthful, and called for an investigation.

"Claiming they informed the Legislature is a lie on top of a lie," Sen. Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) tweeted.

In his most direct public response to recent allegations that the state withheld information on the deaths, Cuomo said "lessons must be learned" to implement hospital and nursing home reforms.

The controversy surrounds the state's March 25, 2020, mandate — which Cuomo said followed earlier guidance from federal agencies — to send COVID-19 patients from hospitals back to their nursing homes, where the virus continued to spread.

"These decisions are not political decisions. They are all made on the best information the medical profession had at the time and, in New York, we’ve talked to the best experts on the globe," Cuomo said.

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He added: "To be clear, all the deaths in nursing homes and hospitals were always fully and accurately reported."

Cuomo did acknowledge, though, that "there was a delay."

"If you could do it all over again, just rewind the tape, I understand the public has many questions and concerns, and the press had many questions … and I understand they weren’t answered quickly enough," Cuomo said. "We were in the midst of dealing with the pandemic and trying to save lives … and nursing homes and the hospitals were also in the middle of hell, in the middle of the pandemic … but the void we created by not providing information was filled with skepticism, and cynicism, and conspiracy theories which furthered the confusion."

Cuomo said people who lost loved ones in nursing homes were left feeling "powerless" and "helpless" as a result of lacking information. "It was horrific, it was horrific … and they don’t know what the truth is. The truth is everybody did everything they could."

He later told a reporter: "I take responsibility for creating the void" that left many wondering why their elderly relatives had died.

Several legislators criticized his response, among them, State Sen. Sue Serino (R-Hyde Park).

"Once again, missing from today’s slideshow was a clear and direct ‘I’m sorry’ to the vulnerable residents and loved ones who have been impacted by the state’s handling of the COVID crisis in our nursing homes," Serino said.

The "press conference only makes it more clear that we need an independent investigation now more than ever," she said, "and we will not stop pushing for the transparency, accountability, and improved solutions these residents and their loved ones deserved from Day One."

Cuomo said that of 613 nursing homes statewide, 365 took back people who had been sent to hospitals because they were infected with the virus. But he said 98% of those nursing homes had COVID-19 cases before the person arrived from the hospital.

He said COVID-19 could have been brought into nursing homes by staff or visitors, and was not necessarily from returning patients. That was because federal officials and scientists at the time did not realize that asymptomatic people could transmit the virus.

"COVID did not get into the nursing homes by people coming from hospitals," the governor said. "COVID got into the nursing homes by staff walking into the nursing home, when we didn’t even know we had COVID."

Any person arriving from a hospital to a nursing home was to be sent to a special isolated area for COVID-19 patients, he added.

New York State ranks 34th in the country for the percentage of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, Cuomo said. In some states, as much as 73% of COVID-19 deaths were nursing home cases, compared to 30% in New York State, he said. The national average is 36%, according to the state's figures.

Cuomo said patients were being sent back to nursing homes, when appropriate, because of fear the state could run out of hospital beds amid the peak of the pandemic. He noted that operations at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens collapsed around that time, making national news as it ran out of beds, and bodies were placed in refrigerated trucks.

The nursing homes had to agree to take back the patients, and by law assure they could properly care for them, including adequate staffing, personal protective equipment, and ability to place in "cohorts" away from other, uninfected residents, he said.

The state also wanted to get patients back into nursing homes, if feasible, because of the fear of them picking up secondary infections in hospitals.

More vaccine doses expected this week

Nassau is expecting its weekly allotment of COVID-19 doses to increase from 2,800 to 5,200, in part because people with high-risk underlying health conditions are now eligible for the shots, said Michael Fricchione, a spokesman for County Executive Laura Curran.

Some of those shots will be administered via Long Island's federally qualified health center and operations managed through Northwell hospital system.

In Suffolk County demand for the COVID-19 vaccine remains "significantly higher than available doses," spokesman Derek Poppe said. The county plans to distribute 5,380 first doses this week, plus 2,770 second doses, for a total of 8,150 scheduled doses to be administered this week.

The statewide daily positivity level in test results from Sunday was 3.53%. On Long Island, the seven-day average was 4.62%, the highest in the state, though it still marked a continued decline since a holiday season spike.

The number of new confirmed cases was 591 in Nassau, 525 in Suffolk and 3,455 in New York City.

A total of 103 people died Sunday of causes related to the virus, including 12 in Nassau and 15 in Suffolk. The number of patients statewide hospitalized with the virus grew by 30 on Sunday, to 6,623. Over the past week, the figure has dropped by 1,093.

Cuomo said the first case of the South Africa variant of the virus, a mutation that is new cause for concern, has been confirmed in the state, but the patient was transferred from Connecticut to a hospital in New York City for a procedure.

GETTING COVID-19 VACCINES

Who qualifies for COVID-19 shots?

New York State expanded the list of qualifying residents to encompass people 65 years of age and older as well as others with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk. The state had previously expanded its vaccination program to include essential workers and people 75 years of age and older in addition to health care workers and nursing home residents and staff, among others. The supply of vaccines is limited even as more groups are added. Hospitals will continue to prioritize unvaccinated members of the first phase, focusing largely on health care workers. The following are the qualifying categories, as revised on Feb. 9.

Group in Phase 1A

The state said about 2.1 million state residents belong in this group, including:

  • Health care workers at hospitals who interact with patients.
  • Residents and staff at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
  • Dentists, psychologists and others deemed health care workers with direct contact with patients.
  • Employees of Federally Qualified Health Centers.
  • EMT volunteers and staff.
  • Coroners, medical examiners, some funeral workers.
  • Staff and residents of state facilities for people with developmental disabilities, mental health care and addiction services.
  • Employees at urgent care centers.
  • Individuals administering COVID-19 vaccines, including local health department staff.
  • Staff at ambulatory centers.
  • Home care and hospice workers.
  • Residents and staff at other congregate care facilities.

Group in Phase 1B

The state estimated about 3.2 million residents belong in this group, including:

  • People 75 years of age and older.
  • Teachers and education workers, including in-person college instructors, substitute teachers, student teachers, school administrators, paraprofessional staff, support staff, contractors in schools and bus drivers.
  • First responders, including police; firefighters; state police; sheriff’s offices; county, town and village police departments, and other law enforcement offices.
  • Public safety workers, including dispatchers and technicians.
  • Public transit workers, including airport, railroad, subway, bus, ferry and Port Authority employees.
  • Corrections officers.
  • Other sworn and civilian personnel, such as court and peace officers.
  • Grocery store workers dealing with the public.
  • Individuals living in homeless shelters.

Following federal recommendations:

Added at the discretion of local governments:

  • Taxi drivers.
  • Restaurant workers.
  • Residents of facilities for developmentally disabled people.

SOURCE: New York State, Northwell Health.

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