Some Long Islanders who have had loved ones die while staying in nursing homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic have said that communication from their relatives' care providers had been subpar.  Credit: Yeong-ung Yang

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday ordered an investigation into the rising infection and death rates in nursing homes from COVID-19.

Among New York’s 15,740 deaths from the disease caused by the coronavirus are 2,902 from the state’s more than 600 nursing homes, which serve more than 117,000 patients. Nursing homes in Nassau County reported 291 deaths and there were 281 deaths in Suffolk County homes blamed on the virus.

Cuomo said the probe by the Department of Health and the state Attorney General’s Office will find out if nursing homes have followed the state’s regulations to secure enough personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and sanitizer; if the temperature of workers was checked as they entered the homes; and if they quarantined COVID-19 patients with a separate staff.

Nursing home operators said that they followed state regulations, but that the state didn’t adequately support nursing homes. They also criticized a state directive for nursing homes to accept virus patients from hospitals after they were deemed medically stable, although they can’t medically prove it led to a spike in cases.

Newsday reported Thursday that numerous families complained that nursing homes provided little or no information — and sometimes inaccurate information — about the virus or virus deaths in the homes where their relatives reside.

Cuomo said the investigation will look into whether nursing homes contacted all the families of residents within 24 hours of an infection or death from the virus in the nursing home, as required by his executive order.

“They get paid to take care of a resident,” Cuomo said. “That resident, that patient, must have a state directed level of care … If they don’t follow the rules, they could be subjected to a fine or they could lose their license,” Cuomo said.

Stephen Hanse, CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents the nursing home industry, said homes have followed the directive to notify residents' families in the event of a coronavirus infection or death, but by law could only send letters to a family's designated representative.

Hanse said the homes lacked the help Cuomo gave to private hospitals in securing staff, masks, gowns and other personal protection equipment, or PPEs; and testing for residents and staff for the virus.

“From the onset of this pandemic, nursing homes and assisted living providers and their residents have not been treated as a top priority for assistance with staffing, PPE (personal protective equipment) shortages and COVID-19 testing,” he said.

Hanse cited the state health department’s March 25 advisory to nursing homes that “unnecessarily fanned the flames of this fire.” It required nursing homes to accept former residents and new patients with the virus or suspected of having the virus who have been declared medically stable and discharged from hospitals, or to transfer them to another facility.

Cuomo emphasized that the nursing homes were required to transfer the virus patients if they couldn't adequately care for them. The Health Department said in a statement: "Residents are deemed appropriate for return to a NH upon a determination by the hospital physician or designee that the resident is medically stable for return … nursing homes cannot discriminate based on a positive COVID-19 test. However, if the nursing home is not medically prepared to meet a patient’s needs, they should not take the patient.”

“If you can’t provide adequate care to a patient you must transfer the patient,” Cuomo said Thursday. “If they cannot transfer a patient to another facility, they should call the Department of Health … and the Department of Health finds a facility.”

Hanse said moving patients out of nursing homes isn’t practical because of the high mortality rate that stems from transferring.

Hanse said it’s difficult to say if the directive triggered more cases in nursing homes. “It’s so hard to say that for a fact,” he said. “ … Over time cases have flared up, so it’s difficult to pinpoint how they came in, but clearly the guidelines from the Department of Health had the potential for opening the door to cases.”

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