A man in protective gear stands at the front of...

A man in protective gear stands at the front of the Sapphire Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing of Central Queens in Queens, NY.  Credit: EPA/Justin Lane

ALBANY — The State Senate's Republican conference on Wednesday called for an independent investigation of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s directive in March that told nursing homes they could not deny patients admission solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.

“We have to ask the hard questions,” said Senate Republican leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in an interview. “We know that allowing COVID into a nursing home is an invitation for it to spread.”

Cuomo has emphasized that nursing homes can refuse to admit a former resident or new patient recovering from COVID-19 if the home didn’t have the staff, space and equipment needed to care for the patient without endangering other residents.

State officials said they sought to avoid any repeat of the discrimination in the 1980s against HIV patients. They said they didn’t want to see sick and often elderly COVID patients left to fend for themselves with relatives or on the street, which could potentially spread the virus.

More than 1,000 nursing home residents on Long Island and more than 4,800 nursing home residents statewide have died from the virus since March 1. 

At issue for Flanagan and other Republican leaders, including former Gov. George Pataki, is a March 25 directive to nursing homes from Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. At the time, the state faced projections that showed there wouldn’t be enough hospital beds to meet the demands of the virus.

The March 25 advisory to nursing homes states: “No resident shall be denied readmission or admission to the NH solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVD-19. NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”

The Cuomo administration didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins told Spectrum TV’s “Capital Tonight” on Monday that she plans legislative hearings into how the virus got into nursing homes and how Cuomo has spent $40 million approved by the legislature on March 2 to contain the crisis.

On April 23, Cuomo ordered an investigation by the health department and state Attorney General Letitia James into how nursing homes operated under Cuomo’s executive orders during the virus.

“The Health Department should not be investigating itself,” Flanagan said Wednesday.

Flanagan said the hearings by the Democratic majority could work if they are structured to allow tough questioning of Cuomo officials.

Nursing home operators have said they can’t medically show the increase in virus cases at nursing homes was the result of the March 25 directive, but said they are concerned that it further opened the door to cases at a time when they said most nursing homes had few infections.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Hempstead Village Trustee LaMont Johnson called on the federal government to investigate how local nursing homes have handled the coronavirus outbreak, citing the high number of cases and many nursing homes in the village.

Johnson requested the federal inquiry in response to what he described as a lack of transparency about the true scope of the outbreak in local nursing homes.

“The directors of these facilities are not saying what the true numbers are,” Johnson said at a news conference at Village Hall. “They’re not saying the true number of deaths, they’re not saying the true number of people being infected.”

Nursing home representatives have said that defining a cause of death has been difficult and not always consistent during the crisis, but that the homes have sought to accurately report deaths.

Village Mayor Don Ryan spoke at the news conference but limited his appeal to the federal government to requests for supplies for nursing homes and financial support. He said afterward that he and the other members of the village board have not yet decided if they will join Johnson in his call for a federal investigation.

With Jesse Coburn

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