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State assemblyman calls for Zucker's firing over virus directive

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during

New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's daily coronavirus press briefing on Friday. Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

ALBANY — A Long Island assemblyman on Monday said the state health commissioner should be fired for requiring nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients.

Assemb. Mike LiPetri (R-South Farmingdale), who is running for Congress in a Republican primary, said the directive issued by Dr. Howard Zucker, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s health commissioner, has “very likely led to the deaths and/or infections of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens.”

LiPetri referred to a March 25 directive that nursing homes cannot deny “readmission or admission solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.” He called it an “unconscionable directive.”

“This policy not only defies common sense, it (also) puts those most vulnerable in our society face-to-face with this deadly virus,” LiPetri said.

Assemb. Andrew Garbarino (R-Sayville), LiPetri's opponent in the primary, also called on the state Assembly Health Committee to investigate and hold hearings on nursing home deaths from COVID-19.

The Cuomo administration has defended the directive, which required nursing homes to accept virus patients from hospitals after they were deemed medically stable, by noting nursing homes did not have to accept the patients if they could not care for them safely. In response to LiPetri, Cuomo aide Rich Azzopardi said, “We’re fighting a pandemic and now is not the time for cheap personal attacks by cheap politicians looking for cheap press."

The policy was intended to free up hospital beds in case of an overflow amid the pandemic. Nursing homes say it may have introduced the virus to facilities with a vulnerable population. although they can’t medically prove it led to a spike in cases.

Zucker has been one of Cuomo’s point persons in mapping out a state strategy to deal with the virus and has appeared at almost all the governor’s daily briefings. Azzopardi cited Zucker’s extensive credentials, including serving as a federal Health and Human Services secretary and assistant director for the World Health Organization.

In the last week, Cuomo repeatedly has defended the directive. He’s said if a nursing home lacked the space, equipment and staff to provide the required care for a COVID-19 patient, it could decline admission. That would mean transferring an infected person to another nursing home.

At the same time, the governor has described nursing homes as possibly providing a “feeding frenzy” for the virus. He said that view and the March 25 directive weren’t at odds.

“We have vacancies in nursing homes and facilities,’’ Cuomo said.

On Monday, Azzopardi said the directive was consistent with New Jersey, Connecticut and others, and added: “Let’s start with the facts. The order states that you can’t discriminate, but you need proper facilities and proper staffing with proper protective equipment. If a nursing home doesn’t meet this criteria, they can’t accept the patient.”

The head of the statewide nursing home advocacy group has said the March 25 directive “unnecessarily fanned the flames of this fire.”

Stephen Hanse, CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, told Newsday nursing homes lacked the help Cuomo provided hospitals in obtaining masks and other safety equipment for patients and staff.

But Hanse also said it’s difficult to determine if the administration’s order triggered more COVID-19 cases in nursing homes. To date, more than 3,000 nursing home patients have died from the virus.

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