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Legislators question Cuomo administration on nursing home deaths

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker speaks in

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker speaks in December.   Credit: Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo/Darren McGee

ALBANY — State legislators on Thursday challenged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s health commissioner during a public hearing on the administration’s handling of COVID-19 in nursing homes.

Many Democrats and Republicans confronted state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker over a March 25 guidance to nursing homes which said the homes couldn’t refuse admission or readmission of COVID-19 patients from hospitals. Some critics fear that this directive introduced or worsened infections.

Zucker rejected that criticism, saying the virus was already in 98% of the nursing homes that accepted patients from hospitals. Nursing home "staff brought it in inadvertently," he said. "The virus was already in the community. When it’s in the community, it goes to the nursing homes."

He also said the hospital patients who tested positive for the virus wouldn't have been contagious by the time they were sent to nursing homes. He also said the guidance was issued because hospitals needed to free up beds quickly to care for the rising tide of the pandemic.

Many legislators didn't accept that and the issue triggered several clashes in the hearing.

"At long last, will you and the Cuomo administration admit to your culpability in those deaths?" said Sen. James Tedisco (R-Schenectady).

"I will respond because there is a lot of fiction there and there was no undercount," Zucker said, referring to the contention by some critics that total nursing home deaths were undercounted.

The hearing was long awaited by legislators. Several said they were upset that it took six months for the Cuomo administration to respond to the State Legislature's requests for information regarding nursing home deaths.

Assemb Edward Ra (R-Franklin Square) was one of the legislators who criticized Zucker on that point. Zucker responded that he and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in retrospect wish they had provided that requested information sooner, but the time was spent trying to compile accurate data during the press of the pandemic.

Legislators also clashed with the Cuomo administration over the state’s troubled rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.

"New York State is doing a phenomenal job," Zucker said. "Based on my conversation from people around the country, they are very impressed."

"The rollout on the state level has been truly horrendous," countered Sen. Sue Serino (R-Poughkeepsie).

Zucker said the problem in the vaccinations has been an inadequate supply of the vaccine from the federal government, which has frustrated millions of New Yorkers chasing thousands of doses through websites and telephone lines.

It was one of several confrontations in the all-day hearing. But Zucker sought to remind legislators that the early months of the pandemic were chaotic, little was known about the virus, and COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm the hospital system.

"I wish I could say that I had all the answers back then. I didn’t," Zucker said. "If some wish to find fault with the process, I ask them to remember that we continue to battle this pandemic."

Little new information or proposals were released in the annual budget hearing.

Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said he doesn’t intend to seek in the state budget due April 1 legislative changes to the state’s response to the pandemic.

"We have more [legislation] coming and we would rather pass our bills, rather than include them in the budget, where they would be watered-down versions," Rivera said.

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