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Nursing homes defend NY virus response, but say changes needed

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo removes a mask

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo removes a mask as he holds a news conference in a Monday, June 15, 2020 file photo, in Tarrytown, N.Y. Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

ALBANY — A spokesman for some downstate nursing home operators on Monday defended the Cuomo administration’s March 25 guidance that required all homes to accept hospital patients with COVID-19, but said several problems must be fixed before a feared second wave of the virus hits this fall.

Jim Clyne, president of Leading Age NY, which represents more than 200 nursing homes, said during Monday's legislative hearing that among the changes needed are a far greater supply of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns that nursing homes are now trying to stockpile, adequate supplies of virus tests, which were also in short supply during the height of the virus, and more state funding.

Nursing home operators said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature had cut funding to nursing homes over the past two years, exacerbating staff shortages and delaying construction of rooms to isolate contagious residents. They urged that nursing homes be elevated to the same level of priority for protective gear as hospitals.

But many legislators on Monday focused on the March 25 guidance from the state health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker. The guidance told nursing homes they couldn’t deny transfers of virus patients from hospitals if the homes could care for them. At the time, hospitals were projected to be overwhelmed by the virus.

Legislators and some nursing home operators, however, said the guidance may have introduced the virus to the vulnerable population of elderly people with existing health problems.

But Clyne said many of his downstate facilities were already receiving patients from hospitals by March 25. He said the homes were accepting virus patients because New York City and Long Island hospitals by that time had already needed to open up beds for new patients.

“Our downstate members were already taking presumed COVID patients,” Clyne said in the internet hearing. “They felt it was their mission to take care of that population.”

However, Clyne and Steven Hanse of the New York State Facilities Association, which represents 400 homes, said the state Health Department never asked for their input or informed them of the March 25 guidance before it was issued. They said communication could have improved implementation of the policy and limited the controversy.

Hanse said many of his nursing homes, particularly those located upstate, were critical of the March 25 guidance because their local hospitals weren’t facing the same crush of virus patients as downstate hospitals. He said a case-by-case-decision could have better protected residents and staff.

Hanse and Clyne said its impossible to tell medically what role the guidance had in a spike in the virus in nursing homes in April because several sources of infection were likely. Those other sources included staff and visitors who showed no symptoms.

Some relatives of nursing home residents who died during the COVID-19 emergency, however, blame the directive and the state, claiming the guidance introduced more virus cases than necessary into nursing homes. The relatives also accused the state and nursing homes of trying to downplay the number of deaths.

Jerry Maldonado of Newburgh lost his mother, Maria, who would have been 82 years old on Monday.

“Her life was cut short through a reckless series of public policy decisions,” he testified at the hearing. “It’s my belief that her death and the death of countless others could have been prevented. It was fueled by poor public policy decisions, and the March 25 directive … my Mom was locked into a nursing home facility with COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals.”

Mary Jo Botindari of Syracuse said she couldn’t get a COVID-19 test for her father. She questioned the performance of nursing homes and said the state is failing to keep an accurate count of the deaths in nursing homes from COVID-19.

 "If you want to fix the problem, you have to own the problem,” Botindari said.

The state Health Department said more than 6,400 of New York’s 25,000 deaths from COVID-19 were in nursing homes. But Senate Investigations Committee Chairman James Skoufis (D-Woodbury) during the first of the two joint legislative hearings last week, called that estimate an undercount.

Cuomo on Monday again dismissed criticism of his handling of the virus as politically motivated.

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