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NYS Health Commissioner testifies

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during a coronavirus

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker during a coronavirus briefing in April. Credit: Office of the Governor / Darren McGee

Daily Point

NYS Health Commissioner takes the stand

Perhaps there’s only one conclusion that could be drawn so far from Thursday’s contentious legislative budget hearing with state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

If you were looking for answers on the nursing home controversy, the vaccine rollout or other key issues, Zucker’s testimony wasn’t providing them.

Indeed, it seemed that the three minutes allotted to each lawmaker wasn’t enough time to elicit full answers on complex issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state guidance on nursing homes. So, for many, that meant asking questions that went unanswered, or being told that they’d get their answers in writing.

The last time Zucker offered to answer nursing-home questions from the State Legislature, lawmakers had to wait months for responses, a delay Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office recently attributed to its focus on a federal Department of Justice request for information. This time, the Cuomo administration’s focus was clearly on this hearing, since it issued right before the hearing a lengthy statement on the nursing home controversy from former Secretary to the Governor Steven Cohen, who also participated in a press call on the issue Thursday morning. Cohen said in the statement that he was "asked by the Governor to consult on the nursing home matter."

When Zucker did provide responses on Thursday, he was often defensive or repetitive, and little new emerged from his answers. He again defended the state’s March 25 guidance that told nursing homes to admit patients coming from hospitals without requiring a negative COVID-19 test, saying that wasn’t to blame for the deaths of residents of nursing homes. He instead placed the blame for COVID-19’s pervasiveness in nursing homes on staff that brought it in "inadvertently." He repeated Cuomo’s focus on the "void" created by not providing full nursing home data earlier, but didn’t expand on the reasons why the department couldn’t provide such data sooner. Also, he defended the state’s vaccination program, which has been widely criticized.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, the Bronx Democrat who chairs the State Senate’s health committee, expressed frustration at Zucker’s reponses and refusal to take responsibility.

"It is very clear that this administration … will apparently never acknowledge that you’ve done anything wrong," Rivera said, accusing Zucker of "bobbing and weaving" on the nursing home issue.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky was one of the few senators to get in multiple questions, asking Zucker about the state’s efforts to recoup lost funds when it tried to buy medical equipment early in the pandemic, discrepancies in even the latest deaths data that the state has provided, and reports that veterans were given hydroxychloroquine, despite concerns about the drug.

Even then, Zucker mostly provided promises of more information to come.

Cohen’s statement argued that the March guidance was "sound and prudent," that "there was no ‘cover up’," and that the state’s response to DOJ "has been ongoing and timely – and totally truthful."

And then Cohen pointed the finger at the entity Cuomo, too, has blamed.

Said Cohen: "Much of this particular public debate has also been influenced, if not created, by the other crisis through which we suffered, that is, the Trump Presidency."

— Randi F. Marshall @RandiMarshall

Talking Point

Winds of no change off Montauk

As the long approval process for a 132-megawatt wind farm off Montauk continues to grind forward with a review by the state Public Service Commission, another bureaucratic process aimed at derailing the state’s first wind farm also is proceeding.

On Thursday, East Hampton Town held the second part of a hearing on a petition to form a new village submitted by a group of well-heeled Wainscott residents fighting the power cable from the offshore farm that would come under a beach in the hamlet. The residents hope that forming a village would give them the ability to block the cable from coming on land, a point disputed by East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc and town attorneys. The hearing is an opportunity for town residents to raise challenges to the petition such as the proposed boundaries of the new village or the eligibility of those who signed the petition.

And issues have indeed been raised, especially "if you were gerrymandered out of the district," Van Scoyoc told The Point. "Some people on one side of a street in the village are eligible and others on the other side of the street are not eligible." He mentioned South Breeze Lane and Hedges Lane, in particular.

"That’s particularly important with regards to people’s lifelong and historic right to use all of our beaches," Van Scoyoc said. In other words, would access to the Beach Lane beach only be given to village residents and would parking spots be available for non-villagers?

Another source of debate is to what degree the residents who want the village are representative of all residents of Wainscott.

After Thursday’s hearing, Van Scoyoc said, he has 10 days to render a decision on the petition being legally sufficient. If he finds it’s OK, another set of processes begins another countdown to the date of the election, probably in April or May – an election in which only those who live within the proposed village borders and are eligible to vote in town elections can cast ballots.

Winds of change might be blowing, but they blow slowly in Wainscott.

— Michael Dobie @mwdobie

Pencil Point

Taxing reading

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Final Point

DM for vaccine

A Facebook post from State Assemb. Michaelle C. Solages offered a very 2021 version of constituent services on Tuesday.

After noting the difficulties of the vaccine rollout and the way communities of color had been hard-hit, the post offered help: "If you live in the 22nd Assembly District and are eligible to receive the vaccine, please send me a DM."

It is something of an indictment of the state and nation’s vaccine rollout that this is what it has come to — stop scrolling through pet and baby photos and tap a social media message to an elected official in search of a life-saving vaccine.

But clearly the help was wanted. Solages told The Point Thursday afternoon that since the post went up, close to 100 people had sent in direct messages through Instagram and Facebook, plus even more phone calls and emails to her office.

She said she was taking some of those phone calls herself, "because they're so numerous."

Most communications came from her district, Solages said. The messages included the usual frustrations of people on hold trying to get a vaccination appointment, calling various numbers, looking online for links.

Mostly, Solages is offering information to people who get in touch. They are prompted to fill out a form with personal information "and then we try to help them," she said.

That includes giving tips on numbers to call at what times. Her office also connected some people with the state for a popup vaccination event earlier this week, and informed people on the list about how to sign up for a county "community vaccination day" in Elmont on Saturday. This kind of constituent work has been going on for a while but the DM part was new, Solages said.

It’s part of an effort to get people vaccinated and combat "vaccine hesitancy" in her district.

Solages, who is of Caribbean descent, said she has seen some hesitancy in parts of that community because of "mistrust of the health care system."

One woman told her, "I had to pick my poison" between taking the vaccine or dealing with COVID-19.

Solages, 35, doesn’t qualify for the vaccine but plans to get it when her turn comes. She thinks people are coming around, particularly after seeing others take the vaccine and do fine: "That’s building confidence as well."

— Mark Chiusano @mjchiusano

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