State health chief faces scrutiny over nursing home deaths

Associated Press  Dr. Howard Zucker, left, the state Department of Health commissioner, listens to Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a March 2 media conference in New York City.

ALBANY — State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker left several lawmakers flustered Monday when he testified that he has no estimate yet of how many New York nursing home patients died at hospitals from COVID-19.

Zucker, an appointee of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also said that while his agency has conducted some 1,300 inspections at nursing homes over the past five months he was unprepared to estimate how many led to corrective order.

Following the reported deaths of some 6,400 nursing home residents since March — not including those who died at hospitals — the commissioner came under intense questioning from skeptical lawmakers in the first public examination of the fatalities at the state-regulated facilities.

Although numerous states have been able to quantify their total number of nursing home deaths, Zucker said New York wants to make sure it is not “double counting” the fatalities, pointing out he will provide the data when he’s sure it is “absolutely accurate.”

Cuomo has contended numerous times that criticism of his administration’s management of the pandemic at the homes and long-term care facilities is being whipped up by Republicans. But several Democrats were among those who scrutinized the Health Department’s handling of the public health disaster and suggested it needs major improvement.

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones, D-Plattsburgh, said the state has been doing more to resume family visits to state prison inmates than it has to assist locked-out loved ones of nursing home patients.

“People are literally dying of depression” in nursing homes because they have been sealed off from their families, Jones said.

Influential Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, D-the Bronx, told Zucker he was selectively providing information during the forum to make the Cuomo administration “look better.”

“It seems to me that patting ourselves on the back for victories is a bit far-fetched considering we have still more deaths than anyone else in the country, both at nursing homes and in overall deaths,” Rivera told the commissioner

Zucker also came under sharp questioning from state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, D-Bronx, about a broad immunity provision inserted into the state budget four months ago that shielded the health care industry from negligence claims during the pandemic.

Biaggi said the health care industry took credit for writing that provision although Zucker denied the assertion. Biaggi later said that Zucker, who is also a lawyer, misled lawmakers with that statement, releasing an April 2 press release from the Greater New York Hospital Association in which the organization said it “drafted and advocated for” the measure giving immunity to hospitals and their workers.

State Sen. James Skoufis, D-Orange County, said he was perplexed that the nursing home data provided by Zucker’s agency “misrepresents” the true toll of the pandemic in New York.

“When the data comes through and I have an opportunity to piece through it, then I’ll be happy to provide that data to you and to the members of the committee,” Zucker said.

But lawmakers said the commissioner and his aides have already had weeks to organize statistics already in their reach.

Zucker relied heavily on a Health Department report, released last month, that suggested a key cause of the virus spread in nursing homes was workers bringing the contagion into the facilities.

The commissioner said 117 nursing homes out of more than 600 operating in New York have been approved to allow patient visits again. The state is only allowing the visits if a home has gone 28 straight days with no positive test results for either patients or staffers.

Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, D-Westchester, suggested the Health Department’s standard for visits is too rigid, contending patients could be safeguarded if all visitors coming into the home are tested and required to complete a questionnaire.

But Zucker defended the “cautious” approach, saying the goal was to curtail the potential for infections.

One of the main organizers of the hearing, Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, said long before the pandemic, New York nursing homes were dealing with staffing shortages, with the state failing to adequately fund regulatory enforcement programs.

Zucker testified for nearly three hours, leaving the forum before some lawmakers had an opportunity to question him. Assemblyman John Salka, R-Madison County, said he wanted to ask the commissioner whether any nursing homes contacted the Health Department to be relieved of taking in COVID-positive patients from hospitals and, if so, how the state responded to the requests.

“I think people on both sides of the aisle were disappointed in his abbreviated testimony,” Salka said.

Zucker said the Cuomo administration has been “incredibly aggressive” in working to contain the virus by providing nursing homes with personal protective equipment and directing the facilities to regularly test staffers for the virus.

He also defended a controversial March 25 order directing the homes to accept virus-positive patients, suggesting it was an effort to ensure those people did not face discrimination because of their medical condition. He also suggested the directive was not a factor in the surge of deaths at the homes.

The web-cast hearing was billed as focusing on nursing homes in the downstate region, though many questions related to statewide policies. The focus will shift to upstate nursing homes when lawmakers delve into the circumstances surrounding the fatalities and the safeguards for patients again next Monday.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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