The East End’s state representatives both offered strong criticisms of state officials and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office this week in the wake of a report by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office. The report blasted a state policy that recommended that COVID-19 patients be returned to nursing homes, and suggested that the number of fatalities tallied by the state from within long-term care facilities was perhaps as much as half of the real toll.
State Senator Anthony Palumbo called for Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to resign in the wake of the revelations about the actual devastation that swept through nursing homes and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. called the technically fuzzy reporting a “cover up” by the state that obscured the full consequence of the state’s policies toward nursing homes during the early months of the pandemic.
The report on the AG’s investigation focuses largely on the failures of nursing home networks to properly protect patients during the pandemic — including continued failures at basic protective measures like hand washing and the wearing of face coverings by staff. But the report also says that the state Department of Health policy of ordering infected patients sent to nursing homes likely contributed to the spread and that the number of deaths of residents in nursing homes may be as much as twice as high as the more than 6,600 that have been reported.
“New Yorkers put an immeasurable amount of trust in state government to address the COVID pandemic and to protect the health and safety of residents,” Mr. Palumbo said in a statement following the release of the AG’s report last week. “This week, that trust was shattered.”
Mr. Palumbo said that Mr. Zucker should resign and that the State Legislature should rescind Governor Cuomo’s executive powers under the statewide state of emergency.
Mr. Thiele did not go so far as to call for resignations, but said that the reporting system employed by the state did seem to be intended to minimize as much as possible the impacts of the unfortunate policy decision regarding sending COVID-positive patients into the midst of vulnerable nursing home populations.
“But more of the outrage has been about the lack of transparency,” he said. “Members of the legislature have been asking for this data for months and months and it fell on deaf ears. It’s not that the data didn’t exist, I think it’s more that it didn’t fit the narrative from Albany.”
The Attorney General’s report does not go into detail about the true death tolls at individual facilities beyond the handful that were used as statistical tests during the investigation, but Mr. Thiele said he would expect that such a dive into the realities of what happened over the last 12 months would be coming.
Governor Cuomo had defended the initial policy of returning COVID-19 patients to nursing homes as one intended to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed during the initial surge when health officials did not know how quickly lockdowns and social distancing guidelines would ease the spread.
The policy, he said in the spring, didn’t require the nursing homes to take patients in that they couldn’t care for and that operators of the facilities were responsible for taking the proper precautions to protect the health of their residents and staff by ensuring that COVID-positive patients were isolated in separate units, that staff had sufficient protective garb and were not mixing between COVID-positive and non-COVID units. The governor said the facilities should have refused patients they couldn’t properly care for and hinted that profits were put ahead of safety by operators.
The state rescinded the transfer policy as the death toll mounted and nursing home advocates complained that they had not been given enough government assistance ramping up PPE and staffing to accommodate the dangers of caring for COVID-positive patients.
The South Fork’s two nursing homes, the Hamptons Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Southampton and the Westhampton Care Center, have reported a total of 45 deaths since the start of the pandemic. But the state only required nursing homes to report the deaths of people who died within the facility itself and not those of residents who died after being taken to a hospital.
Most of the deaths at the Hampton Center occurred in the first few months of the pandemic and the center had repeatedly spotlighted the transfer of COVID-positive patients from hospitals in messages to families of residents. The Westhampton Care Center saw the bulk of its 23 reported deaths during an outbreak in the facility this past fall — after the state policy on transferring positive patients had been rescinded — that sickened dozens of residents. The facility blamed an outbreak at one of the hospitals that sends WCC patients for rehabilitation
Requests for comment submitted to administrators at both facilities this week were not answered.
Mr. Palumbo and other State Senate Republicans called for the Legislature Investigations Committee to issue subpoenas and begin delving into the true toll of the nursing home crisis, but the measure failed to win majority support from the Democratically controlled chamber.
Mr. Palumbo accused Democrats of protecting the governor, but Mr. Thiele, who is registered with the Independence Party, noted that the criticism of the governor’s handling of the nursing home policy and reporting has been a bipartisan position and agreed that a much broader and deeper investigation must be launched.
“The AG report was a tipping point,” he said. “We all knew what was being reported from the nursing homes and we knew there were others, now the AG’s report gives us an idea of the order of magnitude there. It should trigger additional investigation and oversight. There are still a lot of unanswered questions.”