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Top New York state health official grilled on the handling of Covid-19 nursing home deaths

New York state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker again on Thursday defended the state’s handling of nursing homes and their residents during the pandemic.

The administration’s decision to delay the release of data on Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities — the subject of a federal investigation — has erupted as a major political crisis for Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

State lawmakers, who accuse Cuomo of a cover-up and say they are considering repealing the governor’s emergency powers, grilled Zucker for hours on Thursday.

Zucker, appearing virtually before a joint legislative budget hearing on health care, read a statement before taking questions. He pointed to a July 2020 Department of Health report that said health care workers were “likely” the cause of Covid-19 spread into long-term care facilities.

“The virus, despite our collective best efforts to prevent it, was inadvertently brought into the nursing homes by dedicated staff at a time when we did not know enough about the science. It was tragic. It was troubling. But it’s true,” Zucker said.

He also said the department has cooperated with lawmakers in making data of fatalities in long-term care facilities publicly available.

“I was asked to provide the numbers of deaths by facility, by location of death, by whether confirmed or presumed. To the best of the Department’s ability, I have done so,” he said.

Lawmaker says administration will ‘never acknowledge’ wrongdoing

During questioning from lawmakers, Zucker said he regrets it took so long to release the data but that it’s time to move on.

“Well, as the governor said…there was a void that was created, right, and that the information should have been released sooner,” Zucker said. “And he regrets that, and I share that feeling. And so at this point, you know, I feel that we should be able to move forward.”

Most lawmakers used the three minutes allotted to each, making statements and not leaving time for Zucker to respond.

State Senator Gustavo Rivera said he would not waste the 10 minutes allotted to him as the Democratic chair of the health committee asking questions of members of an administration that “will apparently never acknowledge that you have done anything wrong.”

“You will just repeat what you have said before — which is that you did the best that you could, that you made no mistakes,” he said. “So since you cannot acknowledge responsibility and are perfect at bobbing and weaving on that issue, I will not visit it any further.”

The state’s handling of nursing homes and their residents amid the pandemic has been a subject of deep scrutiny, particularly after a March 25 memo by the Department of Health mandating that nursing homes must not deny readmission to residents “based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”

Cuomo later announced a new policy, on May 10, saying a hospital cannot discharge a patient to a nursing home unless they test negative for the virus.

The March 25 directive may have increased the risk of harm from Covid-19 in nursing homes, according to a report from state Attorney General Letitia James.

Republican Assemblymember Jake Ashby sparred with Zucker about the memo.

“Let me explain, but you are not following the science on this,” the health commissioner said at one point. “I’m sorry to be so direct about this, but the science is what we need to look at.”

“The science is that there were more people admitted with the disease, and that contributed to the spread. That’s the science,” Ashby countered.

Republican State Senator James Tedisco punctuated a longwinded statement with the question: “At long last, will you and the Cuomo administration admit to your culpability in these deaths?”

“I will respond because there’s a lot of fiction there and I need to provide the facts,” Zucker said. “So I will respond in writing and there was no under count.”

AG report: State undercounted deaths at nursing homes by 50%

Cuomo this month took responsibility for not providing the data when lawmakers requested it, admitting his administration created a “void” of facts that allowed misinformation to spread.

“No excuses. We should not have created the void. We should have done a better job in providing information, we should have done a better job of knocking down the disinformation,” he said. “I accept responsibility for that. I am in charge.”

The scandal contrasts sharply with the praise the governor received for his daily news briefings as New Yorkers were locked down and the death toll surged early in the pandemic.

The governor’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa, admitted in a call with state lawmakers that the administration tried to delay the release of the data, wary of a federal Justice Department preliminary inquiry.

The controversy centers on whether Cuomo and New York health officials could have better prevented the state’s nearly 46,000 Covid-19 deaths, the second-most of any US state.

Residents of long-term care facilities account for more than 15,000 confirmed and presumed Covid-19 deaths in New York since the start of the pandemic, according to the state Department of Health.

Until last month, the state only publicly reported the deaths of those residents who died in a facility, not those who succumbed to the virus after being transferred to a hospital or elsewhere.

The state’s decision to send thousands of patients recovering from Covid-19 infections from hospitals back to nursing homes has been widely criticized. Cuomo has said this decision was based on federal guidance that these patients were likely no longer contagious and that hospitals needed the space.

In late January, James’ report said the state Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among residents of nursing homes by about 50%.

In recent months, Cuomo has dismissed questions about the data as a “political attack.”

The US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, along with the FBI, is investigating some of the data surrounding Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities in the state, according to a law enforcement official who described the inquiry as preliminary.

A senior adviser to the governor said that the administration had been cooperating with the Justice Department.

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