New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker was in the hot seat during Monday's Joint Virtual Public Hearing on Residential Health Care Facilities and COVID-19. To put it more succinctly, a public hearing on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's nursing home mandate. On March 25, Gov. Cuomo enacted a measure to force long term care facilities to accept COVID patients who had been discharged from hospitals.
It was a bipartisan grilling, with some of the most aggressive questions coming from Democratic lawmakers. Cuomo described COVID-19 in nursing homes as "a fire through dry grass."
"It's up to the legislature as to who lit the match," said Democratic state senator James Skoufis.
According to current state data, 6,000 people have died in New York nursing homes so far. The actual number is expected to be much higher.
The health commissioner, who said he grieved the loss of loved ones in nursing homes, defended the state's strategy, arguing that they implemented "the most aggressive nursing home testing in the country." In addition, he noted that they conducted 1,300 onsite inspections. Asked how many long term care facilities were found to have inadequate care, he couldn't say. In fact, Zucker didn't seem to be all that prepared at all, often telling the lawmakers that he'd "have to get back to them."
But he was adamant that the timeline of the coronavirus outbreak in nursing homes proves that the governor's mandate was not to blame. More likely than not, he said, it was the nursing home staff who likely spread the disease, albeit unknowingly. He notes that it was at the end of February that the first reported infection among staff was reported. "Not to place blame" on staff, he said, but it was 23 days after the peak in cases among staff that there was a peak among residents. He says that's important because the average span of COVID deaths is 18 to 25 days. He was underlining the arguments made in the New York State Department of Health report on nursing homes, which concluded that staff and visitors were the likely cause of the outbreaks.
Zucker added that 304 out of the 310 nursing homes that had admitted COVID patients already had COVID in their facility.
"It is unfortunate, it is sad, but it is true," Zucker said.
Zucker may not have wanted to talk about his own state's failures, but he seemed eager to talk about states currently struggling with COVID outbreaks. He brought Florida up more than once.
"Look at Florida," he said. "Numbers are skyrocketing now."
Zucker suggested it gives him "great pain" to see states like Florida experience outbreaks he says are worse than even in New York and that he "sympathizes" with his colleagues in those states.
To the surprise of the lawmakers, Zucker could not provide the number of nursing home residents that have died in the hospital. Skoufis observed that other, bigger states like California have been able to collect this information.
"It perplexes me," Skoufis said, "that you don't have this fundamental information."
Meanwhile, Cuomo continues to blame President Trump for everything.
"This was a colossal blunder how COVID was handled by the federal government," Cuomo said. "Colossal blunder. Shame on all of you."— Jon Campbell (@JonCampbellGAN) August 3, 2020