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Insane: New York Allowed Workers With Known COVID-19 Diagnoses to Remain on the Job at Nursing Homes

Yesterday brought the terrible news that New York had increased its Coronavirus death toll by more than 1,600 lives lost, based on new data out of nursing homes.  That spike -- coupled with disturbing reports about the current, more contagious strain of Coronavirus perhaps infecting people who'd recovered from a previous strain, as well as unpleasant revisions of a closely-watched model -- set off a fresh round of pessimism and fear among many Americans.  There's no sugarcoating this sort of tragedy:

The coronavirus crisis at New York’s nursing homes is even worse than previously thought. Monday night, the state Department of Health issued new data, adding more than 1,600 people who were presumed to have died of the virus in nursing homes, but did not have a confirmed diagnosis, to the official toll. As of May 3, according to the new data, 4,813 people had died from the virus in nursing homes. The new data does not include nursing home residents who died in hospitals. The number of deaths of nursing home residents, either at nursing homes or in hospitals, stood at 3,025 on April 28, and another approximately 100 people died at nursing homes from April 29 to May 2, according to state figures.

Looking at data from across the country, nursing homes have been absolutely ravaged by this virus, accounting for a wildly disproportionate percentage of overall deaths in many places.  As we've explored previously, very elderly Americans are among the most vulnerable to this disease in our society.  This raises serious questions about some of the decisions made by New York's leaders, whose mandates almost certainly contributed to the extreme risk in nursing homes that have resulted in so many deaths:

Neal Nibur has lived in a nursing home for about a year, ever since he had a bad bout of pneumonia. Now, the 80-year-old man has not only his own health to worry about but that of his neighbors at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., residence. Four new patients recently arrived from the hospital with Covid-19. They were admitted for one reason, according to staff members: A state guideline says nursing homes cannot refuse to take patients from hospitals solely because they have the coronavirus. “I don’t like them playing Russian roulette with my life,” said Mr. Nibur, who is on oxygen...At the epicenter of the outbreak, New York issued a strict new rule last month: Nursing homes must readmit residents sent to hospitals with the coronavirus and accept new patients as long as they are deemed “medically stable.” California and New Jersey have also said that nursing homes should take in such patients. Homes are allowed to turn patients away if they claim they can’t care for them safely — but administrators say they worry that refusing patients could provoke regulatory scrutiny, and advocates say it could result in a loss of revenue.

Nursing homes were required by the state to accept Coronavirus-positive patients.  And that's not all:

The state Health Department allowed nurses and other staff who tested positive for the coronavirus to continue treating COVID-19 patients at an upstate nursing home, The Post has learned. State officials signed off on the move during an April 10 conference call that excluded local officials from Steuben County, who protested the move...The state Health Department’s decision to allow coronavirus-positive nurses to continue working at Hornell Gardens came after two days of testing revealed that one in three of the facility’s residents and staff had the deadly virus. It came after officials reported three deaths at the facility, Wheeler said.

In fact, this was statewide policy, reversed only a week ago:

A policy that allows COVID positive, but asymptomatic nursing home staffers to continue to go to work in New York was reversed on Wednesday evening by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker....The new policy announced by Zucker would require staffers who test positive to not return to work for two weeks...State health officials [had been] allowing asymptomatic, COVID-positive nursing home staffers to work with COVID-positive nursing home residents. The policy [raised] questions among local officials, especially in rural areas of the state.

New York officials insist their just-abandoned standards were in compliance with CDC guidance, but how is that a defense of anyone involved?  Asymptomatic carriers are contagious.  The disease is very contagious.  It is extremely dangerous for older people.  This has been a central part of the messaging ("protect people's grandparents!") for many weeks.  Yet the state of New York was permitting known COVID-positive people to work at facilities populated exclusively by seniors, where the death toll has been catastrophic.  That is, quite simply, insane.  It's basically the opposite of sound, life-protecting policy.  I'm not going to pretend there are easy answers to many of the dilemmas facing us during this crisis, and many of the choices political leaders are having to make are quite difficult, with various trade-offs.  

Turning away Coronavirus-positive patients from nursing homes would raise all sorts of other problems, as would a possible shortage of workers to staff those facilities.  But sending people with the virus into places packed with elderly people, many or most with co-morbidities, is outrageous.  The 'asymptomatic' fig leaf isn't one at all; if anything, it demonstrates how disconnected these decisions were from the science being widely reported almost everywhere.  The horrific wages of these policies are becoming clearer with developments like the mounting death toll mentioned above.  Gov. Cuomo and everyone responsible for this failure must answer for it.  And how could anyone not foresee this being a massive problem?

Meanwhile, on the larger question of reopening the economy, we're looking at major cross-currents. On one hand, Americans are staring down the barrel of gruesome unemployment numbers, with another major gut punch expected later this week.  The economic situation is bad and deteriorating, causing acute and potentially lasting pain on countless families and businesses.  In all honesty, this percentage seems like it could be low:

On the other hand, overwhelming majorities of Americans just aren't comfortable or confident enough to reengage in large swaths of the US economy yet. Some results from the latest Washington Post poll:

The cumulative result of all this is paralysis, angry debates, and deep-seated anxiety.  We need therapeutic research and Operation Warp Speed to succeed as soon as humanly possible.

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