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One Year After Controversial COVID Order for NY Nursing Homes, Families Of Residents Seek Answers

Karen DeWitt

Critics of some of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic marked the anniversary of the controversial March 25, 2020 order that required the homes to take back from hospitals residents who were ill with the disease. They say an ongoing federal probe does not go far enough in investigating all that may have gone wrong in the governor’s management of nursing homes during the pandemic.  

Republicans , who are in the minority in the State Senate, held a Remembrance Day  for  the over 15,000  nursing home and adult long term care facility residents who have died of COVID-19 so far. 

Senator Sue Serino, ranking minority member on the Senate Aging Committee, says Cuomo’s March 25th order led to the unnecessary deaths of many nursing home residents, because the coronavirus- positive patients discharged from hospitals spread the virus to others in the nursing homes.

For too many New York  families, March 25th , 2020, is day that changed their lives forever,” Serino said.

State Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, disputes that. He contends asymptomatic staff and visitors led to the spread.      

State Attorney General Tish James, in a January report said the residents re- admissions “may have contributed to increased risk of nursing home resident infection, and subsequent fatalities.”

The order was rescinded on May 10, 2020.

The AG’s report also found that nursing home deaths were undercounted by 50%, and a federal investigation is looking into allegations that the governor and his top aides covered up the true number of deaths.

But Senator Serino, and some family members of those who died in the nursing homes, say there also needs to be a fuller investigation of all of the administration’s nursing home policies, to find out if any acts of official misconduct occurred.

Ann Brancati is a member of the group Voices for Seniors, formed by grieving relatives. She lost her mother in law, Eleanor Brancati, to the disease on January 25th of this year. She and her husband had not been able to see Eleanor since Cuomo issued a ban on all visitors to the homes on March 12, 2020. They were allowed to talk to her through their cell phone just before she died.  She says it was a “heartbreaking moment.”

“Voices for Seniors,” members have joined  Serino in asking  State Comptroller, Tom DiNapoli  to give a referral to the Attorney General so that she could begin a probe. Under state law, the only other official who can give a referral to the Attorney General to investigate a matter is the governor, and Cuomo appears unlikely to do so.

Brancati says she and the other family members just want to know what happened.

I only ask if you could please, uncover the truth,” Brancati said.

A spokeswoman for DiNapoli, Jennifer Freeman, says the Comptroller’s office is “reviewing the request”. She says, in a statement, that “New Yorkers who lost loved ones in nursing homes to COVID-19 rightly want more answers.”

It’s not just republican lawmakers who are critical of Cuomo’s nursing home policies. Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim,  chair of his house’s Aging Committee, lost an Uncle in a nursing home to the disease. Kim calls the March 25th directive a “ deadly decision”  that  has led to thousands of deaths and counting”.

Kim has accused Cuomo of threatening to “destroy” him, if  the Assemblyman continued his complaints against nursing home policy during the pandemic.  The governor denied that, but Cuomo, in a coronavirus briefing, also tried to damage the assemblyman’s reputation and accused Kim, with no evidence, of  corruption.

And- Democrats in the State Senate acted on Wednesday to reverse a provision slipped into last year’s state budget that granted nursing homes immunity from prosecution for any decisions they made that might have adversely impacted the health of their residents.

Bill sponsor, Senator Alessandra Biaggi, says the blanket immunity granted to the nursing homes might have caused them to put their profits before protecting residents and staff.

It will fully repeal the remaining protections under the governor’s disastrous immunity provisions,” said Biaggi. “I vote today in honor of the thousands of New Yorkers we lost in nursing homes and their grieving families looking for answers.”

The bill passed unanimously. It has already been approved in the Assembly, and now goes to Cuomo’s desk to be signed or vetoed. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Late in the day, Cuomo and Health Commissioner Zucker announced that they are changing the rules on nursing home visitation in New York, and will now permit “ visitation at all times and for all residents” with exceptions for unvaccinated residents in areas of high community spread and residents who are sick with Covid.

"From the very beginning we've used science and data to find the appropriate balance between protecting our most vulnerable populations in nursing homes and the importance of allowing safe contact with their loved ones," Governor Cuomo said in a statement.  

Cuomo and Zucker say they made the change to comply with guidelines recently released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The new policy takes effect immediately.