March 26, 2023

Given chance to question New York health commissioner, lawmakers displeased by answers over COVID-19 nursing home deaths

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testified Thursday during a 2022 legislative budget hearing, but many lawmakers focused their comments and questions on the past year – namely the Cuomo administration’s controversial handling of nursing home patients during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before Zucker even began his five-hour testimony, a state senator sought to have the commissioner sworn in. Committee Chair Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, was taken aback initially by the sudden request, saying she didn’t think the budget committee process included it.

At times, Zucker had contentious back-and-forth spars with lawmakers, some of whom only got three minutes to ask questions. State Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, used his entire time scolding the commissioner and the administration for ordering nursing homes to admit coronavirus-positive patients on March 25 and then not reporting several thousand nursing home residents who died in a hospital as nursing home deaths.

That policy abruptly ended in May, but critics claim it led to thousands of needless deaths.

“They died because they got the virus in a nursing home,” Tedisco said. “When you withheld those numbers and took those who got the virus that went to a hospital and died and combined them with all those who died from COVID, not getting (this information) made it impossible to further come up to conclusions about what caused one of the worst disasters in New York state history.”

Zucker didn’t get a chance to respond to Tedisco, who also asked if the administration was ready to admit responsibility for the deaths.

However, moments later during questioning from state Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-Castleton, the commissioner reminded the committee that even after the administration ended the policy, nursing home residents are still getting and dying from the virus.

Zucker said critics of the administration need to better understand the science behind the virus and its spread.

“How do you explain to me that without anyone coming back to the nursing homes that are positive from COVID … no one coming in as visitors, we still have cases in the nursing homes?” Zucker asked. “Not just here in New York, where we’re doing an aggressive job with testing, but across the nation and around the world. It comes in through the community.”

Prior to Zucker’s marathon session, Empire State Development Corp. Chairman Steve Cohen gave an impromptu news conference to discuss the nursing home situation. The former Cuomo chief of staff and longtime confidant to the governor said he was asked to “consult” on the situation.

Cohen said the nursing home issue, which has now triggered additional federal investigation and bipartisan calls for Cuomo’s impeachment, became a “politicized” issue spearheaded by former President Donald Trump.

“I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t recognize the tragic loss and be nothing but sympathetic for people who want and are entitled to understand and know as much as possible about the circumstances, but that doesn’t change the fact that this situation was largely set up as part of a political process in a highly contested and high stakes national campaign for president,” Cohen said.

Prior to the committee meeting, Minority Assembly Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, issued a statement saying Thursday’s hearing was not the appropriate way to learn more about the nursing home situation, even if the testimony might provide more light on the matter.

“We need legislative hearings, with multiple witnesses, sworn statements and testimony compelled by subpoena,” he said.

This article was originally posted on Given chance to question New York health commissioner, lawmakers displeased by answers over COVID-19 nursing home deaths

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