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NY grapples with COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes

ALBANY — With New York nursing homes reporting more than 3,500 COVID-19-related deaths over the past six weeks, several lawmakers are calling for a full reversal of a Cuomo administration policy that requires the facilities to accept patients who have tested positive for the virus.

“It does not make sense that these facilities should have to bring in a disease with such proven deadly potential into a community of our most vulnerable residents,” Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon (D-Marcy) said Wednesday.

Used as “depositories”

Also taking strong issue with the policy are Assemblyman Jonathan Jacobson, D-Newburgh, Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, and Assemblyman John Salka, R-Brookfield.

In an April 17 letter to New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, Jacobson noted nursing homes are not set up as hospitals and “should not be used as depositories for infected individuals.”

The lawmakers argue that the state’s mandate has created an inherently risky situation for patients in facilities that have long been seen as potential breeding grounds for contagious diseases.

3,505 deaths

Zucker said one challenge state officials have been facing in addressing the wave of infections at nursing homes is the fact that many of their residents are “really elderly” and when “you take them out of their environment it’s very disruptive. So we’re trying to work to balance and maintain the environment that they’re comfortable with but also provide safety from the standpoint of public health and just general safety.”

New York’s 3,505 nursing home deaths represent more than 20% of the state’s total fatalities from the pandemic, 15,302 as of Wednesday.

Cuomo said his administration is planning to issue a new COVID-19 policy regarding nursing homes though he stopped short of elaborating on it other than to suggest it could result in sanctions on state-licensed facilities found to be substandard.

“If the private entity is not performing their duty as they should be, then the state takes the action versus the private entity,” Cuomo said. “You can lose your license. You’ll be out of business. If you’re not providing your staff with the right equipment, you’re out of business. That we can do.”

Malpractice immunity

Cuomo and lawmakers have provided nursing homes and other health care facilities in New York with immunity from malpractice claims during the pandemic.

Richard Mollot, a veteran advocate for New York nursing home patients, said that measure means nursing homes are virtually unaccountable when they have inadequate staffing and equipment to deal with the threat of COVID-19 infection.

Mollot also noted that New York is one of fewer than 20 states that lacks minimum staffing mandates for nursing homes, despite efforts by Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-Sullivan County, to pass such a requirement.

“These deaths from COVID-19 were not inevitable,” said Mollot, arguing New York should have been better prepared to deal with a virus that poses a significant threat to senior citizens with underlying health problems.

Changing ways

Last weekend, federal regulators advised the nursing home industry that homes are now required to report suspected COVID-19 infections to state health departments. They have also proposed rules that nursing homes begin sharing information about infections within facilities to patients and their representatives.

On Monday, seven weeks after the pandemic reached New York, the state Health Department notified nursing home administrators that their facilities could face financial penalties if they fail to apprise family members of patients within 24 hours that the home has had a resident test positive for COVID-19 or had a death related to the virus.

The Cuomo administration refused for several weeks to provide the names of the nursing homes and assisted living facilities where COVID-19 deaths were occurring. However, it began to provide that data last week after mounting requests for it from CNHI and other news organizations.

“It’s not our job”

The first cluster of COVID-19 cases in the nation was reported in late February at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. There, more than 40 patients have died from the virus. Since then, several New York homes have had more than 10 deaths and one in Brooklyn has reported 55 deaths.

Cuomo emphasized Wednesday that “we don’t run these facilities,” though they are regulated by the state and “they have to do the job they’re getting paid to do.”

Cuomo also said while the state has assisted nursing home operators in acquiring personal protection equipment for their staffers, “it’s not our job.”

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