Cuomo sets up 19 COVID-only nursing homes

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The Cuomo administration has quietly set up 19 “COVID-only” nursing homes throughout the state to treat patients recovering from the killer bug who are discharged from hospitals.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker revealed the establishment of the coronavirus-only nursing homes in a 16-page letter sent to the state Legislature Wednesday, which was his response to a series of questions submitted by lawmakers who chair committees overseeing nursing homes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his health department came under fierce criticism last spring — during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak — when thousands of recovering coronavirus patients were released from hospitals and sent to nursing homes.

Some nursing home operators claimed a March 25 state Health Department directive pressured them to admit or readmit COVID-19 patients at a time when they were already overwhelmed by the outbreak. At the time, nursing homes were not allowed to test new admissions for COVID-19, had inadequate personal protective equipment and suffered from staffing shortages.

Nursing home operators complained they were told they could not transfer sick COVID-19 patients to the temporary state Javits Center hospital or the United States Navy’s Comfort hospital ship which then-President Trump dispatched to New York harbor to help treat sick patients during the pandemic.

“Starting in November the Department launched an effort to establish COVID-only nursing homes…The homes were established to allow the transfer of MEDICALLY STABLE, BUT persistently positive COVID-19 nursing home eligible patients from Article 28 hospitals to these nursing homes to further their recovery prior to discharge to home or another nursing home,” Zucker said in his response to legislators.

Zucker said there are 19 COVID-only nursing home sites scattered across all regions of the state, containing a total of 1,941 beds “to meet the needs of this special population.” He did not specify which nursing homes are used as COVID-only facilities.

Last spring there were only a handful of COVID-only nursing facilities.

In the letter, Zucker said 13,297 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19. The number jumps to 15,049 when including fatalities from other long-term care facilities such as assisting living and adult daycare centers.

Zucker also said the state spent more than $12 billion to address the COVID-19 pandemic in nursing homes and hospitals, mostly aid provided by the federal government. Nearly $9.2 billion went to hospitals and $520 million to nursing homes.

The health commissioner released the information to the Legislature after a tense meeting with lawmakers, who had accused him and Cuomo of “stonewalling” them for months by failing to disclose the complete count of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19. Others had accused Zucker of being a Cuomo ”puppet” and liar.”

The meeting was also attended by top Cuomo aides, including secretary to the governor Melissa DeRosa and budget director Rob Mujica.

Team Cuomo’s meeting with lawmakers comes on the heels of a stinging investigative report by state Attorney General Letitia James that found the administration had misled the public by undercounting COVID-19 nursing home resident deaths by 50 percent. State health officials only counted nursing home residents who died in those facilities, but excluded thousands who died in hospitals.

“I don’t think the meeting was particularly productive. I don’t think we got the answers to our questions but the governor’s people have said they would welcome getting back to them with follow up questions and we plan to do that and hopefully that will bring out more information,” said Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan).

“The information that we’ve all been looking for about the number of deaths to nursing home residents who died in hospitals is still not at all clear and the answers to a lot of other questions about visiting policies or other things were just statements like, `we’re working on it.”’

Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens), the aging committee chairman whose uncle died of COVID-19 in a nursing home last year said of the meeting, “There were some heated exchanges at the beginning. Some members felt like they put their neck on the line and stood by the administration, and they felt betrayed with how they were treated.”

The senators who attended the meeting released Zucker’s 16-page letter, which was a response to a series of questions they submitted to him last year following a stormy legislative hearing on nursing homes. They had grilled Zucker, who testified for two hours.

“While we appreciate that our letter from August 2020 has finally been answered and, two weeks ago, nursing home data was released, it is unacceptable that it took so long,” said the statement from Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx), Investigations Committee Chairman James Skoufis (D-Orange) and Aging Committee Chairwoman Rachel May.

“Our original letter was sent following 40 hours of hearing testimony and after so many legislators, families, and members of the public demanded answers.”

Meanwhile the Empire Center for Public Policy, which won a Freedom of Information Lawsuit lawsuit to force the Cuomo administration to release more details about COVID-19 nursing home deaths, said the belated information received Wednesday from the Health Department was insufficient. A judge ruled team Cuomo illegally withheld the data and ordered its release.

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