ALBANY — Calls for an independent investigation of the manner in which the state has managed the coronavirus infection crisis at nursing homes are increasing even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo insists state actions had been consistent with federal guidance.
More than 5,600 residents have died from the infection at New York's 613 nursing homes since the pandemic reached the state in early March.
"The fact the governor has blamed President (Donald) Trump and the federal government for his irresponsible policies is shameful," Stefanik told CNHI, noting she has been contacted by grieving relatives of nursing home patients who have died at New York facilities.
Much of the controversy centers on a March 25 directive the state Department of Health issued to all nursing home administrators, directing them to admit new or returning patients regardless of whether they were positive for COVID-19.
After first defending the mandate, contending it mirrored guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control, Cuomo announced May 10 the state was rescinding it.
“Hospitals, going forward, cannot discharge a patient to a nursing home unless the patient tests negative for COVID-19,” Cuomo said May 10. That same day, he issued an executive order mandating that all nursing home staffers must be tested for the virus at least twice a week.
On April 23, Cuomo called for an investigation of the nursing home industry's response to the wave of infections, though he offered no suggestion there should be any review of the March 25 Health Department mandate, which some said increased the risk of the virus spreading inside the homes.
Cuomo, a Democrat, contended this week the criticism of his handling of the crisis was political.
Cuomo's senior advisor, Rich Azzopardi, dismissed Stefanik's criticism of the governor.
"Everyone can see through this ugly attempt to politicize this," he said.
Explaining the Health Department's approach to the nursing home concerns, he said: "The policy is always that you need facilities, proper staffing and enough protective equipment or you can't take a patient. We offered to help with transfers, provided nursing homes access to more than 95,000 staffers — which 400 of the approximately 600 took us up on, and provided more than 10.5 million pieces of PPE to them."
Stefanik said Cuomo's attempt to convince New Yorkers that his administration was merely adhering to CDC policies misconstrues what took place.
"The CDC guidance did not mandate or require the blanket acceptance of COVID positive cases (at the homes)," the congresswoman said. "Instead, they advocated for a case-by-case approach. No other state in the nation had the mandate the New York Department of Health issued."
Others who have taken issue with the Cuomo administration's management of the infections at nursing homes include Democrats such as Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, D-Manhattan, and Ronald Kim, D-Queens.
Separately, former three-term Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, is also insisting on an investigation into Cuomo's handling of the virus spread at nursing homes. Pataki has not been a candidate for any office since he made an ill-fated run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, is urging the state attorney general's office to retain outside counsel in its investigation of nursing home deaths, pointing out the state's lawyers are facing a client conflict because they often represent the Health Department in legal matters.
Gottfried also told CNHI he is supporting legislation advanced by Kim that would end the special legal immunity the state gave nursing homes and other health care centers during the pandemic. Lawmakers are expected to convene next week in remote session.
Stephen Hanse, chief executive officers of a nursing home lobby, the New York State Health Facilities Association, said the March 25 mandate was issued because the state was preparing for an expected surge of virus-positive patients at hospitals and wanted to free space in those care centers by clearing the way for the nursing home to readmit residents.
Looking ahead, Hanse said, "The providers and the state should work together to put in place policies that safeguard the residents and the staff."
He questioned the Cuomo administration's assertion that the March 25 directive was based on CDC guidance, noting other states did not order nursing homes to accept coronavirus-positive patients.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org