New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker declined to testify at Monday’s public hearing on the COVID-19 crisis in upstate nursing homes, leaving lawmakers to instead question nursing home stakeholders about issues like shortages of testing and personal protective equipment, as well as restrictions on visitation.
Several Republican members of the New York State Legislature opened their testimony at the virtual hearing by expressing disappointment with Zucker’s absence.
“I think upstate deserves better,” said Assemblymember Jacob Ashby, R-Castleton, “and the families and people who've been affected by this, and the people testifying here today, also deserve a representative from the Department of Health, especially after last week.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were disappointed with Zucker’s testimony at last week’s hearing, which focused on downstate nursing homes. Zucker refused to disclose the number of nursing home residents to die of COVID-19 in hospitals, a missing number that may be severely undercounting the state’s official nursing home death toll of 6,400. Some estimate that the actual death toll is closer to 11,000.
Without a full count of nursing home deaths, some feel it’s impossible to trust Zucker’s July 6 report, which found that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial March 25 order placing COVID-19 hospital patients in nursing homes was not the “driver” of infections and death.
Republicans want the state Senate to use its subpoena power to force Zucker to reveal the number. However, Democrats, who are in the majority, are cool to the idea.
“Many of us were part of last week's hearing and the health commissioner after several hours left us, I think, with many more questions than answers,” said state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma.
Without Zucker, lawmakers questioned nursing home operators. Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, which represents 400 nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the state, said a lack of testing and the asymptomatic nature of COVID-19 were “the most significant key factors” in the crisis.
He noted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not prioritize nursing home residents and asymptomatic staff members for testing. Neither group was placed in Tier One for testing.
“Going forward, it is essential that long-term care providers receive equal priority as hospitals,” Hanse said. “We saw a significant focus on ramping up hospital capacity and resources. That same focus needs to be directed to long-term care facilities.”
Lawmakers also heard from nursing home families about the lack of testing. Mary Jo Botindari of Syracuse said her father was unable to get tested, despite running a fever and becoming unresponsive.
“I heard it didn't make a difference with his care, and then I also heard them say, ‘We wouldn't even know how to go about (testing),’” Botindari testified. “My father died two days later, with no test.”
Nursing home staff members also testified. Iris Purks, a certified nursing assistant at Safire Rehabilitation of the Northtowns in Tonawanda, testified that she tested positive after being exposed to a sick resident and co-worker.
“I was taking care of residents without an N-95, without proper equipment, without proper precaution,” Purks said.
She said it wasn’t until employees protested with their union, SEIU 1199, that Safire provided them with their first N-95 masks.
James Clyne, president and CEO of Leading Age New York, which represents more than 200 not-for-profit and government-run nursing homes, said nursing homes went through 12 million pieces of PPE a week at the beginning of the crisis, but it just wasn’t enough.
When Leading Age New York’s members ran out of PPE, Clyne said they struggled to connect with the state Office of Emergency Management.
“You might go days without being able to get in touch with your Office of Emergency Management, and if you didn’t get through, then you didn’t get any PPE,” he said, adding the state needs to bolster the system for a possible second wave of the virus this fall.
A lack of nursing home visitation was also discussed. The state allowed nursing homes to reopen for visitation July 15, but, as WBFO reported July 31, just 18% of nursing homes had reopened.
Mikko Cook, of Ventura, Calif., said her family has had no in-person contact and very limited virtual contact with her father in his Albany nursing home. At one point her father was assaulted by another resident, and the family could not get a video call with him until five days later.
With many nursing homes only doing outdoor visits, Cook urged lawmakers to allow more visitation before the winter makes that impossible. She also suggested they allow at least one family member per resident to visit, as many family members act as caregivers to their loved one in a nursing home.
“Why not designate one family member who is tested as staff is and adheres to all the rules and is limited to a loved one’s room for visitation?” she said. “My family would gladly sacrifice visits for many of us so that my dad's wellbeing could be guaranteed by one of us.”
Hanse blamed the state’s visitation rules for why more nursing homes aren’t open. The state, following federal government guidance, mandates that a nursing home be COVID-free for 28 days before allowing visitors.
“If one staff member tests positive for COVID, every resident in that nursing home is unable to receive a visitation from a family or loved one. That's significant,” he said.
Hanse has asked that nursing homes only have to be COVID-free for 14 days.