New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discusses nursing home compliance in the age of COVID-19 during his daily briefing; April 23, 2020. Video courtesy NYS Governor’s Office.
New York State Team
ALBANY – New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday launched an investigation into nursing homes’ conduct during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has left more than 3,500 residents of long-term care facilities dead since the start of March.
The state Department of Health and Attorney General Letitia James will co-lead the investigation, which will focus on whether nursing homes and adult-care facilities appropriately followed state law and regulation as the coronavirus went on its torrid spread in New York.
But nursing home operators say it was the state that took a bad situation and made it worse, citing a controversial March 25 advisory that they say may have helped introduce the virus into some of their elderly-care facilities in an effort to free up hospital beds.
The back-and-forth between the state and the homes came as the virus continued to plateau in New York, with total current COVID-19 hospitalizations dropping to 15,000 Wednesday.
The 438 new deaths Wednesday was the lowest the state had seen in a single day since April 1, according to state data. The total statewide death toll rose to 15,740, meaning about one in five people who died of the disease was a nursing home resident.
As of Wednesday, at least 3,540 nursing home residents died of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in New York, according to state data.
“The state Department of Health and the attorney general are going to be commencing an investigation to make sure (state) policies are in place and being followed,” Cuomo said Thursday.
“If they’re not being followed, (the nursing homes) can face a fine or they can lose their license. It’s that simple.”
More: Coronavirus in New York: Check our interactive map of cases and deaths by county
Nursing home trade group critical of state mandate
Nursing homes collage (Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)
Cuomo’s announcement drew criticism from groups representing nursing homes and adult-care facilities, which claim that providers have been vigilant in following the state and federal government’s guidance for dealing with COVID-19.
The Democratic governor has repeatedly acknowledged that a deadly coronavirus outbreak was almost inevitable in nursing homes, whose elderly residents live in dense quarters and are particularly susceptible.
But some nursing home operators have faulted the state for its March 25 advisory, which prevented homes from denying admittance or re-admittance to any patient if the sole reason is the patient was suspected to have had COVID-19.
The order was intended to free up space in hospitals as the coronavirus spread quickly throughout much of the New York City area.
At the time, New York was fearful it would need upward of 110,000 hospital beds to treat the outbreak, up from its normal capacity of 53,000.
More: Coronavirus: Dozens of NY nursing homes have clusters of COVID-19 deaths. See the data here.
That type of enormous surge never came, however, which Cuomo has said is a testament to social distancing and other strict preventive measures put in place across the state.
Still, nursing homes were forced to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals under the order, said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the NYS Health Facilities Association, a trade group representing more than 450 nursing homes and similar care facilities..
The state Health Department did not respond to a request for how many patients were transferred to nursing homes under the policy. Hanse said he didn’t have that data either, though he said he’s aware of homes throughout the state who accepted patients.
“This treacherous virus spreads through nursing homes like fire through dry grass and the state’s March 25th policy served to unnecessarily to fan the flames of this fire,” Hanse said.
More: NYC is worst for nursing-home COVID-19 deaths but some upstate homes have problems as well
State working with, investigating nursing homes
Howard Zucker, M.D., the NYS Health Commissioner is pictured as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo discusses the new cases of the Coronavirus in New Rochelle, during a press briefing at the New York Power Authority in White Plains, March 4, 2020. (Photo: Mark Vergari/The Journal News)
On Wednesday, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the state is working closely with nursing home operators to ensure that COVID-19 patients are “cohorted” — meaning they’re kept together separate from the general population — and that the homes have enough staff and personal protective equipment.
“You have to remember that one of the challenges a little bit with nursing home patients, those who are really elderly, you take them out of their environment, it’s very disruptive,” Zucker said.
“So we’re trying to work to balance both — maintain the environment that they’re comfortable with but also provide the safety from the standpoint of public health and just general safety.”
On Thursday, Cuomo emphasized that most nursing homes in New York are private organizations and only regulated — not run — by New York state.
He went over the state’s rules and regulations for nursing-home care in the age of the coronavirus, including a ban on visitors that has been in effect for over a month.
If a nursing home was unable to provide the state-mandated level of care for a resident or COVID patient, they should have transferred them to another facility, Cuomo said.
“If they cannot provide that, they can’t have the resident in their facility — period,” Cuomo said. “Those are the rules.”
James, the attorney general, has an online tip sheet at ag.ny.gov/nursinghomes and a hotline at 833-249-8499 where people can file confidential complaints against a facility.
“We recognize that the most vulnerable New Yorkers are continuing to suffer through this crisis at nursing homes across the state,” James said in a statement.
Hanse, meanwhile, said nursing home have been vigilant in following the state’s rules and guidance, calling them “highly regulated mission driven organizations.”
The increasing number of COVID deaths at nursing homes is “not the result of inattentiveness or shortcomings in our facilities,” he said.
“The very nature of long-term care is a high touch environment where social distancing is not an option in providing care,” Hanse said. “Staff are hands-on helping residents with bathing, dressing, eating and other personal daily needs.”
When asked what went wrong in nursing homes, Cuomo said nobody is to blame.
“Nothing went wrong,” Cuomo said. “What went wrong in hospitals? What went wrong in societies? Mother Nature brought a virus and the virus attacks … old people.”
More: D&C story prompts call for state investigation of Hurlbut nursing home
More: Coronavirus in New York: 2.7 million residents may have been infected
Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.
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