New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner came under a five-hour virtual grilling on Thursday as lawmakers, including some of Cuomo’s fellow Democrats, sought more details about the governor’s nursing home policies during the earliest weeks of the coronavirus pandemic last spring.
During the often contentious hearing, Health Commissioner Howard Zucker stood by the Cuomo administration’s longstanding assertion that asymptomatic spread among nursing home workers — and not the admission of Covid patients in those facilities — led to viral outbreaks and deaths. He accused critics of attempting to “politicize” the issue.
Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat and vocal critic of Cuomo, accused the administration of “bobbing and weaving” on questions related to the state’s nursing home policies.
“Just breathe and say you don’t get everything right,” he said. “Every now and then it is OK to say that you didn’t get everything right. And perhaps, working with your colleagues like us and localities, you would do a little bit better.”
Zucker’s testimony, which had been rescheduled from early February, came shortly after a top Cuomo ally, Steve Cohen, made a preemptive attempt to “clarify certain issues relating to the ongoing nursing home discussion.”
Cohen, an occasional legal adviser and counsel to the governor’s office who had not taken a prominent role in the nursing home debate, urged lawmakers to focus on the governor’s budget proposals, which was the ostensible purpose of the hearing.
That request, however, was doomed to failure as lawmakers pressed Zucker and other state officials about policies enacted in the wake of the pandemic and expressed frustration over the transparency surrounding those decisions.
Republicans, who have led the charge against Cuomo on nursing homes, continued to take issue with the state’s policy of transferring Covid patients from hosptials to nursing homes. They questioned why the order, issued on March 25 of last year, was rescinded if it did not contribute to Covid-19 deaths in long-term care facilities, and pressed the administration to “apologize.”
“At long last, will you and the Cuomo Administration admit to your culpability in these deaths and finally issue an apology to the thousands of families impacted?” asked Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville).
Zucker, who accused critics of pushing “a lot of fiction” around the order, argued that data supports the Department of Health’s July report which found thousands of Covid-19-related long-term care deaths in New York — and across the country — were largely driven by community spread from infected staff or visitors in the early days of the pandemic.
“There were 37,000 staff who ended up having Covid and they brought it in — inadvertently — at a time when we did not know about asymptomatic spread,” he said. “Remember, back then, we asked the international and national experts — we asked [Dr. Anthony] Fauci himself and he said, ‘you know, asymptomatic spread is not a driver of the pandemic’ — so they brought it in inadvertently and that’s how it spread.”
Zucker added that the March order was not “rescinded,” but that different guidance was issued. He also rejected claims that the administration engaged in a “cover-up” when it came to the release of long-awaited data regarding long-term care facility residents who died from Covid-19 in hospitals.
Cohen, meanwhile, echoed the governor’s longstanding arguments that there was a concern about the politicization of Donald Trump’s Department of Justice after the DOJ announced that it would investigate the situation in New York. Cohen also asserted that gathering the data was a time-consuming and complicated process.
The governor has declined to apologize for his administration’s decision to let Covid-19 patients into nursing homes, but said his administration “made a mistake in creating the void” that allowed for “misinformation and conspiracy.”
He has also pledged to enact a slate of nursing home reform proposals, announced as part of his 30-day amendments to his budget, including new penalties for public health law violations, direct care spending ratios and an emergency receiver appointment process.