Assemblyman Kevin Byrne is among a growing number of lawmakers who are demanding answers about the way the state has handled the coronavirus outbreak in nursing homes.

In a statement released Monday, May 11, members of the state Assembly’s Minority Conference called on the Legislature to convene a public hearing “to review and investigate New York’s policies, decisions and protocols that were utilized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on state-regulated nursing home facilities.”

According to the latest statewide data, there have been more than 5,000 pandemic-related deaths of nursing home residents, either in the homes themselves or in hospitals.

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“The threat of an outbreak in adult-care facilities was evident early, and the state’s policies placing patients and staff in harm’s way reek of negligence. This is wholly unacceptable,” wrote the Republican, who represents the 94th District (Somers, Yorktown and parts of Putnam County.)

On March 25, citing an “urgent need to expand hospital capacity,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo directed long-term care facilities to accept recovering patients who may still have tested positive for COVID-19.

Six weeks later, Cuomo issued an executive order forbidding hospitals to discharge patients to nursing homes unless they had tested negative for the virus.

He denied that it was a policy reversal, saying nursing homes could have contacted the state Department of Health for help if they weren’t equipped to care for infected patients waiting to be admitted.

Even under normal circumstances, nursing homes are required by law to transfer any resident for whom it cannot provide the appropriate level of care, for whatever reason. The facility may not have a way of isolating or quarantining COVID-19 positive patients. It may not have enough staff or personal protective equipment.

According to the governor, the state has “alternative” facilities for nursing home patients, whether they have COVID-19 or not.

Early projections had the state needing another 100,000 hospital beds at the height of the outbreak. It has since created 40,000 and set up COVID-only facilities that could accept nursing home patients, Cuomo said.

The state is also now requiring that such facilities test all employees for COVID-19 twice a week and report any positive test results to the state the very next day.

Nursing homes were to have come up with a plan for compliance with the testing directive by Friday, May 15. According to the state, any facility found to be in violation of the employee testing order faces having its license suspended or fines of $2,000 per violation per day.

Somers has one nursing facility, The Paramount at Somers Rehabilitation & Nursing Center off Route 100. North Salem has two on the same campus, Salem Hills Rehabilitation & Healthcare and Waterview Hills Rehabilitation & Healthcare on Route 22 in Purdys.

Both nursing homes report they have been taking multiple steps to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including suspending visitations, limiting non-emergency off-site appointments, having all personnel wear personal protective equipment and screening everyone for symptoms, such as fever, before they are allowed to enter the building.

Reacting Tuesday, May 12, to the state’s latest order, Somers Supervisor Rick Morrissey said: “In the midst of this pandemic, it’s vitally important that we protect the most vulnerable in our community. The state’s efforts to test all nursing home employees and residents is a move in the right direction.”

North Salem Supervisor Warren Lucas, calling COVID-19 fatalities a “travesty,” said he thought that state health officials who were focusing on hospitals should have paid more attention to nursing homes from the very beginning.

While the county Department of Health does not manage or certify nursing homes, it did recently ask the state for permission to conduct COVID-19 testing in those types of facilities, Lucas said he was pleased to learn.

When North Salem’s two nursing facilities—like all health care operations in the beginning—were worried about getting sufficient PPE after “normal distribution channels dried up,” the town’s emergency management folks stepped in with dozens of surgical masks and gallons of hand sanitizer that it had borrowed or otherwise scrounged up, he said.

Lucas, stating that both county and state health officials determined that all proper procedures and protocols were being followed at the North Salem sites, added: “The state should have provided more focus on supporting them.”

He called the nursing home staff “wonderful, caring people who we know and who go out of their way for their residents.”
On Wednesday, April 22, North Salem’s first responders held a parade at Salem Hills to show their appreciation of the staff for putting their lives on the line to care for residents. Fire trucks, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, drove slowly by while masked and gloved essential workers waved American flags.

“I say a prayer every time I think about the workers and the residents who had to go through this,” Lucas said, adding that the event was intended to tell frontliners “how proud we were of them and the wonderful job they were doing under such tough circumstances.”

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

Cuomo’s administration has come under a lot of scrutiny—from both sides of the aisle—over the outbreak in nursing homes.

The governor announced last month that state Attorney General Letitia James and the Department of Health planned to launch a full investigation.

Questions about the way nursing homes have been handling the pandemic focus on safety, regulations and notification.

James also set up a hotline—833-249-8499—where residents, families or members of the public can share confidential complaints about nursing homes. They can also file complaints with the OAG online at https://ag.ny.gov/nursinghomes.

“Nursing homes, they are our top priority. They have been from Day One,” the governor said in April.

Several Democratic state lawmakers are, however, demanding an independent review. One of those is state Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan).

Those calling for an independent investigation argue that since the administration and the Attorney General’s Office are tight, the review might wind up being biased.

Gottfried pointed out that the AG serves as the government lawyer for state agencies, including the DOH. He also argued that the DOH—because it has oversight and regulatory controls over the nursing home industry—shouldn’t be investigating itself.

Gottfried was joined in pressing for public hearings by Democratic state Sen. Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx, head of the Senate Health Committee.

A group of Senate Republicans is also seeking an independent probe.

Meanwhile, Assembly Republicans are urging Democrats in control of Assembly Committees on Aging, Health, and Oversight, Analysis and Investigation, to hold a public hearing.

“As state lawmakers, that’s what we do; we hold public hearings so nursing home administrators, staff, and the families of residents have the opportunity to talk about policies,” said Byrne, a Mahopac resident who is the ranking Minority member on the

Assembly’s Health Committee and chairs the Assembly’s Minority Program Committee.

Lawmakers, in turn, get the chance to amass information that will help them make better policy “moving forward,” he added.

In a letter to the chairmen of those committees, the Assembly Minority Conference especially decried the “severe” impact COVID-19 has had on many veterans’ homes across the state.

It was addressed to Gottfried; Harry Bronson, chair of the Committee on Aging; and John T. McDonald III, chair of the Committee on Oversight, Analysis and Investigation.

According to the May 11 letter, which was signed by Byrne and 13 other assemblymen, the state Veterans Home in Montrose has lost 22 residents to the virus. The Long Island State Veterans Home reported 53 such deaths and the New York State Veterans Home at St. Albans in Queens had, at last count, suffered 33.

“Sadly, last week, 1,700 new COVID-19 nursing home deaths were added to the state’s total, including dozens of military veterans living in state-run facilities,” Byrne wrote.

Byrne said he was also disturbed by the fact that the Legislature had set a hearing on the federal government’s response to the pandemic’s economic effects but didn’t include the committees on Health, Aging, Veterans and Oversight, Analysis and Investigation.

The assemblyman said it would be a “mistake” for the Legislature to rely solely on the AG’s investigation because that has the appearance of ignoring “the inherent bias the state has toward itself.”

“In the interest of openness and transparency, the Legislature owes New Yorkers a hearing into this mess. These aren’t just statistics; these were people’s mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and uncles. We demand an explanation; families deserve answers,” Byrne said.

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