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Visitors allowed back in N.Y. nursing homes as Cuomo claims he should have been ‘more aggressive’ in countering critics

The New York Daily News - 2/19/2021

ALBANYGov. Cuomo faulted himself Friday for not being “aggressive enough” as he faces a firestorm of criticism over New York’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID crisis.

The governor, accused of vowing to “destroy” an outspoken assemblyman in recent days, repeated his claim that his administration’s only mistake has been creating a “void” of missing information that was “exploited.”

“I was not aggressive enough in knocking down the falsity. We were busy doing our job, we’re trying to save lives, no excuses. I was not aggressive enough,” Cuomo said during a remote press briefing from the State Capitol. “But I should have been more aggressive in calling it out, because it wasn’t hurting me. It hurt the families who had questions.”

Cuomo has repeatedly brushed off criticism of the state’s nursing home policies and the withholding of related data, calling critiques nothing more than partisan, political attacks.

But scrutiny of the administration has been bipartisan in recent weeks in the wake of a report from New York Attorney General Letitia James, a fellow Democrat, that accused Cuomo officials of under-counting coronavirus-related deaths at elder care facilities by excluding those who died at hospitals.

The report prompted the health officials to admit the death count of nursing home and long-term care facility residents was more than 15,000, not the 8,500 previously made public.

“People wanted information, we did not produce public information fast enough,” Cuomo acknowledged Friday, but continued to rail against the idea that figures deaths were under-counted.

An avalanche of allegations, calls for probes and even impeachment have fallen on the governor and his administration in the ensuing weeks as top aide Melissa DeRosa privately admitted to state lawmakers that officials stonewalled requests for data last year out of fear that it would be used as political fodder by the Trump administration.

The governor has since said that officials informed Legislative leaders they had prioritized a Department of Justice request for information.

That led to a “void,” Cuomo lamented, before vowing to be more aggressive in the future.

“I’m not going to make that mistake again,” he said. “If you’re lying to the people of the state of New York, I’m going to call it out.”

The comments come as the Legislature appears to be on the brink of rescinding Cuomo’s sweeping pandemic powers and a feud with Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens) erupted after the lawmaker accused the governor of threatening to “destroy” him. Cuomo aides have accused Kim of lying about the language used in phone call last week.

Cuomo, who spent more than half an hour defending his administration’s pandemic response Friday, is also calling on lawmakers to include a slate of nursing home reforms in the state budget that will boost staffing levels and cap profits and salaries for executives.

“These facilities must be transparent and we have to have the tools necessary for holding bad actors accountable,” he said, adding that he won’t sign a budget that doesn’t include the reforms.

Under his proposal, private nursing homes would be required to spend a minimum of 70% of revenue on direct patient care and a minimum of 40% of revenue on staffing. Civil fines would be increased and a current law granting facilities 30 days to fix violations before a penalty is imposed would be eliminated.

The governor also announced that nursing homes in New York can welcome back visitors as long as they take a COVID rapid test before entry.

The state Department of Health, which will be providing elder care facilities with rapid tests, will issue more detailed guidance about visits on Monday.

Over the past six weeks, the state has prioritized vaccinating seniors at long-term care sites and 73% of nursing home residents have received shots. However, just 49% of nursing home staff have agreed to be immunized.

Cuomo’s embattled Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who has faced calls for his resignation, also defended a controversial March 25 order instructing nursing homes to take COVID-positive residents if they were capable of caring for them.

Zucker said based on the facts at the time that the directive was the right decision as hospitals statewide were nearing capacity and officials reasoned that nursing home residents safely recover after returning to their facilities.

“We simply said you cannot deny admission based on status,” he said. “We never said you must accept, we said you couldn’t deny.”

Zucker repeated information published by the state last summer that shows COVID-19 came into nursing homes inadvertently through asymptomatic staff, not recovering residents. He said 98% of nursing homes that accepted coronavirus patients already had cases.

“You make the decisions based on the information that you have at the time,” Zucker said. “We made the right public health decision at the time and faced with the same facts, we would make the same decisions again.”


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