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Lawmakers Launch Petition Drive For Investigation Into Nursing Home Deaths

From left to right: New York State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, Senator James Tedisco, State Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh
Lucas Willard
From left to right: New York State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, Senator James Tedisco, State Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh

A group of Capital Region lawmakers is again pushing for an independent review of nursing home-related deaths attributed to COVID-19. 

It’s estimated more than 6,000 deaths have been linked to nursing homes during the pandemic, though some state lawmakers believe that number is far greater than state health officials are letting on, including Republican Senator James Tedisco of Glenville.

“It might be embarrassing for the governor to see that the numbers are 10,000, 11,000, or 12,000. And I understand that. But that doesn’t rise above the need to have the numbers, to prepare, put a plan in place – a realistic plan – of what not to do and what to do that worked for the future if this does raise up again. And as the governor defined it: a wildfire going through dry grass.”

Tedisco, along with Democratic State Assemblyman Ron Kim, in August formally introduced a bill that calls for an independent review of New York’s coronavirus response in nursing homes.

Republicans, along with some of their Democratic colleagues, have for months questioned a March directive by Governor Andrew Cuomo that allowed for patients recovering from COVID-19 to be discharged from hospitals back into nursing homes. Cuomo, who said that was in line with CDC regulations, revised the policy by executive order in May.

He’s been playing defense on the policy since. State Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, along with Republican Senator Daphne Jordan, are co-sponsors of the legislation from Tedisco and Kim. Walsh, a Ballston Republican, joined Tedisco at the state capitol on Wednesday.  

“For the governor, a few weeks ago to hold a press conference and say – basically – the way I heard it was to blame every COVID death on our president…that upset me. Because I think that’ve you’ve got to at least take some responsibility if there is responsibility to spread around for what has happened,” said Walsh.

Tedisco and Walsh announced a new effort to seek an independent investigation: a statewide online petition drive, to highlight the concerns of New Yorkers on nursing home deaths.

State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt joined Tedisco and Walsh Wednesday.

“And we’re going to see, when this petition drive comes out, this is thousands of New Yorkers across – tens of thousands of New Yorkers – across the state who support this. And I hope they remember come November who was calling for this, who was advocating for this, and who wasn’t,” said Ortt.

The lawmakers renewing calls for an investigation six weeks from Election Day insist they are not playing politics, though Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Governor Cuomo, thinks otherwise.

"With this latest publicity stunt, Tedisco and company accidentally revealed that even they think the DOJ inquiry is a trumped up partisan farce. The truth may be inconvenient for their politics, but — as has been the case with many other states — it was found that the main source of infection in nursing homes was, through no fault of their own, asymptomatic staffers,” said Azzopardi.

Azzopardi is referring to a federal Department of Justice investigation into the nursing home deaths announced in August, which Cuomo dismissed as “political.”

In July, State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker revealed conclusions from a review of voluntarily-provided nursing home data in New York. Here’s Zucker at a July 6th press conference.

“The employee infections were related to the larger community spread. And employee transmission has the strongest correlation to nursing home fatalities. Admission policies were not a significant factor in nursing home fatalities. And data suggests that nursing home quality is not a factor in mortality from COVID.”

Under a June order from Governor Cuomo, full-time nursing homes are required to be tested for COVID-19 twice a week.

This week, the state health department began relaxing visitor restrictions in nursing homes. As of Thursday, facilities will be to host visitors after 14 days without a COVID-19 case, down from the previous 28 days.

The policy change, which pertains to about 500 of the states 613 nursing homes, will require visitors to have a negative coronavirus test from within the past week and undergo a temperature check. Only two visitors per resident are allowed at a time and visitors must wear masks, socially distance and be over age 18.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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