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NY Families Who Lost Loved Ones To COVID Seek Accountability

Ted Minissale, Cindi Lizzi and Phil Minissale, on a Zoom press conference, recount the final days of their mother, Agnes, who died in a hospital last April after contracting COVID-19 in a nursing home.
Karen DeWitt

Republican New York State Senators and some family members of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 say they are still looking for answers from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration. The calls come a week after a scathing report from the state Attorney General found twice as many nursing home residents died of the disease than what the state had been reporting. They are urging majority party Democrats to subpoena the governor’s health commissioner for more information and calling for a thorough investigation of the over 12,700 deaths.  Phil Minissale, along with his sister Cindi and brother Ted, took turns visiting their mother Agnes, every day while she lived at the Teresian House nursing home in Albany, where she moved after their father passed away in 2016.

One of them accompanied her every evening to pray in the chapel at the Catholic run home, and then made sure that she got to sleep alright.

“She was just beautiful,” said Phil Minissale. “She was warm, she was loving.” 

“(She had) a great sense of humor,” Cindi Lizzi added. 

“Everybody’s mom is important to them, we can only speak for ourselves in saying that she was our life,” Minissale said. 

Then, the pandemic struck, and everything changed. Minissale says his family understood when they were first banned from visiting, during what everyone thought would be a brief period of time. But he says what he didn’t know, was that the nursing homes were not taking proper precautions to protect his mom and the other residents. And he says they could not be there in person to advocate for her.

The family got conflicting answers from the home, and called the county executive’s office and Albany’s Catholic Diocese, without much result. Phil’s sister Cindi Lizzi says as the weeks dragged on, the nursing home administration went silent.

“They were extremely uncooperative,” Lizzi said. “We felt totally out of control and we felt that no one was listening to us.”

Around April 20, the home disclosed that their mother had fallen ill, and was being transferred to the hospital, unconscious with pneumonia in both lungs. The hospital conducted confirmed that Agnes had the virus. Phil, Cindi and Ted, were allowed one visit, and early in the morning on April 22, she passed away, alone, at the age of 93.

“Even to this day, it’s heart wrenching to think of our mom,” Minissale said.  

Phil, Ted and Cindi were part of a press conference organized by minority party Republicans in the Senate and Assembly. It was held on the day that they hoped Governor Cuomo’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, would testify at a scheduled budget hearing and answer their questions. But that hearing was been postponed. A spokesman said at the time that the health commissioner would be needed for a pre scheduled coronavirus briefing conducted by the governor. But no briefing was held on Wednesday. 

The Attorney General’s report, released on January 28, found that the health department was undercounting by 50% the number of nursing home residents who died. Several hours later, Zucker released health department numbers that largely confirmed that part of the AG’s report. Lawmakers and advocates had been asking for those numbers since last spring, but Zucker had refused to release them, saying he was still trying to get an accurate count.

But GOP lawmakers say there is still a lot of key information missing from Zucker’s release and they say more needs to be known about a controversial March 25 directive from Cuomo that required nursing homes to accept back residents sick with COVID who were discharged from the hospitals. Critics say that led to more deaths. 

Senator Sue Serino, a Republican from the Hudson Valley, says the Democrats, who have supermajorities in both houses of the legislature, have the power to issue subpoenas and conduct a full investigation. 

“If they’re not going to take the steps necessary to do that immediately, then they are complicit in the cover-up,” Serino said. “And I do not say that lightly.”

The Democratic chair of the Senate Investigations Committee, James Skoufis, had said he was considering issuing a subpoena. Democrats are holding off on that threat until they see what the health commissioner says at the budget hearing, now set for February 25.

Cuomo has dismissed the criticisms of his nursing home policies as political attacks by right-wing elected officials and news media, although Attorney General James, a Democrat, had been considered a Cuomo ally.

The governor, speaking one day after the nursing home report, said it’s not about blame.

“Look, whether a person died in a hospital or died in nursing home, people died,” Cuomo said on January 29.

Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican from the Schenectady area, says it’s clear to him that Cuomo did care about the locations where nursing home residents passed away, otherwise his health department would not have closely guarded that data for the public for months.

“He wouldn’t have denied us those numbers, and Dr. Zucker wouldn’t have denied us those numbers, unless it mattered to him to protect his wellbeing in terms of blame,” Tedisco said.

The family members say it’s not about politics. Phil Minissale is registered Democrat and in the past has been active in the party in his hometown of Colonie. He, along with his siblings Ted and Cindi, say they would just like to see accountability for any mistakes that might have been made.

“This should never be about politics,” Phil Minissale said “And if someone makes a mistake, you own up to it.”

“Be responsible for the choices that you make,” Ted Minissale added.

“And protect the people that are still in nursing homes,” said Cindi Lizzi.  

The three are working with the Attorney General’s office and say they have spoken to an investigator. The AG’s probe of the nursing homes is continuing.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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