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Hochul tells families of COVID nursing home victims she's sorry for their deaths

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gets a flu shot on Oct. 13, 2021
Office of NY Gov. Kathy Hochul
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gets a flu shot on Oct. 13, 2021

Governor Kathy Hochul says she has apologized to family members of nursing home residents who died at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York. The governor, in a weekly briefing on the state’s management of the coronavirus, also drew attention to another infectious disease, the flu, which she says may also pose a serious health threat this year.

Hochul, who was the first state elected official to publicly get the COVID vaccine, received her annual flu shot on Wednesday before the cameras.

“I made sure I wore the mask so you wouldn’t see whether I winced or not,” Hochul joked.

The state is running a public service announcement urging New Yorkers to get the flu vaccine.

Last year’s flu season was very light, as the pandemic placed restrictions on social interactions, but the governor says that might not be the case this year, and more people could get sick.

Hochul also revealed details of a private meeting she held Tuesday between Assembly Aging Committee Chair Ron Kim and family members of people who died of COVID in nursing homes.

The family members, along with Kim, blame some of the deaths on former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic policies, including a March 25, 2020, directive that required nursing homes to take residents who were infected with the virus back from hospitals. The directive, and the subsequent undercounting of nursing home deaths, are the targets of a federal investigation into the actions of Cuomo and his former top aides.

Hochul, who replaced Cuomo in August after he resigned, says she did something her predecessor did not do. She told the family members that she is sorry for what happened.

“I apologized for the pain that those poor families had to endure as a result of their family members contracting COVID in nursing homes,” Hochul said. “It was a very emotional meeting.”

Kim, in a statement after the meeting, called it a “step in the right direction” but says there’s a long road to travel before the state reaches full accountability for what happened.

The families, who have formed an advocacy group called Voices for Seniors, expressed some skepticism, saying that after a year of Cuomo’s “gaslighting,” they hope that the meeting was not an attempt to silence them and continue to control the narrative around nursing home deaths.

Kim and the family members are seeking a compensation fund and a memorial. Hochul says her staff is working on both those requests.

“This is not a one off,” Hochul said. “I hold myself accountable. It wasn’t a photo opp. We didn’t tell the press. I don’t need a press conference to do the right thing.”

Hochul also addressed Tuesday’s court ruling on a portion of the state’s COVID vaccine mandate. A federal court judge ruled that health care employees will be allowed to decline the vaccine because of their religious belief. Hochul called the ruling “disappointing” and says the state will appeal.

“My responsibility has always been to protect the people of this state,” Hochul said. “I will be standing behind this mandate.”

The governor says the vaccine mandate has worked, and has led to over 95% of hospital workers, nursing home staff, home health care aides and adult care facility workers getting at least one dose of the vaccine.

Hochul has not released a tally of health care workers who quit their jobs rather than get the vaccine, saying the state does not keep records of those numbers.

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.