/New York health chief defends state’s decision to make nursing homes take Covid patients
Cuomo administration underreported Covid deaths in nursing homes, report says

New York health chief defends state’s decision to make nursing homes take Covid patients

A view of a patient being wheeled out of a nursing home in Flushing Queens New York USA during coronavirus pandemic on April 22, 2020.

John Nacion | NurPhoto | Getty Images

New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker on Friday defended the state’s decision in March to make nursing homes take residents from hospitals that had the coronavirus, blaming most of the virus’ spread on staff members.

The directive, issued on March 25, prohibited nursing homes from denying admission or readmission to residents infected with Covid-19. The directive also banned nursing homes from testing patients before entry, NBC News reported. The policy was later reversed in May.

Zucker said on Friday that, at the time, New York’s coronavirus hospitalization rate was growing “at a staggering pace” and capacity in the state’s intensive-care units was running thin. By allowing the residents to return to the nursing homes, it helped protect the health-care system from collapsing, he said.

“You can only review a decision with the facts that you had at the time,” Zucker said during a press briefing alongside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “And with the facts that we had at that moment in time, it was the correct decision from a public health point of view.”

Zucker said the decision was based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued at the time that said nursing homes should admit any residents they normally would admit, including people diagnosed with Covid-19, as long as precautions were in place.

A CDC spokesperson wasn’t immediately available to comment on Zucker’s remarks.

The Covid-19 patients who returned to the nursing homes were likely not contagious, according to the CDC’s guidance at the time, and were separated from other residents. Zucker added that state law requires nursing homes to deny residents if they don’t have the ability to properly care for them.

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

The comments from the state’s top health official come as the Cuomo administration faces bipartisan criticism over its handling of nursing home Covid-19 deaths. An investigation from New York Attorney General Letitia James published in late January found the New York Department of Health underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%.

Cuomo has aggressively defended the state’s count, however, saying that those deaths were counted as part of fatalities at hospitals, not at nursing homes. On Friday, Cuomo and Zucker said most of the virus’ spread wasn’t because of the Covid-positive resident, but it was coming from the staff members caring for them.

“Covid came in to the nursing homes from the staff. They got it at home, they got it in the grocery store, they went to work and they brought in Covid,” Cuomo said.

This is a developing story. Please check back later for updates.