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Cuomo announces new rules for nursing home visits begin Friday


Residents of nursing homes in New York state will be able to have visitors again, starting this Friday, Feb. 26, under new rules laid out by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state health officials.

State officials delayed reopening the nursing homes, closed to visitors since last March, until all the residents were offered a chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Currently, 73% of residents have now agreed to receive both doses. So far, 15,000 elderly residents in nursing homes or other long-term adult care facilities have died of COVID-19, the vast majority of them alone. 

The visitation rules will vary, depending on the rate of the virus in the county where the nursing home is located. State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said that in counties where the rate of the virus is less than 5%, visitors to nursing homes do not have to be tested, although testing is encouraged.

In counties where the rate of infection is between 5% and 10%, visitors would have to undergo testing and show a negative test result within 72 hours before the visit. Zucker said some homes could offer rapid testing for guests.

Visitors to nursing homes will continue to be banned in counties where the virus rate is 10% or higher, or in any facility where someone has contracted COVID-19 within the past 14 days. Zucker said exceptions will be made for visitors who have received the vaccine.

“If a visitor has had two vaccines, and it’s been 14 days since their second vaccine,” Zucker said. “Then there’s probably no need for a test. However, we encourage to test anyway.”

He said the vaccines might not prevent the asymptomatic spread of the virus even in someone who had received both doses.

In all homes and adult care centers, no more than 20% of the residents can have visitors at any one time, and the homes are encouraged to set up separate rooms for visits. Masks and social distancing will be required.

The announcement came as welcome news to families who have waited more than 11 months to see their relatives in nursing homes; but others say the changes come too late.

State Sen. Pam Helming, a Republican from Canandaigua, said she recently lost two relatives in nursing homes. She said while they did not die directly of COVID-19, she, like thousands with relatives in nursing homes, believes that the social isolation led many frail elderly New Yorkers to decline, both mentally and physically.

“The cause of death for my last loved one - failure to thrive,” Helming said.

She is extremely thankful that visits can resume, but she said the months long delay will not bring back people who she believes might otherwise have lived.

“It’s too late,” Helming said. “I have to wonder could we have saved the lives of people? Could we at the very least have reunited families and loved ones if the legislature had a say in these decisions that are being made?”

Helming, along with all of the minority Republicans in the legislature, intend to vote for a hostile amendment to rescind Cuomo’s emergency powers under the pandemic. Many Democrats also back immediate revocation of the sweeping authority granted to the governor by the legislature last year, but Democratic Majority Leaders are working towards a plan that would instead curb the powers, by appointing an oversight commission to review emergency orders.   

Cuomo and his administration are under federal investigation for their handling of nursing homes policies. So far, the controversy has centered on the months-long suppression of the number of residents with COVID-19 who were transferred to hospitals and died there.

The true numbers were not released until the state’s Attorney General, Letisha James, issued a report that found the Cuomo Administration had undercounted the number of deaths by 50%.

Cuomo, in his briefing Monday, dodged a question on whether he or anyone in his administration has been subpoenaed in the probe, led by the U.S. Attorney for eastern New York, located in Brooklyn.  The governor would only say that he and his aides have been cooperating with all inquiries from the federal government, beginning with questions from the Justice Department under the administration of former President Donald Trump last August.

“We have complied with the inquiry and will continue to,” Cuomo said.

The governor also announced new rules for the opening of movie theaters in New York City and other areas where theaters have remained closed.  The theaters can open at 25% capacity and must install new ventilation systems approved by the Department of Health. Theater workers will not, however, be eligible to get vaccinated until there are more doses available, sometime later this year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.