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One year after controversial COVID-19 order, families of nursing home residents seek answers

Karen DeWitt
State lawmakers and relatives of New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 in nursing homes during the pandemic held a Day of Remembrance outside the State Capitol

Critics of some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic marked the anniversary of the controversial March 25, 2020 order that required the homes to take back from hospitals residents who were ill with the disease.

They said an ongoing federal probe does not go far enough in investigating all that may have gone wrong in the governor’s management of nursing homes during the pandemic.  

Republicans, who are in the minority in the State Senate, held a Remembrance Day for the over 15,000 nursing home and adult long term care facility residents who have died of COVID-19 so far. 

Sen. Sue Serino, ranking minority member on the Senate’s Aging Committee, said the order led to the unnecessary deaths of many nursing home residents, because the coronavirus-positive patients discharged from hospitals spread the virus to others in the nursing homes.  

“For too many New York families, March 25, 2020, is day that changed their lives forever,” Serino said. 

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker disputes that. He contends asymptomatic staff and visitors led to the spread.  

State Attorney General Tish James said in a January report that the residents’ re-admissions “may have contributed to increased risk of nursing home resident infection, and subsequent fatalities.” 

The order was rescinded on May 10, 2020.  

The attorney general’s report also found that nursing home deaths were undercounted by 50%, and a federal investigation is looking into allegations that the governor and his top aides covered up the true number of deaths. 

But Serino and some family members of those who died in the nursing homes said there also needs to be a fuller investigation of all of the administration’s nursing home policies, to find out if any acts of official misconduct occurred.

Ann Brancati is a member of the group Voices for Seniors, formed by grieving relatives. She lost her mother-in-law, Eleanor Brancati, to the disease on Jan. 25. She and her husband had not been able to see Eleanor since Cuomo issued a ban on all visitors to the homes on March 12, 2020. They were allowed to talk to her through their cellphone just before she died. She said it was a “heartbreaking moment.” 

Voices for Seniors members have joined Serino in asking State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli to give a referral to James so that she could begin a probe. Under state law, the only other official who can give a referral to the attorney general to investigate a matter is the governor, and Cuomo appears unlikely to do so.  

Brancati said she and the other family members just want to know what happened. 

“I only ask if you could please, uncover the truth,” Brancati said. 

Jennifer Freeman, a spokesperson for DiNapoli, said the comptroller’s office is “reviewing the request.” She said in a statement that “New Yorkers who lost loved ones in nursing homes to COVID-19 rightly want more answers.”

It’s not just Republican lawmakers who are critical of Cuomo’s nursing home policies. Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim, chair of his house’s Aging Committee, lost an uncle in a nursing home to the disease. Kim called the March 25 directive a “deadly decision” that has led to “thousands of deaths and counting.” 

Kim has accused Cuomo of threatening to “destroy” him if the Assemblyman continued his complaints against nursing home policies during the pandemic. Cuomo denied that, but in a coronavirus briefing, he also tried to damage Kim’s reputation and accused him, with no evidence, of corruption.  

Democrats in the State Senate also acted on Wednesday to reverse a provision slipped into last year’s state budget that granted nursing homes immunity from prosecution for any decisions they made that might have adversely affected the health of their residents.  

Bill sponsor Sen. Alessandra Biaggi said the blanket immunity granted to the nursing homes might have caused them to put their profits before protecting residents and staff. 

“It will fully repeal the remaining protections under the governor’s disastrous immunity provisions,” Biaggi said. “I vote today in honor of the thousands of New Yorkers we lost in nursing homes and their grieving families looking for answers.”  

The bill passed unanimously. It has already been approved in the Assembly, and now goes to Cuomo’s desk to be signed or vetoed. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Late Thursday, Cuomo and Zucker announced that they are changing the rules on nursing home visitation in New York, and will now permit “visitation at all times and for all residents” with exceptions for unvaccinated residents in areas of high community spread and residents who are sick with COVID-19.

"From the very beginning, we've used science and data to find the appropriate balance between protecting our most vulnerable populations in nursing homes and the importance of allowing safe contact with their loved ones," Cuomo said in a statement.

Cuomo and Zucker said they made the change to comply with guidelines recently released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The new policy takes effect immediately.

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.