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GOP wants new health commissioner to review COVID-19 in nursing homes

NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett speaks to the media in Albany Friday, December 17, 2021
Mike Groll
Office of the Governor
NYS Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett speaks to the media in Albany Friday, December 17, 2021

Republicans in the State Senate are calling on newly confirmed State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett to review a controversial directive approved by her predecessor at the start of the pandemic that required nursing homes to admit COVID-positive residents.

They made that call one day before Bassett is scheduled to testify before the state Legislature at its annual budget hearing on the state’s health-related spending.

The directive in question was issued by the Cuomo administration by former State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker in March 2020. It barred nursing homes from turning away COVID-positive residents based solely on that diagnosis.

Critics of the directive have said it put nursing home residents at risk of catching the virus, though facilities were required to keep those with a positive diagnosis separate from others.

Republicans are also proposing legislation that would require the state Department of Health to launch a probe into its actions under her predecessor, and issue a report of its findings.

That proposal was partly the result of comments from Bassett in January, before she was confirmed, when she said she wouldn’t investigate the actions of her predecessor.

“I wasn’t here, and I’ve decided that I’m not going to take the time to unravel the previous situation,” Bassett said.

She did say, however, that she would “offer to resign” before implementing advice that would be harmful to the public.

At Monday’s press conference, Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt said there is a moral imperative for the new Department of Health to correct the mistakes of the past.

“It’s probably very inconvenient for her (Bassett) and her boss, but I can tell you it’s not nearly as inconvenient as the deaths of the 15,000 people that occurred in this state,” Ortt said.

“Those families never received an apology. No one’s ever been held accountable. They were told ‘who cares’ by the last governor.”

A report issued by the state Attorney General’s Office about a year ago claimed that the state might have underreported the deaths of nursing home residents by as much as 50%. The report also said the March 2020 directive may have led to additional COVID deaths in nursing homes.

However, a report released by Zucker’s Health Department, argued that the coronavirus entered nursing homes through asymptomatic staff and visitors.

Sen. Sue Serino, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Aging Committee, said she plans to push Bassett on the issue during her testimony at Tuesday’s budget hearing.

“We plan to ask her about this, and I sincerely hope her answer has changed. If it hasn’t, Governor Hochul must make good on promises that she made to the grieving families by including this language in her 30-day budget amendments.”

Tuesday’s hearing is a joint hearing, which means lawmakers from both the Senate, and Assembly, will participate.

A second bill unveiled at Monday’s press conference would mark March 25, the day the controversial directive was issued, as “We Care Remembrance Day” to pay respects to the nursing home residents lost to the virus.

“The family members deserve that, they deserve to know we’re not going to forget them,” said Sen. Jim Tedisco, R-Schenectady.

“We have a 9/11 commemoration, and we should, for the 3,000 people who lost their lives. For 15,000 of our most vulnerable population, we should have a commemoration day.”