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NY's Top Doctor Says COVID-19 Came to Nursing Homes Through Staff, Visitors, Not Readmitted Patients
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State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker
State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker
Credit: Gov. Cuomo's Office

Health officials in New York said Monday that COVID-19 entered nursing homes through staff and early visitors at those facilities, and claimed the data does not support claims that previously infected residents spread the disease when they were readmitted from hospitals.

State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker unveiled his agency’s findings during a press briefing Monday, and said the state was not at fault for the deaths at nursing homes.

“The false narrative is that a resident who had COVID brought it to the nursing home,” Zucker said. “But what we have to be is objective, and the data does not support that.”

Zucker and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have been under fire by critics for more than three months after they issued an order in late March requiring nursing homes to accept, and care for, COVID-positive patients who’ve been discharged from a hospital.

Nursing homes were, and still are, only required to accept those patients if they have the capacity to care for them. They also have to separate patients affected by the virus from the rest of the facility’s population.

The intent of that order was to free up hospital space at a time when the state projected more beds would be needed than were available to treat individuals diagnosed with the virus.

Later, after the state had taken steps to increase hospital capacity, that order was modified to require patients to first test negative for the coronavirus before they were allowed to be discharged from the hospital to a nursing home.

But Zucker said Monday that the timing of a spike in nursing home infections, and deaths, does not correlate with the order in March. The state's findings were published in a report available online.

Data analyzed by the Department of Health shows that COVID-19 had already entered nursing homes through thousands of asymptomatic employees and visitors, Zucker said. So, by the time the order rolled around requiring admissions from the hospital, the virus was already there.

“The peak in deaths occurred before the peak in admissions. When you look at the curve, you will see that as the admissions of residents was increasing, the deaths were decreasing,” Zucker said. “The data show that ... the infection was in the nursing homes before.”

That’s not to say that workers at nursing homes are to blame for the state’s deaths at those facilities, Zucker said. About a quarter of New York’s deaths from the virus have been linked to nursing homes, according to state data.

“This is not to place blame on nursing home staff on fatalities,” Zucker said. “No one knew the virus was here when it was here.”

The state has also included, Zucker said, that it’s unlikely that patients readmitted to nursing homes from hospitals reintroduced the disease to facilities, regardless of their status.

Nursing home residents admitted to the hospital due to the coronavirus stayed for an average of nine days, Zucker said. By that time, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the risk of them infecting someone else is nearly zero, he said.

“After nine days, the virus has left and it has moved on,” Zucker said. “They are not infectious, and they are not contagious anymore.”

It’s possible that the state Legislature will conduct its own review of the state’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, but no formal probe has been announced by Democrats, who lead both the Senate and Assembly.

Republicans, at both the state and federal level, have called for an independent probe into nursing homes, saying a third party should investigate the state’s actions, rather than the state itself.

Senate Republican Leader Robert Ortt rebuffed the state's report Monday, saying officials should have immediately taken precautions at nursing homes when an outbreak was reported in Washington state in late February.

Ortt also claimed the state was wrong to dismiss the impact of patients readmitted to nursing homes from hospitals early on in the pandemic.

"At the start of the crisis, the Cuomo administration fixated on holding daily briefings to gain national attention while our seniors in nursing homes were an afterthought," Ortt said. "An independent investigation is needed to understand what went wrong to provide answers to families and to help our nursing homes deal with infection control, not a report issued by the Cuomo administration and their allies."