State investigating nursing homes’ COVID-19 responses

Photo by Mike Wren, New York State Department of Health
The State Health Department, headed by Dr. Howard Zucker – pictured here with Gov. Andrew Cuomo – will work with the State Attorney General’s Office to investigate whether nursing homes are reporting COVID-19 cases in their facilities and following proper protocols to have sick patients transferred to a hospital if necessary.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the State Department of Health will be working with the Attorney General’s Office to investigate nursing homes that are failing to communicate COVID-19 test results and virus-deaths to residents’ families.

In addition, the governor announced a new directive requiring nursing homes to immediately report the actions they have taken to comply with all DOH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laws, regulations, and guidance. 

The DOH will inspect facilities that have not complied with these directives, including separation and isolation policies, staffing policies and inadequate personal protective equipment. If the DOH determines that the facilities failed to comply with the directives and guidance, the DOH will immediately require the facility to submit an action plan. 

Facilities could be fined $10,000 per violation with the potential to lose its operating license.

“We’re going to undertake an investigation of nursing homes now to make sure they’re following the rules,” Cuomo said. “It’s going to be a joint Department of Health and Attorney General investigation, but those are the rules. They get paid to take care of a resident and they have to do it in accordance with state rules and if they don’t we will take appropriate action.”

Nursing homes have been at the forefront of COVID-19 deaths, with the governor describing them as “feeding frenzy” for the virus. The death toll in nursing homes across the nation has risen to nearly 12,000. According to data collected by NBC News, 4,820 nursing homes and other long-term care health facilities have reported positive cases in the U.S. 

According to a study done by The Kaiser Foundation, 83 nursing homes in New York have reported positive cases. There have been 3,505 deaths recorded in these nursing homes, and these deaths account for 18 percent of the total COVID-19 deaths in the state. 

At his daily briefing on Sunday, Cuomo stood by his controversial directive that nursing homes cannot deny patients into their facility because they test positive with the virus. However, he emphasized that if the nursing home lacked quarantine space or equipment, they could transfer those who are ill to a different nursing home or hospital.

“A nursing home can only provide care for a patient who they believe they can provide adequate care for,’’ Cuomo said. “If they cannot provide adequate care for a patient, they must transfer that patient.”

New Jersey and California implemented similar rules. States such as Massachusetts and Connecticut have designated certain facilities solely for COVID-19 patients. 

Assemblyman Andrew Garbarino, R-Sayville, a member of the Assembly Committee on Health, is calling for the committee to exercise oversight to help discover what made New York nursing homes especially vulnerable to high COVID-19 death rates. 

Garbarino, alongside his colleague, Assemblyman Kevin Byrne, R-Mahopac, who is the ranking Republican of the Assembly Health Committee, wrote to Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the committee chair, calling for a hearing into the problems faced by nursing homes when managing the COVID-19 response.

“Our state health officials knew very well how dangerous the coronavirus is for the elderly, yet forced these facilities to take in COVID-19 patients even when they were still sick which introduced this lethal virus into a highly vulnerable population,” said Garbarino. “It is not enough to say that the attorney general will take care of it or that the Department of Health will oversee this, the legislature needs to step in and provide oversight in the matter.”

Many industry leaders have criticized Cuomo’s mandate, believing it to be a factor in the transmission rates of the virus to the state’s most vulnerable residents. 

“Even as we live in this crazy time when our physical interactions are limited, we can still connect virtually to do our jobs. Relying solely on an investigation by the state’s attorney general into nursing homes is a mistake and ignores the inherent bias the state has toward itself. In the interest of openness and transparency, the health committee should host a public hearing on the state’s handling of nursing homes throughout this pandemic,” said Byrne. 

In a statement the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine said, “We find the New York state advisory to be over-reaching, not consistent with science, unenforceable, and beyond all, not in the least consistent with patient safety principles.”