Zucker defends response to COVID; not everyone buys it

WWNY Zucker defends response to COVID; not everyone buys it

ALBANY, N.Y. (WWNY) - A top Cuomo administration official defended the administration’s handling of COVID in New York’s nursing homes Thursday.

Not everyone bought it.

Dr. Howard Zucker appeared before members of the state legislature for what was supposed to be a hearing on the Department of Health budget. But it was the first time Zucker had appeared before legislators to answer questions in months, and they weren’t about to let it go to waste. (Zucker is the head of the health department.)

More than 40 legislators were lined up to ask questions of the top health policy expert in the Cuomo administration; the questioning stretched on for hours.

At issue - a Cuomo policy last spring which resulted in many nursing homes taking COVID-positive patients. Critics claim that let COVID spread and led to nursing home residents dying who otherwise would not have died.

Compounding that, the Cuomo administration didn’t count as “nursing home deaths” any nursing home resident who got sick with COVID but died in a hospital. When the Cuomo administration finally included those deaths in the count - after a critical report from Attorney General Letitia James and a judge’s order - the number of deaths jumped from fewer than 9,000 to more than 13,000.

So Thursday’s hearing was fraught; many Republicans - and some Democrats - have called for an investigation into the nursing home issue. They have also called for a roll back of Cuomo’s emergency pandemic powers, as a rebuke to a governor they believe has grown too powerful and too arrogant.

It was hard to miss the frustration Thursday.

“I will not ask you many of the questions folks have asked you already because you will just repeat what you have said before which is that you did the best that you could, made no mistakes, and it’s as though the administration continues every day to just be perfect and do nothing wrong,” said Gustavo Rivera, chairman of the senate health committee.

“Since you cannot acknowledge responsibility and are perfect, bobbing and weaving on that issue, I will not visit it any further,” he said.

Zucker argues - and argued again Thursday - that science supported the decision to have nursing homes take COVID positive patients. He maintains that COVID got into nursing homes last spring not through patients, but by way of workers who didn’t know they were sick.

And he points to the fact that more than a hundred nursing homes took no COVID positive patients, yet had COVID deaths, as proof the virus spread from the community.

“Honestly it’s very troubling because as a scientist, somebody who looks at things, people forget about the actual way this disease ends up spreading and how long one is contagious and what the risk they are putting to others,” he told legislators Thursday.

That just wasn’t good enough for some legislators, who wondered how a policy of sending COVID positive patients into nursing homes could not spread the illness.

At one point, Zucker told assemblyman Jacob Ashby “you’re not following the science.”

And the nursing home issue was not the only thing on legislators’ minds; state senator Sue Serino told Zucker the state’s roll out of vaccines has been “horrendous.”

She also asked Zucker if he would support an independent investigation of how the state handled COVID in nursing homes, to which Zucker replied “There is an ongoing investigation on this issue. And I’ll leave it at that.”

That appeared to be a reference to a reported Department of Justice inquiry.

State senator Joe Griffo, who represents part of the north country, extracted a commitment from Zucker that he would answer legislators’ questions at hearings, going forward.

What’s not clear is whether any of this sound and fury goes anywhere - although individual Democrats have called for hearings on the nursing home issue, and for rolling back Cuomo’s emergency pandemic powers, there was no sign Thursday the Democratic leadership planned to take any further steps.

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