ALBANY, N.Y. — State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was grilled by lawmakers about his and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
Much of the back-and-forth related to the now infamous directive by Gov. Cuomo back on March 25, 2020. It ordered hospitalized COVID-19 patients who were discharged to go back into nursing homes. Lawmakers wanted to know if it contributed to the more than 13,000 nursing home deaths.
In a particularly heated exchange with Assemblyman Jacob Ashby, a Republican from East Greenbush, Zucker said: “The fact of the matter is [COVID-19] was already in the facilities. Ninety-eight percent of people have it in the facilities. It came from the community. It was there long before we knew it was spreading.”
Ashby cut him off, asserting: “Then [the nursing homes] were forced to take these patients.” He later added: “The science is there were more people admitted with the disease and that contributed to the spread.”
But during hours of intense scrutiny Zucker continued to insist the main cause of COVID-19 in nursing homes early in the pandemic was asymptomatic staff inadvertently walking it in the door.
Lawmakers also pressed Zucker on why it took months and lawsuits to get requested information to the legislature about how bad it was getting in nursing homes — and if there was a cover up by Governor Cuomo’s Administration.
“Were you directed by the office of the governor not to prepare that response?” Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, a Democrat from Kingston, asked at one point.
Zucker largely stuck to Cuomo’s line that the only mistake was not getting info out sooner leading to misinformation void.
Finally, Democratic State Senator Alessandra Biaggi repeatedly pressed the Health Commissioner on the controversial immunity the governor gave healthcare and nursing home executives at the beginning of the crisis in last year’s budget.
“I do not believe the immunity that was put in there would just cause someone to say: ‘I’ll push for profit, not worry about the people we’re caring for,'” Zucker said.
Watch the full exchange below.
Zucker’s testimony came in the context of a budget hearing, which is often a vehicle Gov. Cuomo uses to push through policies with the threat of a veto.
Cuomo is pushing for a number of nursing home reforms, but state leaders are not on the same page, with competing plans on the table in the Senate and Assembly.