In April, a local government official in Steuben County was alarmed by a little noticed policy that allowed COVID-19 positive nursing home staffers not showing symptoms to continue to go to work.
Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler went to the press about it, and the policy was reversed on April 29 only hours after Health Commissioner Howard Zucker was asked about it.
On Monday, Zucker blamed the spread of the virus in New York nursing homes on COVID positive staffers working in the facilities, issuing a report alongside hospital executives who have played a key role in shaping the expansion of hospital capacity in the state leading up the pandemic.
More than 6,000 nursing home residents have died either due to COVID-19 or likely because of the disease.
"The data shows the nursing home residents from the staff and presumably those who visited them," Zucker said at a news conference. "Unfortunately, we did not understand the virus early on."
He added, "I want to be clear on this, this is not to place blame on the nursing home staff."
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has batted away criticism of a March 25 policy that required nursing homes to take COVID-19 positive residents, a policy that was partially reversed in May to bar hospitals from discharging patients with coronavirus to nursing homes and long term care facilities.
The deaths in nursing homes in New York, a state hammered by the pandemic in late winter and early spring, has been a point of contention for Cuomo, who has blamed Republicans and conservative leaning media for what he has said is politically motivated criticism of his pandemic response.
Cuomo's "facts matter" maxim was repeated several times on Monday by Zucker, as well as Northwell Health President and CEO Michael Dowling.
Democratic state lawmakers, however, are planning hearings to investigate the cause of deaths in nursing homes as well as Republicans in Congress.
Cuomo and Zucker in May announced staff at nursing homes would be tested three times a week, a policy that was later scaled back to twice a week.
Like the admissions policy for nursing homes, the Cuomo administration and the Department of Health have pointed to CDC guidelines that allowed asymptomatic staff to continue working in nursing homes.
On Monday, Zucker pointed to fatality curves in nursing homes and in the general community that both peaked around April 8, before the influx of coronavirus positive patients.
At the same time, 81 percent of the people admitted to nursing homes already had coronavirus, Zucker said.
It's not yet clear if the report will quell calls for hearings in Albany or Washington.
"I feel for the families," Zucker said. "I feel for the families who lost someone... I hope they find strength in the memories of their loved ones."