Visitations in nursing homes in New York will remain under strict guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Wednesday said.
A formal vaccination program for nursing home residents and staff is drawing to a close, but doses will be on hand for new patients and staff as well as those who have not been vaccinated.
And, as a controversy surrounding nursing home data disclosure continues to swirl around the governor's administration, Cuomo attacked by name a critic in the state Legislature, accusing him of self-dealing during a conference call with reporters.
All told, Cuomo has sought to quell the controversy over his handling of nursing homes and long-term care facilities during the crisis in the weeks after Attorney General Letitia James in a report found New York under counted the number of residents in those facilities who have died.
Zucker in a letter to lawmakers disclosed more than 15,000 residents have died since March.
A vaccination program in nursing homes, federally administered and run through commercial pharmacies is formally ending, Cuomo said, as the state seeks to vaccinate a broader segment of the population in the coming weeks.
"We will keep doses available for all those people and the nursing homes can get them through the local health department in that area," Cuomo said.
At the same time, Cuomo criticized the federal nursing home vaccination program, saying it did not move fast enough.
"By the way, if I had to do it all over again, I would not have opted into that program," he said. "It was slower than it should have been."
Roughly 73% of nursing home residents have been vaccinated and half of all staff in the state, Cuomo said. The state's visitation policies, however, are not about to be loosened, Zucker said in the call.
"I recognize it's been very hard on the relatives of those in nursing homes," he said. "As soon as we feel it is safe, we'll move forward to the appropriate ways to get visitors there."
Cuomo added, "Just because you have the vaccine doesn't mean you can't spread COVID."
A portion of the call included the governor taking the unusual step of criticizing by name Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who has been critical of Cuomo's nursing home policies.
Kim was among the lawmakers on a since-leaked Zoom meeting with top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa, who told legislators the state held nursing home data back amid concerns over a federal inquiry. The Cuomo administration has since said it paused the Legislature's request for information to respond to the Department of Justice's request for information.
Kim in an interview with The New York Post called for the governor to be stripped of his authority to oversee the state's pandemic response and suggested an obstruction of jusitce law was broken. Kim has also been critical of a measure granting immunity to nursing homes during the pandemic.
Cuomo, in the call with reporters, accused Kim of self-dealing on the unrelated issue of nail salon regulations. He called Kim's accusations "a lie."
"He attacked me and said that I obstructed justice in a letter, today," Cuomo said. "He said today that the immunity bill was because of my political contributors. Those are very harsh accusations. In this business, the void and disinformation, you can't not correct disinformation."
Kim, Cuomo said, has long been a critic.
"There's been a long hostile relationship with Assemblyman Kim," he said.
Cuomo said Kim "said positive things" in the call with DeRosa and implored reporters to read the transcript. The administration has released a partial portion of the 2-hour meeting's transcript.
In a subsequent statement, Kim said Cuomo "was grossly under counting" nursing home deaths in the state.
"As legislators we have a duty to uncover the truth behind the nursing home deaths and the governor's explanations do not add up. While he claims he was taking time to answer the Justice Department, we saw him gallivant around on a book tour and victory lap across prime time cable shows. Again, all while his top aide deliberately hid the information in fear of political and legal consequences," he said.
"The governor can smear me all he wants in an effort to distract us from his fatally incompetent management. But these facts are not going away because they are the facts — unacceptable facts that hold him accountable."