"Let us in, Let us in."
Family members of nursing home residents chanted this mantra outside the New York State Capitol on Wednesday, calling on the state to allow them to visit with their loved ones face to face.
“It's frustrating, very frustrating. We’re just watching her slowly deteriorating in front of our eyes,” Bert Helmer said about his 93-year-old sister Irene who is currently in a nursing home in Utica. “There’s nothing we can do about it and I know she wouldn’t deteriorate like this if we could have continued to go and see her.”
Helmer has not been able to sit, even six feet apart outside, with his sister since March.
Right now, the state’s policy requires that if a staff member or a resident tests positive for COVID-19, the nursing home must wait 14 days before allowing visitors to return.
This was recently adjusted from an original 28 days.
Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association, said that the current state nursing home visitation policy is too stringent. He pointed to the federal government’s nursing home policy which is a little more lenient and based on coronavirus data in the surrounding community.
Hanse said this way, a policy can be implemented more on a regional basis.
“So while we have a small window for our residents to see their loved ones we should take advantage of it,” Hanse said referring to a potential second wave. “And we should utilize policies that truly safeguard the health and well-being of our residents but aren’t so restrictive that they truly lose their zest for life.”
Helmer said that because of the current state policy, the 14 day clock has kept restarting in the nursing home where his sister is residing, making this the seventh month he still has not been able to see his sister face to face.
Helmer and his wife Mary Ellen say they are hoping that Governor Andrew Cuomo will sign an executive order giving a family member with a loved one in nursing homes an “Essential Family Caregiver” designation.
“She wouldn’t have been this bad if we could have gone to see her,” Mary Ellen Helmer explained. “We know she wouldn’t. We would still have her. We feel we have lost her. COVID didn’t do it but her isolation did.”
Gary Holmes, a spokesperson for the NYS Health Department responded in a statement saying in part, “This pandemic is not over. The Department continues to assist facilities statewide that are currently managing COVID-19 clusters. Our decisions will continue to be driven by data and science, and now is not the time for anybody to let their guard down.”
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were also at the rally, calling on the state to release the exact number of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19.
The state currently on record has the nursing home death toll at around 6,600 nursing home resident deaths. But experts say that number is misleading since it leaves out potentially thousands of residents that were transported to the hospital and later died there.
In August, the State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testified during a legislative hearing saying he would release these statistics soon.
It has now been over two months.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have written letters requesting that these numbers be released, but there has been no response from the State Health Department that has been made public.
Governor Cuomo says this push is led by Republicans and right wing media outlets, despite his own administration admitting they have not released the total number of nursing home resident deaths.
“The governor says follow the science and I agree with him. But you can’t follow the science unless you get the numbers,” Republican Senator Jim Tedisco shouted to at the rally. “And you can’t keep telling us ‘it’s politics, it’s politics.’ It’s not politics. Some things rise above politics.”
“We need to work together in an approach to ensure that those in need are cared for,” Democratic Assemblywoman Marianne Buttenschon explained. “We do not need someone dying from a broken heart.”
Holmes continued to respond to these claims saying in short, “Nobody is denying the tremendous human toll this virus has had on New Yorkers. However, this politically-charged narrative does nothing but a disservice to those who have lost so much during this pandemic…Despite our aggressive protective measures and rigorous testing mandates, this virus still has a hold on facilities nationwide due to asymptomatic staff spread. The facts are as important as reliable data, and as the commissioner has said repeatedly, further data will be released at a time when we can ensure its accuracy.”