State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker took the hot seat on Thursday, as lawmakers questioned him for over five hours on the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.
When it came to the March 25 executive memo that allowed nursing homes to accept COVID-positive residents, Zucker continued to stand by a report he issued last July, blaming asymptomatic staff for bringing in the virus. However, the state also issued a policy allowing asymptomatic staff to keep working in nursing homes, a policy the state later reversed after it was reported by Spectrum News and other media outlets.
“I stand by this report,” Zucker testified. “I stood by it in July, I stand by it now. We know that if it is in the community, it is going to end up in the facility.”
Yet, according to a report from the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, the March 25 memo led to at least 1,000 additional nursing home deaths.
Lawmakers pressed Zucker, asking how he knew for sure that this memo had no impact on these facilities.
“The fact of the matter is it was in the facilities, 98% of the people had it in the facilities,” Zucker argued. “It came in from the communities. It was there long before we even knew it was spreading among…"
Assemblyman Jake Ashby jumped in, saying, "And they were forced to continue to take these patients, thus increasing the numbers, right?”
“Let me explain. You are not following the science on this,” Zucker said, sounding frustrated. “Sorry to be so direct on this, but the science is what we need to look at. And I was trying to explain it before on how long somebody was contagious and then what period of time, the medium amount of how long they were in the hospital, and that by the time they came back, the science is the virus…”
“The science is that there were more people admitted with the disease and that contributed to it,” Ashby insisted. “That’s the science.”
Lawmakers also pushed Zucker on the blanket immunity clause passed in the budget last year, protecting nursing homes from any lawsuits.
This was rolled back partially when lawmakers returned in the summer, but only removed immunity for future incidents. The immunity clause is still in effect, for the springtime of 2020, the worst of the first surge when 9,000 COVID-positive patients were transferred to these facilities, according to the Associated Press.
The Attorney General in a report found that this immunity clause had an effect on care in some of these facilities.
But Zucker says he still supports this provision.
“Do you support the provision today,” Senator Alessandra Biaggi asked.
“The immunity? We are looking at it at this point in time,” Zucker said. “I go back to the issue of where we were then and our numbers where they are today. The numbers are coming back down. Necessary changes can be made. At the point when we were sitting with a 140,000 potential hospitalizations, yes, we needed to do things to make sure that happened.”
Lawmakers also grilled Zucker on why it took almost a year, an Attorney General report, and a lawsuit for the state to reveal that more than 13,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19.
Zucker repeated a past claim that there was an ongoing federal investigation that kept the state from releasing this information.
The hearing on Thursday was part of a scheduled budget hearing, looking at the governor’s health care budget proposal.
Although as expected, many of the questions were centered on nursing homes, lawmakers are already pressing for a separate hearing on just the nursing home issue.
“Budget hearings do not provide adequate time for the thorough public inquiry owed to the families who lost loved ones during the nursing home crisis,” Assemblyman Ed Ra said. “Because members have been stonewalled by the administration since August, it’s understandable that many of them used their time to question Dr. Zucker about the nursing home cover-up. Still, health care represents the largest single expenditure in our state budget. Patients, providers, and taxpayers were shortchanged by government today. This illustrates why it’s so important for us to question Dr. Zucker and other top administration officials under oath at a bipartisan public hearing after reviewing all relevant documents and communications.”