As Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new directives for nursing homes to ensure they are complying with federal and state COVID-19 guidelines, he said Thursday that "nobody's to blame" for the more than 3,500 residents who have died after contracting the virus.
The state banned visitation at nursing homes in mid-March and required personal protective equipment and temperature checks for employees. There are other mandates, including isolating residents who test positive for COVID-19 and designating staff members to care for residents with the coronavirus.
If the nursing homes are unable to care for a COVID-19 patient, they must transfer the person to another facility.
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Cuomo also issued an executive order requiring nursing homes to notify residents and their families within a 24-hour period if a resident tests positive for COVID-19 or if there is a coronavirus-related death. This was in response to reports that family members weren't aware COVID-19 was present in their relatives' facility.
Nursing homes are also required to readmit residents with COVID-19, which has been a source of contention between the state and nursing homes. Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association, told The Citizen last week that there have been concerns since the March 25 advisory from the state Department of Health.
The advisory stated that nursing homes couldn't deny admission or readmission to residents who had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. Nursing homes also couldn't test for COVID-19 before admitting or readmitting a resident who was recently hospitalized.
"This treacherous virus spreads through nursing homes like fire through dry grass and the state's March 25 policy served to unnecessarily fan the flames of this fire," Hanse said.
The COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes and adult care facilities is up to 3,540 — nearly one-quarter of the statewide coronavirus-related fatalities. There have been COVID-19 deaths reported by nursing homes in 29 counties. None have been reported in Cayuga County facilities, while three have been reported in Onondaga County.
Cuomo said Thursday that state Attorney General Letitia James and the health department will investigate any violations of the governor's executive orders. Any nursing homes that aren't complying with the orders will be inspected by the health department.
If the department determines that facilities failed to comply with the directives, Cuomo said, the nursing homes will be required to submit action plans. They could face a fine of up to $10,000 per violation or the loss of their operating license.
"They get paid to take care of a resident and they have to do it in accordance with the rules," he said. "And if they don't, we'll take appropriate action."
But Cuomo didn't blame nursing homes for the outbreak within many of these facilities and the subsequent deaths of residents. He was later asked what went wrong in nursing homes that led to large numbers of fatalities. He said that "nobody's to blame" and that the virus is one that "attacks old people."
The populations vulnerable to serious illness if they contract COVID-19 include seniors and those with underlying health conditions.
But Hanse, speaking for the New York State Health Facilities Association, criticized the state for singling out nursing homes. He said the facilities have struggled to obtain personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing and that nursing homes haven't been prioritized for these supplies. He's asking the state for help in securing more equipment and staffing.
"We must work together in close partnership and coordination with the governor and the (Department of Health) to protect our residents and defeat this virus," he said. "We are counting on the governor's leadership and hope all New Yorkers rally around long-term care residents and caregivers."
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.