Dutchess County officials respond to misreported nursing home deaths?

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In the past month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has found himself embroiled in controversy after evidence emerged that he allegedly misreported nursing home deaths across New York state. As Albany wades through these allegations, Dutchess County continues working to protect the nursing home residents that critics charge were endangered by Cuomo. 

Last month, the state Department of Health (DOH) updated Dutchess County’s tally of 96 nursing home deaths to include the deaths of residents who died outside of the facility. At that point, Dutchess County had a total of 155 nursing home-related COVID-19 deaths, 59 of which occurred outside of these facilities—usually in hospitals. As of March 3, the total number of nursing home deaths in the county had increased to 169.

Among local leaders, a more deeply-seated frustration with the governor’s earlier COVID-19 policymaking underlies the recent anger concerning his incorrect reporting of nursing home coronavirus deaths.  

This frustration has been pointed towards Cuomo’s March directive to compel nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients. While debates concerning this decision have taken center stage since it was announced last spring, more recent DOH reports indicate that the number of coronavirus patients admitted to nursing homes was over 40 percent higher than previously reported, at over 9,000. Although the intention of the policy was to move medically stable patients out of hospitals and ease pressure on overburdened medical facilities, some—including State Assemblymember Jonathan Jacobson (D)—saw it as an excessive risk for nursing homes.

Jacobson, whose district includes the City of Poughkeepsie, wrote to DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker last April urging him to reverse the directive. In his letter, he wrote: “Nursing homes are simply not equipped to act as hospitals and should not be used as depositories for infected individuals. Instead, they should rehabilitate in a facility specifically designated for recovering COVID-19 patients and separate from any nursing homes or anywhere large populations of elderly residents are housed.”

The Dutchess County Department of Behavioral & Community Health (DBCH) also expressed concern with the policy’s implementation, explaining via email that “Facilities like nursing homes and assisted living facilities are generally at higher risk of disease spread. Congregate living, staff issues (turnover, overworked, lack of training and assistance) and lack of support these facilities get from the State all increase the risk of spreading something like COVID-19.” With issues such as staffing shortages that the state failed to foresee or provide support for, DBCH says that ultimately, the policy was difficult to implement.

As to whether the state, more broadly, has taken the appropriate steps to protect residents of nursing homes, leaders are in greater disagreement. 

Brendan Lawler (D), who represents Hyde Park in the Dutchess County Legislature, said in an interview that the state has recently taken the correct steps to protect these facilities, citing the priority that residents and staff receive for vaccinations, as well as increased availability of personal protective equipment. Jacobson said that the Democratic-led state legislature has taken “a great first step” to dealing with the problems in the nursing home system that the pandemic has revealed. This first step includes reforms such as A.3922-A, which aims to create a task force to examine the toll that the pandemic has taken on long-term care facilities, and A.5846, which requires that adult care facilities include infection control in their quality assurance plans. 

Still, DBCH maintained that the state’s response was flawed, saying, “The lack of clear, consistent and concise guidance from the State has been problematic for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Additionally, the State did not always communicate with the local health department regarding their visits or reviews of these state licensed facilities.” The department says that Dutchess County led the way for appropriate nursing home support, and that despite state objections, they demanded testing of the asymptomatic (the state later decided to require this testing statewide). Furthermore, they established a taskforce to assist nursing homes that consisted of personnel from DCBH, the Office of Aging and the Planning Department, while also supporting facilities attempting to receive state guidance, distributing PPE and assisting in the vaccination process. 

Despite this increased workload, Lawler explained that DCBH was forced to cope with a 15 percent reduction in staff after this year’s county budget slashed the department’s budget by over $2.5 million, roughly five percent of its annual appropriation. Lawler, who was a private citizen at the time of the budget’s passage, voiced his opposition to the measure. “Hopefully, with the funding from the American Rescue Plan we will be able to restore full funding to [DCBH] to provide the necessary resources to continue to fight the pandemic,” he said. 

While Dutchess County works towards the protection of its nursing home residents, the state continues to grapple with the political future of Cuomo, who—besides the fallout of the nursing home scandal—is also facing a growing number of sexual assault allegations

Amid this wave of allegations following close on the heels of the nursing home scandal, more members of the governor’s own party began to turn against him after NYS Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) called for Cuomo’s resignation and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) authorized the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment inquiry. 

Jacobson joined the growing bipartisan group of officials representing Dutchess County, including Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer (both D), Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney and Antonio Delgado (both D), NYS Senator Sue Serino (R) and Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro (R), who have called for the governor’s resignation.

While clarifying his stance that the underreporting of nursing home deaths alone is not cause for Cuomo’s resignation, Lawler explained that “The governor’s handling of the scandal demonstrates a failure of leadership. There is no logical reason that the number of deaths in residential care facilities was not fully reported. The state legislature should further curtail the governor’s emergency powers and make policy changes based on the results of the attorney general’s report when it is completed.” 

As of last month, several of the county’s elder care facilities, such as Fiddlers Green Manor and Wingate at Beacon, had surpassed 20 COVID-19 deaths and The Pines at Poughkeepsie was nearing 30. With such high mortality rates at stake, officials seem to agree on one thing: There is a dire need for meaningful elder care safety solutions.

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