An upstate lawmaker launched an online petition Wednesday demanding that Gov. Andrew Cuomo fully disclose the number of nursing home residents who have died from the coronavirus.
The state Health Department reports that more than 6,600 nursing home deaths are linked to COVID-19.
But that figure doesn’t include gravely ill nursing home residents who died after being transported to hospitals. The Health Department has a tracking system from nursing homes and hospitals that has the information but is stonewalling requests to release it, critics say.
The number of coronavirus-related deaths of nursing home and assisted living center residents would increase substantially — from accounting for about 20 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities in the state to 30 percent — if fatalities from hospitals are included, said Sen. James Tedisco (R-Glenville), who launched the online petition drive on his government website.
He announced the effort accompanied by Assembly GOP Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) and Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh (R-Ballston Spa).
The petition repeats calls for a law authorizing an independent investigation with subpoena power to get to the bottom of nursing home deaths.
“GOVERNOR CUOMO RELEASE THE REAL NURSING HOME NUMBERS!” the headline to the petition says.
“Sign the petition demanding the Legislative Majorities bring forth bi-partisan legislation (S.8756/A.10857) by Senator Tedisco and Assemblyman Kim) for an independent investigation with subpoena power to get the real numbers of residents who died from COVID-19 in state-regulated nursing homes,” the petition drafted by Tedisco said.
“Families deserve answers and closure and New York State must prepare for the future! Sign Now!”
Tedisco wants the petition drive to be a bipartisan effort and noted that he sent a letter to all Democratic and Republican lawmakers to share it on their websites and encourage their constituents to sign it.
He also emphasized the bill he’s pushing calling for an independent probe of nursing home deaths is being carried in the Assembly by Queens Democrat Ron Kim.
Three Democratic senators, who chair the investigations (James Skoufis), health (Gustavo Rivera) and aging (Rachel May) committees, also sent a letter to Cuomo recently requesting more complete data on nursing home deaths, following a public hearing on the topic in August.
State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker did not release the data they were seeking during his testimony at the hearing.
“I expect to hear from people because when the governor calls this political — there are Democrat and Republican sponsors of the bill in the Senate and the Assembly — so this is not a Republican or a Democrat thing, this is: `We need the numbers and we need a plan,’” Tedisco said.
But Tedisco did say only the Democrats who are in the majority and chair the committees can compel information from the Cuomo administration via subpoena.
“Now the weather is getting colder, the leaves are falling so we need to get the numbers. Look, it may be embarrassing if the numbers are high for the governor. But that embarrassment doesn’t rise above the need to get those numbers to plan for the future and get the answers to the loved ones who deserve to hear this,” Tedisco said.
He also said relatives of nursing home residents who died from COVID-19 deserve answers because “closure is important.”
The controversy over nursing home deaths started when family members and nursing home operators criticized the state’s March 25 directive that required the facilities to accept or readmit recovering coronavirus patients from hospitals without testing. Cuomo rescinded the policy in May following heated complaints.
Cuomo admitted that the coronavirus spread through nursing homes “like fire through dry grass.” Critics said the policy contributed to the spread of COVID-19 infections in nursing homes.
But an internal Health Department study claimed the coronavirus was spread through nursing homes by staffers and visitors, not recuperating COVID-19 patients transferred from hospitals. Even Democratic lawmakers dismissed the report as incomplete.
On the question of compelling information from Team Cuomo via subpoena, if officials refused to do so voluntarily, “They can’t just talk the talk. They have to walk the walk,” Tedisco said.
“We had the hearings and we didn’t get the answers we needed, there was obfuscating and dodging. Now we need to use the subpoena power. It’s our last resort.”
“The voters and the citizens, the petition drive is one way to let the Commissioner Zucker and governor know that you can’t let an embarrassment you have or concern get in the way. The signatures can show that.”
He said he believes Cuomo officials have the true account of nursing home deaths from COVID-19.
“The cover-up sometimes is worse than the action that you did to do the cover-up. I do think there is a cover-up,” Tedisco said
Cuomo’s office dismissed the petition drive as political.
“With this latest publicity stunt, Tedisco & company accidentally revealed that even they think the DOJ inquiry is a trumped-up partisan farce,” said Cuomo senior adviser Richard Azzopardi.
He was referring to a Justice Department preliminary inquiry to determine whether the policies in New York and three other states contributed to nursing home deaths from COVID-19.
The state Health Department reports that 25,440 people died from COVID-19 in New York. But the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center says 33,038 people have died from the killer bug in the Empire State.
Health Department spokesman Gary Holmes responded, “One thing we can agree with our legislative colleagues on is that accurate and reliable data should drive smart public health decisions. So not only are we carefully reviewing all previous data, as the commissioner committed to, but we’re also requiring confirmatory and post mortem testing for anybody who may have had COVID-19 or flu symptoms, or exposure to someone who did, to ensure data integrity.”