NEW YORK — In a much-anticipated hearing at the joint legislative budget hearing on health care, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on Thursday afternoon defended the administration’s policies on nursing homes, despite the high number of deaths of residents this past year due to COVID-19.

Zucker was pressed on whether a controversial March 25 directive from his office ordering nursing homes to readmit patients who were treated at hospitals for COVID-19 back into those facilities led to more infections from the virus.

“This is what’s happening: people are not listening to the science. The fact of the matter is, first of all, it was in the facilities. It came in from the community. It was already there,” Zucker said.

Zucker and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have maintained that the spread of the disease inside the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities was caused by staff, not the March 25 directive, which they rescinded on May 10. There were more than 15,000 presumed and confirmed COVID-19 deaths in those facilities.

An analysis from The Empire Center thinktank found that the March 25 directive alone led to 1,000 deaths. But that finding has been rejected by the Cuomo administration.

The legislature first held a hearing on nursing home deaths back in August. At that time, it requested the full data on nursing home deaths, which the administration promised to provide. After a months-long delay in providing the information, the health department quietly updated its website earlier this month after losing a lawsuit filed by The Empire Center for the data.

After claiming for months there were only 8,700 deaths of residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, the number jumped to more than 15,000. That led to accusations that the Cuomo Administration engaged in a deliberate coverup. Zucker was asked why they took so long to respond to the legislature’s request.

“As the governor said last week, he said that there was a void that was created. And that information should have been released sooner, and he regrets that and I share that feeling,” Zucker said.

Asked whether he supports an independent investigation into nursing home deaths, Zucker said one is already underway — an apparent reference to a federal probe which is pursuing whether or not the failure to release the data is a criminal matter.

Zucker also said he supports a provision stuck into last year’s budget granting immunity from civil lawsuits to all health care facilities for the duration of the pandemic.


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