New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker on Friday defended the state's decision in March to force nursing homes to admit hospital residents with the coronavirus, blaming staff for spreading the virus.
The guideline, enacted on March 25, banned nursing homes from refusing admission or readmission to residents infected with Covid-19. The policy also banned nursing homes from testing patients prior to entry, NBC News reported. The policy was reversed later in May.
Zucker said Friday that at the time, the coronavirus hospitalization rate in New York was increasing "at an astounding rate" and capacity in the state's intensive care units was running low. By allowing residents to return to the nursing homes, it helped protect the health system from collapse, he said.
"You can only verify a decision based on the facts you had at the time," Zucker said during a press conference next to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. "And with the facts we had at the time, it was the right decision from a public health perspective."
Zucker said the decision was based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued at the time, that nursing homes should accept all residents who would normally accept them, including those diagnosed with Covid-19, for as long Precautions have been taken.
A CDC spokesman was not immediately available to comment on Zucker's remarks.
"What if we hadn't done it on March 25? Hospital beds, which ultimately saved lives, would not have been available because they would have been occupied by someone who could have been discharged," Zucker said. "We made the right public health decision back then and, given the same facts, we would make the same decisions again."
The Covid-19 patients who returned to the nursing homes were likely not contagious according to the CDC's guidelines at the time and were separated from other residents. Zucker added that state law requires nursing homes to refuse residents if they are unable to properly care for them.
"We simply said that you cannot refuse admission because of the Covid status," he said. "We never said you had to accept, we said you couldn't deny."
The state's top health official comes as the Cuomo government faces bipartisan criticism of the treatment of Covid-19 deaths in the nursing home. An investigation by New York Attorney General Letitia James published in late January found that the New York Department of Health signed up to 50% of deaths from Covid-19 in nursing homes.
On Friday, Cuomo and Zucker said most of the spread of the virus was not due to the Covid-positive resident, but from the staff who look after them.
"Covid came from the staff in the nursing homes. They got it at home, they got it at the supermarket, they went to work and they brought Covid with them," Cuomo said.
However, Cuomo has aggressively defended the state's census, stating that these deaths were counted as part of hospital deaths rather than nursing homes. The Democratic governor has apologized for "creating a void" by not providing enough information quickly enough and by not fighting against misinformation.
"Twitter, false reports, will eventually become a reality," said Cuomo. "Social media, 24-hour news network, if you don't correct it, it'll repeat … and then people will think it's true."
In August, prosecutors under the Trump administration requested information about the deaths in New York nursing homes that Cuomo has criticized as politically motivated. The state legislature also asked for similar information, but the Cuomo government postponed that request to focus on that of the Justice Department, the governor said.
One of Cuomo's top advisors, Melissa DeRosa, reportedly told Democratic lawmakers that the governor's administration was "frozen" at their request because they feared the data would be used against them by the Justice Department, Associated Press reported.
DeRosa has since tried to clarify her comments, stating in a statement last week that she was trying to tell lawmakers that they need to focus on the Justice Department's request first.
"We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ and had to immediately focus our resources on the introduction of the second wave and the vaccine," DeRosa said in the statement. "As I said when I called the legislature, we weren't able to respond to your request as quickly as anyone would have liked."