ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday launched an investigation into nursing homes' conduct during the COVID-19 outbreak, which has left more than 3,500 residents of long-term care facilities dead since the start of March.
The state Department of Health and Attorney General Letitia James will co-lead the investigation, which will focus on whether nursing homes and adult-care facilities appropriately followed state law and regulation as the coronavirus went on its torrid spread in New York.
But nursing home operators say it was the state that took a bad situation and made it worse, citing a controversial March 25 advisory that they say may have helped introduce the virus into some of their elderly-care facilities in an effort to free up hospital beds.
The back-and-forth between the state and the homes came as the virus continued to plateau in New York, with total current COVID-19 hospitalizations dropping to 15,000 Wednesday.
The 438 new deaths Wednesday was the lowest the state had seen in a single day since April 1, according to state data. The total statewide death toll rose to 15,740, meaning about one in five people who died of the disease was a nursing home resident.
As of Wednesday, at least 3,540 nursing home residents had died of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in New York, according to state data.
"The state Department of Health and the attorney general are going to be commencing an investigation to make sure (state) policies are in place and being followed," Cuomo said Thursday.
"If they're not being followed, (the nursing homes) can face a fine or they can lose their license. It's that simple."
Cuomo's announcement drew criticism from groups representing nursing homes and adult-care facilities, which claim that providers have been vigilant in following the state and federal government's guidance for dealing with COVID-19.
The Democratic governor has repeatedly acknowledged that a deadly coronavirus outbreak was almost inevitable in nursing homes, whose elderly residents live in dense quarters and are particularly susceptible.
But some nursing home operators have faulted the state for its March 25 advisory, which prevented homes from denying admittance or re-admittance to any patient if the sole reason is the patient was suspected to have had COVID-19.
The order was intended to free up space in hospitals as the coronavirus spread quickly throughout much of the New York City area.
At the time, New York was fearful it would need upward of 110,000 hospital beds to treat the outbreak, up from its normal capacity of 53,000.
That type of enormous surge never came, however, which Cuomo has said is a testament to social distancing and other strict preventive measures put in place across the state.
Still, nursing homes were forced to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals under the order, said Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the NYS Health Facilities Association, a trade group representing more than 450 nursing homes and similar care facilities..
The state Health Department did not respond to a request for how many patients were transferred to nursing homes under the policy. Hanse said he didn't have that data either, though he said he's aware of homes throughout the state who accepted patients.