When the initial COVID-19 surge occurred in New York State, nursing homes were the site of rampant infections and deaths. According to a New York State Department of Health report released earlier this week, the infection was spread by community transmission and asymptomatic staff members.
The agency aimed to study the impact of the state’s March directive that nursing homes could not refuse admission or readmission to patients because of a confirmed or suspected coronavirus infection. The directive was meant to free up space in overcrowded hospitals as the pandemic intensified.
The number of nursing home staff reporting COVID-19 symptoms peaked March 16, 23 days prior to the peak of nursing home fatalities, which occurred April 8.
“It is likely that thousands of employees who were infected in mid-March transmitted the virus unknowingly — through no fault of their own — while working, which then led to resident infection,” the report states.
Critics of the directive argue that it allowed infected patients to return or come into these facilities and in turn spread the virus to other individuals. The findings of the study show
37,500 workers — one in four of 158,000 nursing home workers — were infected with COVID-19 between March and early June.
A number of elected officials took issue with the guidance given to nursing homes by the state. U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) disputed claims that the state was simply following the federal government’s guidance. He said the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal regulator for nursing homes, had previously issued guidance stating that not only should nursing homes only accept patients for which they can care for, but that nursing homes should focus on “prompt detection, triage and isolation of potentially infectious residents.”
Zeldin also called on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and CMS to launch an investigation into New York State’s adherence to appropriate health and safety guidelines within nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
In a statement following the release of the NYSDOH report, Zeldin reiterated his stance.
“An internal review by the State of New York is OK for them to initiate, but this is not a situation where the state is going to be able to objectively investigate itself,” he said. “These facilities should not have been required to accept patients who were diagnosed at the time with coronavirus, especially if they did not have the ability to protect the rest of their vulnerable population. It was also a fatal policy to prevent nursing homes from administering coronavirus tests to patients returning from hospitalization. Our seniors and their families deserve answers, and an independent investigation is clearly necessary.”
A statewide nursing home survey conducted by NYSDOH shows that between March 25 and May 8, a total of 6,326 COVID-19 hospital patients were admitted into 310 nursing homes. Of those facilities 252 already had either confirmed or suspected positive patients, confirmed or presumed fatalities or infected workers, prior to admission of someone with the coronavirus.
Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association said at the onset of the pandemic, nursing homes and assisted living facilities were not the top priority. Bolstering hospital resources and ramping up hospital bed capacity were.
“Policymakers now know that the men and women residing in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are the most at risk of infection from the COVID-19 virus,” Hanse said in a statement. “Consequently, it is essential that nursing homes and assisted living providers receive the full support and assistance from elected officials and policymakers to ensure they have the necessary resources to defeat this virus and safeguard their residents and staff.”