With another next wave of coronavirus expected, along with the coincidental double-whammy of flu season, the next few months could prove particularly treacherous for seniors — particularly those in long-term-care facilities and hospitals.
We’re pretty sure of this, in part, because of the thousands of nursing home patients in New York who died during the initial outset of the coronavirus.
They say the best medicine is prevention. But New York state can’t prevent another wave of illness and deaths among seniors unless it gets to the root of the problems that contributed to the initial wave.
So far, the state has been resistant to do that, both by not conducting a thorough independent investigation into nursing home deaths related to the coronavirus and by refusing to release accurate information sought under the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) on the actual number of deaths and illnesses.
The public — and particularly seniors, nursing home residents and their families — deserve answers.
The Health Department’s initial investigation into nursing home deaths back in July was widely panned as inadequate.
We, along with other media organizations, members of the state Legislature and others, have been calling for an independent investigation for months.
Back in July, we wrote in an editorial that the 33-page report — which placed the bulk of the blame for the nursing home deaths on infected staff and visitors — made tenuous connections between potential causes, did not provide a full accounting of the number of deaths, and was overly subjective because the report was conducted by the same Health Department and governor’s administration that was the subject of the investigation.
Receiving particular criticism was the state’s March 25 mandate barring nursing homes from turning away coronavirus-positive patients discharged from hospitals.
State Sen. James Tedisco and local Assembly members Mary Beth Walsh and Angelo Santabarbara are among the cosponsors of a bill (A10857/S8756) that would establish an independent, bipartisan state commission to fully investigate the nursing home deaths, now listed at more than 6,600 but which some suspect is much higher.
The report would thoroughly review the state’s response to the pandemic, as well as dig into the measures taken by nursing homes during the crisis, and examine the effectiveness of existing state and federal laws and other government actions such as executive orders, rules and regulations.
The five-member commission would be chaired by someone appointed by the state attorney general and consist of representatives with backgrounds in health and health care policy. To ensure independence from the governor’s office, appointments would be made by the majority and minority leaders in each house of the Legislature. but none of the appointees would be made by the governor’s office.
The commission would have subpoena power and have access to existing state funds for investigators,
During legislative hearings on the state’s response earlier this summer, some lawmakers said they were dissatisfied with the depth of the answers provided by state officials who testified.
To ensure that the investigation doesn’t drag on, rendering it ineffective in the shadow of another wave of cases, the commission would issue a report no later than Nov. 30.
Another aspect of this situation where the state has fallen down is in providing accurate information on the number of deaths and illnesses.
Recently, the Empire Center for Public Policy filed a FOIL request seeking a full death toll of coronavirus in nursing homes, particularly the number who had died after being transferred to hospitals in their final days.
The response it got, according to the center, was that the state was still conducting a search for the records — an answer the Empire Center found odd since the state collects that information through its Health Emergency Response Data System from daily reports submitted by nursing homes.
The state gave an estimated release time for the records as Nov. 5, which coincidentally falls a couple of days after Election Day. And keep in mind that the state often offers a response date in FOIL responses, then extends it. So we really have no idea when the state will release this basic but vital information.
Perhaps the legislative commission could use its subpoena power to compel the state to release the records if it won’t follow its own open records laws.
The investigation and a demand for more transparency has a singular goal: to prevent more deaths and illness due to this horrible virus.
State lawmakers need to put aside partisan politics, establish this commission and let it do its work quickly. In the meantime, the state needs to stop stalling on the release of data related to the nursing homes by honoring Freedom of Information Law requests.
This is a life and death situation.
And the longer the state drags its feet, the more death there’s going to be.