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Goodell: Investigate nursing home decision making

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried believes Dr. Howard Zucker, state health commissioner, was not being truthful with the public when he said information about nursing home patient deaths in hospitals didn’t exist.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal late Thursday night confirmed Gottfried’s suspicions with their report that aides to the governor scrubbed the information from an allegedly non-partisan state Health Department report on the state’s response to COVID-19 in nursing homes.

The Times and Journal reported that the original drafts of the report had included the more than 9,200 deaths until Cuomo’s aides said it should be taken out. Late Thursday night, the governor’s office sent out a news release stating the information was taken out of the report because it hadn’t been properly vetted and confirmed.

Withholding such information from the public and from state legislators is one reason Gottfried sponsored A.244A in the Assembly to create in state law Health Emergency Response Data System and require HERDS information be released to the public within seven days of its receipt by the state Health Department. Gottfried, D-New York City and longtime Assembly Health Committee chairman, said he began asking for information about those who contracted COVID-19 in nursing homes and later died in hospitals last summer and was stonewalled by the Health Department.

“Well of course, within hours or days of the court order the data magically appeared,” Gottfried said Thursday on the Assembly floor in response to a question by Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown. “So clearly the Health Department did have the data. They could have and should have released it a lot earlier because if they could do it a couple of days after they got a court order, they could have done it a couple of days before they got the court order or a couple of months. This bill would make it crystal clear they have that data and it wold make it crystal clear they have an obligation to make that data public. If this bill had been on the books I think we would have been having a very different series of discussions. I think the public would have had a very different and much more accurate and perhaps frightening picture of how many nursing home residents died of COVID.”

The legislation passed nearly unanimously in the Assembly, with Goodell voting in favor. Companion legislation has not yet been introduced in the state Senate. The Health Emergency Response Data System already exists, though Gottfried said it is not referenced in the state Public Health Law. Gottfried’s legislation would make HERDS data available in close to real time through the Health Department’s website.

Goodell asked Gottfried why the Health Department will comply with A.244 when Health Department officials didn’t comply with requests by legislators or Freedom of Information Law requests by the Empire Center for Public Policy until ordered to do so by the state Supreme Court.

Well I don’t know that trust is the right word,” Gottfried said. “I would say this bill has a hard cutoff mandate and does not offer an opportunity to make excuses and say, ‘We need more time.'”

Goodell also asked Gottfried if the information on nursing home deaths was available through existing reporting systems. Zucker has said in the past that it took so long for the information to be released because it didn’t exist and had to be created from information being submitted to the Health Department from nursing homes and hospitals. Gottfried said he believes the information should have been available through the results of contact tracing, the SPARKS system that was created in 1979 and the HERDS system.

“The Health Department, I think through at least three sources, undoubtedly had the information either with great precision or in general numbers that could have and should have been shared with all New Yorkers,” Gottfried said.

Goodell said he supported the legislation in the hopes that it would prevent legislators from being kept in the dark again by the Health Department — though Goodell said the Health Department’s history of ignoring FOIL requests makes him wonder how effective the legislation will be. The Jamestown Republican said the bigger issue legislators must discuss is to discern how the Health Department made its decisions regarding nursing homes from the early days of the pandemic all the way through the decision to withhold information from the public and legislators.

“The real issue before us is how could such a deadly decision have been made? And for that we do not yet have the memorandum that occurred inside the Health Department, the recommendations of their top epidemiologists. We do know that two weeks before they made that decision the CDC said they were using every tool at their disposal to protect nursing home residents because they were the most vulnerable. We know that. We know that the day after this deadly decision was made experts from all around the state said, ‘Are you crazy?'” Goodell said. “So we’re addressing with this legislation the data, which we already have and I support that and that’s why I’m voting for it, but now let’s do the real investigation and make sure we don’t have such a deadly decision occurring in the future that kills hundreds and hundreds of our senior citizens.”

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