Lawmakers grill NY health commissioner about state's handling of COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes

State lawmakers grilled New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker for several hours Thursday about the state's handling of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.
At the heart of the testimony is whether Gov. Andrew Cuomo's March 25 executive order to return COVID-recovering patients back into nursing homes to free up hospital beds led to additional and unnecessary deaths.
Also important is whether the state intentionally undercounted those numbers - and if they withheld important data from both state lawmakers and the Department of Justice.
The state attorney general's office earlier this year found the true number of nursing home deaths was 50% higher than originally reported.
Zucker denies state policies contributed to nursing home deaths. Instead, he puts the blame on asymptomatic staff inside the facilities.
"There was 37,000 staff who ended up having COVID, and they brought it in inadvertently at a time when we did not know about the asymptomatic spread," he says.
Besides nursing homes, Hudson Valley lawmakers are asking about when schools can fully reopen and vaccine access.
State Sen. Sue Serino asked Zucker if he was confident in the facts he presented.
When Zucker said "yes," Sen. Serino replied: "Then I see no reason why you shouldn't support an independent investigation to verify them."
Another question raised was whether protecting facilities from lawsuits during the pandemic is leading to worse care.
State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi asked if he supported the corporate immunity provision in the budget from last year.
Zucker replied that he supported what they did with the immunity at that time.
Other pandemic-related topics, like the slow vaccine rollout and guidance to fully reopen schools were also discussed.
The testimony may be done but the matter is far from settled.
Here's what's next:
- The state still faces a federal probe into its handling of nursing homes
- Bipartisan calls are growing for an independent investigation into the situation
- Republicans are looking to subpoena certain staff to get answers