Photo: Adobe Stock

As the coronavirus pandemic made its way to the United States, New York State quickly became the hardest hit in the nation. It was a dire situation that required decisive leadership to keep New Yorkers safe, and while that challenge was oftentimes met with important bipartisan action, some decisions delivered fatal unintended consequences to the most vulnerable members of our community.

Throughout the outbreak of coronavirus, I heard from many families across Long Island concerned about their loved ones in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. They were upset about a lack of personal protective equipment, testing, oversight and shifting guidance allowing coronavirus to infiltrate these vulnerable populations.

During this outbreak, the State of New York issued shifting and vague guidance on caring for these large vulnerable populations.The most disastrous issuance from the state government required these facilities to accept patients who were diagnosed at the time with coronavirus. It even prevented nursing homes from administering coronavirus tests to patients returning from hospitalization.

This decision ended up being the complete opposite of a quarantine – knowingly putting infected patients into an environment with healthy patients that are the most at risk to the virus. At one point, state guidance allowed caregivers who had tested positive for coronavirus to continue caring for the vulnerable, so long as they were asymptomatic. This policy was New York State’s official guidance on nursing homes and long-term care facilities for over a month.

Some have claimed this New York State guidance was simply following the federal government’s guidance. However, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal regulator for nursing homes, issued guidance stating that not only should nursing homes only accept patients for whom they can care, but that nursing homes should focus on “prompt detection, triage and isolation of potentially infectious residents…” Not only did New York State’s nursing home guidance issued a week after this federal guidance not mention facilities’ ability to care for the patients they were admitting, but they then barred the testing of patients returning from hospitalization.

Our seniors deserve a safe environment and the highest quality care, but under New York’s nursing home policy there have now been over 6,000 deaths in nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state. This translates to at least 25% of New York’s deaths due to coronavirus, and it’s being reported that this is a mortality rate 500% higher per capita than the State of Florida. These tragic statistics are unacceptable.

It is the government’s first and most important priority to protect its citizens. Families of the victims, and all New Yorkers deserve transparency about this failure of public health policy, and those responsible must be held accountable.

That’s why I’m urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (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. Additionally, I’ve requested HHS Secretary Alex Azar and CMS Administrator Seema Verma to provide information on HHS and CMS oversight of long-term care facilities, including nursing homes, during the current pandemic.

While other states implemented policies that protected our most vulnerable populations by not allowing the infected to return to nursing homes and long-term care facilities, New York’s guidance was actively putting them at risk. We must learn what failures of government led to this tragedy, so that it does not happen again.

New Yorkers deserve to be safe. New Yorkers deserve answers.

Rep. Lee Zeldin represents New York’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he serves as a member of the bipartisan Congressional Coronavirus Task Force and bipartisan White House Opening Up American Again Congressional Group.

Editor’s note: The “In My Opinion” column is open to anyone who wants to submit a viewpoint on any topic. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the point of view of RiverheadLOCAL’s publishers. We welcome submissions. Be sure to include your email address and daytime phone number. Click here to
submit your opinion.

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.