State Senator Anthony Palumbo is calling for the resignation of the N.Y. State health commissioner and for an independent investigation into NYS DOH reporting practices for COVID-19 nursing home deaths. File photo: Denise Civiletti

After the N.Y. State attorney general disclosed last week that COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents were 50% higher than what the State Department of Health had previously reported, State Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) is calling for the resignation of State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and for an “independent investigation” into DOH reporting practices.

Palumbo joins State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda) in calling for the commissioner’s resignation after N.Y. Attorney General Letitia James released the report Thursday morning.

Today, Republicans on the State Senate investigations committee sought to have the committee issue subpoenas to the State DOH for documents pertaining to nursing home data and communications. The Democratic chairperson of the committee, blocked the move, said Palumbo, who is a member of the committee.

The nearly 6,000 nursing home residents who died of COVID-19 after being transferred to hospitals were not included in the State Department of Health’s public tally of nursing home deaths. Those residents’ deaths were reported as deaths in hospitals.

Both Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the health commissioner have defended the health department’s reporting protocols.

At a media briefing Friday, the governor said it doesn’t really matter where a nursing home resident died.

“Whether a person died in a hospital or died in a nursing home — look, people died,” Cuomo said. Having recently lost his own father, Cuomo said, he understands the “inexplicable pain” such a loss causes. “It’s a tragedy,” he said.

“Who cares? Died in a hospital, died in a nursing home, who cares where they died? They died,” Cuomo said.

Palumbo called the governor’s remarks “callous.”

He said the place of death does matter, because, as the attorney general’s report also found, nursing home staffing levels and procedures were contributing factors to COVID infections and deaths in nursing homes.

It’s important for understanding and addressing quality of care and quality assurance, said Palumbo, who served three terms in the New York State Assembly before being elected to the State Senate in November.

“You can’t just ignore it. You can’t just say, who cares- the place doesn’t matter.”

Palumbo said he believes the DOH reporting protocols were intended to obfuscate the impacts of the March 25 DOH guidance requiring nursing homes to admit COVID-positive residents. After the guidance document was publicly disclosed and the state came under fire for the directive, he governor on May 10 signed an executive order prohibiting hospitals from discharging COVID-positive patients to nursing homes.

“If it had nothing to do with something that Cuomo was taking political heat for, why wouldn’t he have released those numbers?” Palumbo asked.

“I think the cover-up is worse than the crime at this point,” he said.

Palumbo said Zucker is a Cuomo loyalist who “stonewalled” legislators seeking hard data on nursing home residents’ deaths in hospitals. Legislators last year held hearings on the subject and demanded, but never got, the data they sought, Palumbo said.

“And when the [attorney general’s] report came out, within a few hours, he was able to produce the numbers because he clearly had them all along — and refused to give them to the legislature,” Palumbo said.

Zucker said in a statement the health department has “always publicly reported the number of fatalities within hospitals irrespective of the residence of the patient.”

The total COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents as of Jan. 19 was 12,569 — including confirmed and presumed COVID-19 deaths in nursing home facilities and hospitals. That number represents 38% of the 33,224 COVID-19 fatalities reported by the NYS DOH as of Jan. 19.

Since Jan. 19, NYS DOH has reported another 257 confirmed and presumed COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. The DOH has not provided an update on the number of in-hospital deaths among nursing home residents.

Palumbo said the governor “clearly underreported because he wanted to grandstand and pat himself on the back and release his book about leadership, and then tell the world that he did such a great job on the pandemic and managing the pandemic.”

Cuomo’s “arrogance is overwhelming,” Palumbo said. “And, you know, I think the chickens have come home to roost.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.