Nursing home directive didn't lead to COVID deaths, NY health commissioner testifies

ALBANY, New York (WABC) -- The New York Department of Health commissioner testified before state lawmakers Thursday about COVID-19 in nursing homes, as criticism continues to mount over Governor Andrew Cuomo's handling of data related to deaths at such facilities.

"Yes there were deaths," Dr. Howard Zucker said. "Too many."

But Dr. Zucker denied that a March 25 directive to re-admit residents upon discharge from hospitals contributed to more deaths.

"It is troubling to me that we keep going back to the issue, where all the data has shown this is not what brought infection into the nursing homes," he said. "If it's in the community, it's going to end up in the facility."

RELATED | Cuomo unveils nursing home reforms, lashes out over accusations

The embattled health commissioner said staff members brought the virus into nursing homes, and that 98% of all nursing homes in the state had COVID-19 circulating before the arrival of any patient discharged from a hospital.

Asked by Assemblyman Kevin Cahill why the administration slow-walked a request for nursing home death data, Dr. Zucker echoed Cuomo.

"There was a pandemic, which we continue to fight today," he said. "And there were many issues on my desk."

Cahill faulted Dr. Zucker's answer, saying he "found it unusual that we had to wait as long as we did to get answers to basic and often statistical questions."

Cuomo said last week that he and his team did the best they could during the worst of the pandemic.

"New York is number 34 in nursing home deaths," he said "How is it so terrible of a job if it's number 34 nursing home deaths, and we had COVID before anybody else."

Two weeks ago, Cuomo's top aide Melissa DeRosa told Democratic lawmakers that the administration took months to release data revealing how many people living at nursing homes died of COVID-19 because officials "froze " over worries the information was "going to be used against us."

It comes as the FBI and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn are investigating Cuomo's coronavirus task force with a particular focus on his administration's handling of nursing homes early in the pandemic, two sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.

The Senate is set to vote on curbing some of Cuomo's executive power next week. The governor has been plagued with scandal recently, including accusations he threatened a fellow Democratic lawmaker and sexually assaulted a former member of his staff.

RELATED | De Blasio on governor's alleged threats: 'That's classic Andrew Cuomo'

Cuomo has denied all of the allegations, calling them "raw politics."

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