ALBANY — New York’s Republican lawmakers say they refuse to let the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo off the hook for “preventable” deaths related to the state’s policy regarding placement of COVID-19 patients in assisted care facilities.
In a public forum conducted virtually, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, and State Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, on Monday hosted multiple fellow lawmakers and witnesses to speak about their experiences. Republicans claim the state’s policy of housing COVID-19 patients in nursing homes led to outbreaks — and fatal cases – that should have never happened.
“Our witnesses have graciously and courageously come forward,” said Barclay, who has represented Oswego County in Albany for two decades. According to Barclay, legislative hearings in recent weeks, led by Senate and Assembly Democrats, contained “glaring omissions” and the testimony of state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker was “insufficient and evasive.”
GOP leaders, upset at what they see as marginalizing treatment from Dems’ during the hearings on the issue, decided to hold their own event. Oswego County was well represented in the online forum, with Assemblyman Brian Manktelow, R-Lyons, and State Sen. Patty Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, speaking early in the program.
“This is near and dear to my heart,” said Ritchie, who revealed she had lost her father during the pandemic to non-COVID causes. She connected with the heartbreak of the forum’s witnesses, and the families of the roughly 6,000 elder New Yorkers who died of coronavirus in nursing homes — although Republicans are frustrated that the actual number is still unknown.
“We are making sure we do everything possible we can so no other family has to go through what you’re going through,” Ritchie said.
Manketelow’s focus was on what happens if and when a dreaded “second wave” of COVID-19 resurges in the fall.
“We need to make sure we’re well prepared and the members we have here today are able to push that message forward,” said Manktelow, who represents the western third of Oswego County. “I want to reassure you all that we do not take this lightly, or sitting down.”
The issue of nursing home deaths — and who, if anyone, should shoulder the blame for the thousands of fatalities — has raged in the weeks since New York, having weathered the worst of the virus, began to lift pandemic restrictions and assess the results.
"This issue is above politics and that is why we take it so seriously,” State Senate Democrats spokesman Mike Murphy told The Palladium-Times on Monday. “We have had two separate hearings and heard hours and hours of testimony. But obviously work continues on this crucial issue."
Monday’s marquee witness was Fox News meteorologist Janice Dean, who told in excruciating detail watching her mother-in-law contract the virus, enter an assisted living facility, and die without her family seeing her again.
“Our grief has now turned to anger. Our most vulnerable loved ones could not protect themselves. My story is not based on politics, as some would have you believe,” Dean said, punctuating her remarks decrying the “cover up that has happened in New York nursing homes.”
“(Gov. Andrew) Cuomo has rejected repeated calls for an investigation, saying it would be political,” Dean added. “If he has nothing to hide, why not welcome any and all investigations? He said ‘I take full responsibility.’ He has never taken responsibility, and blamed everyone else.”
According to the most recent numbers from the Oswego County Health Department, since the beginning of the pandemic, Oswego County has conducted 31,193 tests with a total of 273 positive results. Of those positive tests, 251 have recovered. Four Oswego County residents have died of COVID-19.
“The Oswego County Health Department investigates all cases and, when appropriate, family members and close contacts are also placed in mandatory quarantine or isolation,” said a release from county leaders. “All known close contacts of COVID-19 positive patients are notified. Close contact is defined as being within six feet of an individual for more than ten minutes. In the event that a person who tests positive for COVID-19 had public exposure when they were contagious and the health department could not contact those at risk individually, a news release is issued. Investigations go back two days prior to symptom onset for symptomatic positive patients, or two days prior to testing for asymptomatic positive patients, up until the time a positive patient is isolated.”