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Families of nursing home residents protest for more access

Karen DeWitt
WBFO Albany Correspondent

A small band of protesters gathered Wednesday outside the state capital to demand that Gov. Andrew Cuomo loosen restrictions for visiting residents at nursing homes. But so far, the governor shows no sign of changing the rules.

The 50 or so protesters include family members of those who died in the nursing homes during the height of the first wave of the pandemic in New York in the spring.

Mary Beth Delarm lost her mother in May in a nursing home near Troy during a time when no visitors were allowed into the homes. She said she was not able to speak to her mother, Pat Ashly, even over the internet.

“I was not only unable to see her, not even technologically through a digital device, the nursing home, when I called, was nonresponsive," Delarm said. 

Delarm said she wasn't told that her mother had passed until a week after her death. The cause was listed as coronavirus.  

The protesters said they want more access to their loved ones. Current rules issued by the governor allow limited access for visitors.

If a home has been free of the virus for 14 days, then visitors who can demonstrate they tested negative for COVID-19 in the past week can enter the facility for a visit. But only two visitors per resident are permitted at any one time, and the total number of visitors to a home cannot exceed one-tenth of the total number of residents in the facility. In addition, visitors have to undergo temperature checks, wear masks, and observe social distancing rules. No one under the age of 18 is allowed into the homes.

State Sen. Jim Tedisco, who was also at the protest, said the restrictions mean that family members cannot adequately look out for their relatives. 

“They can negate the mental anguish, the psychological anguish that’s taking place,” said Tedisco, who added family members are the main ombudsmen for the residents who can report any lapses in care, like medicine not being properly administered, or development of bedsores.

“When they’re not in there, it’s not only the love they are losing, it’s the protection from their family members,” he said.  

Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the state health department, defended the visitation rules. 

“This pandemic is not over,” he said in a statement. “Our decisions will continue to be driven by data and science, and now is not the time for anybody to let their guard down.” 

Tedisco and several other lawmakers have been at odds with the governor over a controversial March 25 directive that required nursing home residents hospitalized with the coronavirus to be readmitted to the homes. They contend the directive contributed to spiraling infection rates in the homes and led in part to the estimated 6,500 deaths of residents.

A study released by state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker in late July found that many of the cases of infection in the nursing homes in the spring came from infected staff and visitors, not residents with COVID-19 who were readmitted from hospitals.

Zucker left some information out of his report though, including the number of infected nursing home residents who died in the hospitals. State legislators, in a hearing over the summer, asked for that to be released. They said without that information, it’s not possible to determine whether the report’s conclusion is correct, and whether the number of reported deaths of nursing home residents could actually be higher 

Zucker on Monday said he was still trying to compile those numbers.

“We are making sure all the data is accurate,” said Zucker, who added the health officials are checking to make sure there are no duplications.  

“I promised all along that I would get that information to you,” Zucker said.

Tedisco said the delay has been going on for too long. 

“They haven’t answered them and it’s six weeks past the deadline,” Tedesco said. “So I know they aren’t answering for a reason.” 

Tedisco said he’d like to subpoena the health department to obtain the numbers, but so far, Democrats who lead the Legislature have not agreed to do so. 

Cuomo said the controversy is a political attack created by Republicans.

“There’s a lot of politics being played,” Cuomo said. “Because the Democratic states initially had the most COVID situations.”

Cuomo said now, Republican-led states have higher rates of deaths in their nursing homes.  

In a second statement, health department spokesman Holmes said “nobody is denying the tremendous human toll this virus has had on New Yorkers, particularly our most vulnerable populations and their loved ones.” But he said the “politically-charged narrative” focusing on the March 25 directive “does nothing but a disservice to those who have lost so much during this pandemic.”

He said despite the state’s safety rules and testing measures, “this virus still has a hold on facilities nationwide due to asymptomatic staff spread.”

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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