Questions from local lawmakers in Dr. Zucker joint budget hearing

New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on Thursday. New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing on Thursday. | Photo: WNYT .

Emily Burkhard
Updated: February 26, 2021 12:31 AM
Created: February 25, 2021 05:02 AM

ALBANY - It was supposed to be a joint budget hearing, but while New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker testified Thursday, state lawmakers took the opportunity to ask about Covid-related deaths in nursing homes.

"In July I presented a comprehensive assessment of what likely happened in nursing homes,” Zucker said. “Here in New York and all over the globe what we said in July remains true today. The virus, despite all of our collective best efforts to prevent it, was inadvertently brought into the nursing home by dedicated staff at a time when we did not know enough about the science."

Assemblyman John McDonald asked about how data collection can be improved, as there were discrepancies between what data was gathered in different state systems.

“We just wanted initials and age and what the comorbidities, we we’re trying to figure out how to manage it and figure out what was this disease?” Zucker said. “Who is getting it and how do we manage it? We weren't as interested in what's their name and other details. We just wanted to know how to deal with it. But, going forward this will be one of the things that will come out of this."

McDonald also asked about funding for a new Wadsworth Lab in Albany. Zucker said they're still committed to that project.

Senator Dan Stec questioned the Zucker about the March 25 directive, which was rescinded about two months later.

Dr. Zucker has maintained that 98 percent of nursing homes that accepted discharged Covid patients already had the disease in their facilities.

But, Stec had questions about prevalence of spread being influenced by having discharged Covid patients under the same roof.

“Which room would you rather be in?” Stec said. “Let me ask it that way. Which room would you rather be in, would you rather have your parent or grandparent in the room with one out of 50 or 20 out of 50?”

“I think it's a hypothetical question,” Zucker said.

“It's a very real question doctor,” Stec said.

“Your reasoning is that there's only one person who has it in the whole facility but the bottom line is it's in the facility and it's in the facility with one person or more,” Zucker said. “It's not a fair question to ask whether a room had 20 people in there versus one person in there because the disease is there. The disease is already in the facility. So, if I were in that facility and I walked into a room with one person with Covid I would be as concerned as if I walked in to a room with 20 people with Covid because it's already there. I understand what your point is."

Zucker said it's frustrating that people keep coming back to the March 25 directive. He said as a scientist, he analyzes data, and the data show that the peak nursing home fatalities occurred too soon after the directive was issued to have been caused by that change.

Zucker spoke about incubation periods and the fact that many healthcare workers were asymptomatic and inadvertently infected patients before we knew much about the incubation period, how long someone can be contagious, or how it was spread.

Senator Jim Tedisco (R – Glenville), was given a chance to ask questions, but he spent his three minutes reiterating how he feels the commissioner and the governor failed seniors across New York.

“Isn't it time you and the governor finally apologize?” Tedisco asked Zucker.

“Your time has expired,” Senator Liz Krueger said. “Commissioner we're not going to allow you to answer today.”

“I wouldn't want to answer myself either Senator,” Tedisco said.

“I'm doing a based on time,” Krueger said. “So the commissioner is welcome to put it in writing to you and to all of us afterward.”

“I will, I will respond because there's a lot of fiction there and I need to provide the facts,” Zucker said.

Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D – Bronx), asked about blanket immunity for nursing homes. She said the New York State Attorney General's report found that it may have encouraged nursing home owners and operators to put profit over patient care.

Zucker said that suggestion was offensive to the direct care staff who are working hard during this pandemic.

Biaggi accused him of dodging the question, saying she was not asking about direct care workers.

"Do you support the corporate immunity provision in the budget from last year yes or no?” Biaggi asked.

“I support what we did with the immunity at that time yes,” Zucker said.

“Do you support the provision today?” Biaggi asked.

“The immunity?” Zucker asked. “We are looking at it at this point in time. I go back to the issue of where we were then and our numbers and where they are today the numbers are now coming back down necessary changes can be made.  At that point where we were saying more than 140,000 potential hospitalizations, yes we needed to do things to make sure that happened."

Senator Sue Serino (R – Hyde Park), asked about separating discharged patients in dedicated facilities.

She said she first brought up the idea in April of last year, no response from the state. Then again in August, no response. Once again, in November, still no response. Only to find out in February, DOH began looking into creating 19 separate facilities for those patients in November, over six months after she first proposed it.

Serino believes that, among other things we've learned in recent weeks, warrants an independent investigation.

"Are you confident in the facts you presented this far today?” she asked Zucker.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then I see no reason why you shouldn't support an independent investigation to verify them,” Serino said. “Your testimony focused on reforms, but how can we talk about reform when there hasn't been a comprehensive review of where the state or others really went wrong?"

Stay tuned to NewsChannel 13 for updates on this story.

Copyright 2021 - WNYT-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company