ALBANY — The top Democrat on the state Senate Investigations Committee threatened to subpoena the state Health Department to release the total number of nursing home residents who died of COVID-19, because he’s tired of their months-long stonewalling.
“It is downright insulting to the co-equal State Legislature that, six months later, DOH is continuing to stonewall us on basic questions,” seethed a furious state Sen. Jame Skoufis (D-Newburgh) during an unrelated press conference in Albany Monday.
Skoufis, along with a chorus of bipartisan lawmakers, medical experts and family members, have been demanding that Gov. Cuomo’s top health official — DOH Commissioner Howard Zucker — release the accurate number of nursing home residents who died of the deadly disease after getting so sick they had to be transferred to a hospital.
“If the Commissioner fails to provide the long-overdue answers by the time he provides testimony at next week’s hearing, I am supportive of taking the next step and compelling the information, but the decision is not a unilateral one and requires support from the conference and leadership,” Skoufis declared, noting if the missing numbers are not delivered, he will grill Zucker at next week’s health-focused joint budget hearing hosted by the state Senate and Assembly, scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 3.
He warned: “The hearing will be an unpleasant and uncomfortable one for Commissioner Zucker if he continues to withhold answers to the Legislature’s questions.”
Skoufis — along with other top Democrats on the state Senate Health and Aging Committees — already questioned Zucker for hours on the topic during an August hearing focusing on how the virus ravaged New York’s nursing home population.
The state stopped reporting nursing home residents deaths that occurred outside the facility back in May, leading to questions and criticisms about the actual number of deaths sustained by that population.
You don’t have a ballpark that you can give? So the total official number is about 6,500. Are we talking with the hospital deaths: 8,000? 10,000? 15,000? What are we looking at?” Skoufis prodded Zucker at the time, who argued he couldn’t release a figure for fear of inaccuracy.
Presently, the virus has claimed roughly 8,400 individuals in these long term care facilities — but independent reports have estimated that figure could be much higher.
Bill Hammond, of the conservative Empire Center for Public Policy, filed a Freedom of Information request to the DOH several months ago, which turned into a since stalled state Supreme Court lawsuit after the health department continued to file extensions on releasing the information.
“It should not be tolerated, this holding back of information and defying legitimate requests, not just from me and others, but the Legislature itself asked for this information months ago. They should not be ignored,” he told The Post.
Republican state Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville) has also called for an investigation into the state’s data-keeping, and urged his Democratic colleagues to invoke their subpoena powers in the meantime.
“He is the leader of a committee that has subpoena power and it has been 6 months. At some point we are going to have to know those numbers and it may be an embarrassment to [Cuomo] but for the closure of the family members I think it’s important to let them know what the real numbers are.”
Lawmakers and nursing home advocates alike have been critical of the Cuomo administration’s virus-related policies governing nursing home protocols, specifically a now infamous March 25 order that barred homes from turning away covid-positive individuals.
A DOH rep was not available for immediate comment