Guest Column: Gov. Andrew Cuomo has failed our most vulnerable population

A year ago last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed his “New York State On Pause” executive order, shutting down 100% of nonessential businesses in New York. The order was intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, flatten the curve to keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and preserve ICU bed capacity for COVID-19 patients. At that time, we had very little information about the virus and many swift decisions had to be made. The governor exercised his executive powers and unilaterally made many decisions, often without time for deliberation due to the fluid nature of such a crisis. To be fair, these quick decisions were necessary in the early stages of the pandemic for certain needs such as procurement of personal protective equipment and ventilators. This was a global pandemic and New York’s leaders needed to act.

Several days later, on March 25, 2020, the governor signed an executive order with a similar intent. This order directed that nursing homes could not deny admission or readmission of a resident based solely upon a positive COVID-19 test. It was immediately met with much resistance, as nursing homes serve an extremely vulnerable population due to their age and comorbidities.

At the time the governor declared in his own words that nursing homes were not permitted to “discriminate” against those patients still positive for COVID-19. The following day, several advocacy groups cried out that this was extremely dangerous and would result in unfathomable tragedy. Nursing home directors begged the governor to change his mind but, despite several days of pressure, the governor reiterated his assertion that the order to accept COVID positive patients in nursing homes was needed to preserve hospital beds, although hospital capacity at the Javits Center and on the USS Comfort was only at only 10%. I specifically recall one nursing home director from Brooklyn crying on the news that he was unable to keep up with the cases and had already lost several dozen residents due to the spread. 

Weeks later, the March 25 order was quietly repealed, but by then it was too late for the thousands of New York seniors who would succumb to COVID-19 in nursing homes. The aftermath of this deadly order and the subsequent cover-up of nursing home deaths by the Cuomo administration are well documented and have resulted in a federal investigation as well as repeated calls for the information. Based on what we know now, the mandate that these facilities accept COVID-19-positive patients was dangerous and unnecessary. 

One would think that with the benefit of hindsight and the fact that we are now on the road to recovery, Mr. Cuomo would have the humility to fix all of the mistakes made in the past year and focus on the safety of our residents. Unfortunately, that is not in his DNA and, as I write this column, we have thousands of New Yorkers unnecessarily in peril while the governor continues to ignore them.

By way of background, shortly after the March 25 order regarding nursing homes was signed, a deadly twin was crafted on April 10, 2020. At the direction of the governor, the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities issued an identical directive requiring COVID-19-positive patients be readmitted to homes for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. Like its predecessor, this order also placed some of New York’s most vulnerable residents in dangerous and potentially deadly conditions, along with the staff that were caring for them. 

According to data compiled in the last year, individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities are almost three times more likely to die from coronavirus than the general public. Moreover, over 550 residents and 32 employees at group homes overseen by OPWDD have died from COVID-19 in the past year. These numbers far exceed the per capita death rate among the general public and confirms that the introduction of positive patients to this environment is deadly. 

In defiance of all logic, the April 10, 2020, directive remains in effect today.

On Feb. 26, I requested information from OPWDD about why this directive was still active. After being ignored for several days, I collaborated with some colleagues on the Senate’s mental health and disabilities committees and we called for an investigation into OPWDD’s policies and directives throughout the pandemic. The agency’s commissioner, Dr. Theodore Kastner, responded the next day (investigations usually get people’s attention), providing very limited information and no reason as to why that directive still exists. The directive remained in place and, this week, we introduced legislation to revoke it.  

The most unfortunate aspect is that all of this legwork would be unnecessary if the governor or his commissioner would simply revoke the April 10 order. All it takes is the simple stroke of the pen. The office’s response was that group homes are only required to take COVID positive patients if they have the capability to isolate them, but the question to be answered is: “Why?” A hospital setting is clearly the most capable and safest place for COVID-19 patients. There is no question about that. Since hospital capacity is totally under control at the present time, why is this dangerous requirement still being implemented?

I suspect a lot of the reason Mr. Cuomo will not simply remove this order is due to his current situation involving the nursing home scandal and the fact that he is accused of misrepresenting fatality numbers so he could make millions from his prematurely published “Leadership Lessons” book. Since the FBI is currently investigating the March 25 nursing home order, leaving the April 10 order in place may somehow enable him to justify the nursing home executive order, which gives him some cover. 

In other words, I don’t think he is removing the OPWDD directive so he can save his own skin. Whatever the reason, he must provide some answers and withdraw that directive immediately because these people don’t care about his personal problems. The intellectually and developmentally disabled deserve a state government that is committed to protecting every New Yorker, especially the most vulnerable, no matter what the circumstances.

As New York State continues to navigate through the COVID pandemic and our recovery, we must continue to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, as well as the unsung heroes who take care of them: nurses, doctors, medical staff, first responders and the caregivers who were on the front lines during this pandemic. They deserve not only our undying gratitude, but a quick responses in a crisis. The governor cannot continue to ignore these special people. He created this problem and must make things right immediately. 

Mr. Palumbo is a New York State senator representing the 1st District.