NY nursing home families say it took ’19 months of waiting’ for state apology in COVID deaths

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NEW YORK — Gov. Kathy Hochul apologized to the adult children of nursing home patients who were lost during the COVID crisis during a private meeting on Tuesday, she said.

Vivian Rivera Zayas lost her mother. Ana, at a Long Island nursing home in 2020, and her sister represented the family at Hochul’s meeting. They weren’t alone: children across the state lost beloved parents during the pandemic.

“I apologized for the pain that those poor families had to endure,”  Hochul said during a press briefing Wednesday.

Rivera Zayas and her sister Alexa started “Voices for Seniors” early in the COVID emergency, after New York State issued a directive in March 2020 that nursing homes had to accept recovering COVID patients back into their facilities, after hospital treatment. The order was rescinded in early May 2020 after public outcry, as nursing home deaths mounted.

“We need accountability and we’ve been asking for it 19 months,” Rivera Zayas said.

Andrew Cuomo was governor when the sisters started their group. At the time, Cuomo was concerned about overwhelmed hospitals around the state that were being flooded with COVID patients in need of ICU beds and ventilators.

“I believe everyone did the best they could,” Cuomo said in January this year, a day after Attorney General Letitia James released a scathing report stating the New York State Health Department under-reported nursing home COVID deaths by as much as 50 percent.

More than 4,000 COVID deaths were added to the list the night the AG’s report was released.  More than 15,000 people who spent time in rehabs or nursing homes have died from COVID.

Hochul said she decided to hold the meeting after seeing Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim join families for a rally outside her Manhattan office a couple of weeks ago.  The governor said she pulled Kim aside and told him she’d set up a sit-down.

“Come on inside,” Hochul recalled saying to Kim.  “And bring these families here who deserve to have someone to give them acknowledgement for what they’ve gone through.”

The meeting was held Tuesday this week at the governor’s Third Avenue office.

“Governor Cuomo missed an opportunity,” Rivera Zayas said.  “He missed an opportunity to show he was contrite.”

And while Rivera Zayas was pleased with Hochul’s heartfelt overtures, the families also had a list of demands for the state.

They’re asking the state to pass a “Justice for Nursing Home Victims Act” that would involve the creation of a Victims Compensation Fund.

This, of course, could cost New York millions.

“They talked about the victims’ compensation fund with my staff,” Hochul said Wednesday, while pointing out a fund would need a vote by both houses of the state legislature.

The families are also concerned about current staffing shortages at nursing homes around the state, which are tied to controversial vaccine mandates.

“We gave her a booklet, and it had photos of as many seniors as we could get in,” Rivera Zayas said. “[To] put a face on our loss. They’re not just numbers.  It’s something that happened to all races and genders.”

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