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Any 10-year-old who has watched just five minutes of COVID-19 news would have learned one thing: Maximize the distance between this virus and the elderly. This typically frail population is COVID-19’s easiest prey.
Until Sunday, this most-basic lesson totally escaped Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y., 62. But this warning propelled the COVID-19 response of Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., 41. Their divergent results are shocking: As of Friday, COVID-19 had killed 5,352 seniors in Empire State nursing homes. This pathogen had slayed 665 elders in Florida’s such facilities, despite its larger population.
How could New York and Florida — America’s fourth- and third-most-populous states — have yielded such drastically, tragically, disparate results?
On March 25, Cuomo’s Health Department ordered nursing homes (NH): “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19.”
From President Donald J. Trump to governors to city councilmen, policymakers have confronted a brand-new, still-uncured disease. “There is no script for this,” Flags of Valor co-founder Joe Shamess said May 6 at the White House about the federal response. “They built the parachute on the way down.”
Despite this enormous, unforeseen challenge, how could Cuomo have gleaned nothing from COVID-19’s first U.S. target: the Seattle-area’s Life Care Center had suffered 37 early-outbreak deaths. This alone should have dissuaded Cuomo from unleashing these microbes.
The Democrats’ Trump-baiting taunt — “Testing, testing, testing!” — did not apply here. Precisely the reverse, Cuomo's Health Department order banned such screenings! His order continued: “NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
Health care professionals yelled, “Stop!”
The American Medical Directors Association stated March 26: “Unsafe transfers will increase the risk of transmission in post-acute and long-term care facilities which will ultimately only serve to increase the return flow back to hospitals, overwhelming capacity, endangering more healthcare personnel, and escalating the death rate.”
Stabilized COVID-19 patients were sent from hospitals to nursing homes, including some cited for frightfully poor hygiene before the pandemic (e.g. one staffer failed to wash his hands after grappling with an occupant’s incontinence). As April 25’s New York Post reported, hospitals transferred 70 COVID patients to Harlem’s Terrence Cardinal Cooke home. By May 8, COVID-19 had killed 32 tenants. Hospitals sent 19 COVID survivors to Staten Island’s Carmel Richardson facility. By May 8, the virus had extinguished 56 there.
“The state forced us to bring in these sick people,” a nurse at Long Island’s Luxor Nursing and Rehabilitation was quoted in the New York Post. “We had no choice, but we’re not happy about it here.”
“The state forced us to bring in these sick people,” a nurse at Long Island’s Luxor Nursing and Rehabilitation was quoted in the Post. “We had no choice, but we’re not happy about it here.”
Maria Porteus recalled visiting her ailing father there — Carlos Gallegos, 82. As Porteus told the Post’s Michael Goodwin: “Every time he tried to breathe, it was like firecrackers going off in his body.”
Gallegos died April 9. Cause of death: “Possible COVID-19.”
Nursing-home operators requested personal protective equipment for staffers and inhabitants. Cuomo replied: That’s “not our job.” Also, Team Cuomo did not ban COVID-19-positive personnel from nursing homes until April 30 — Day 48 of this national emergency.
Cuomo’s lethal negligence might have been understandable were New York devoid of hospital beds.
This was not so.
The 1,000-bed hospital ship USNS Comfort reached Manhattan’s Pier 90 on March 30. It made 500 berths COVID-19 capable. And then it pleaded for patients. Only 182 visited before Comfort steamed home to Norfolk, Va., on April 30.
Just 12 blocks south, the Javits Center’s 3,000-bed pop-up hospital stood largely empty, serving just 1,094 patients before standing down May 1.
According to the New York Post, Donny Tuchman begged to send COVID-positives from Brooklyn’s overwhelmed Cobble Hill Health Center to Javits or Comfort. “We really want to protect our other patients,” the CEO implored the Health Department via e-mail on April 9.
Officials replied: No dice.
“I was told those facilities were only for hospitals” to refer patients, Tuchman said. Only 134 of Javits’ 1,000 COVID-19-compliant beds were full then, as were just 62 on Comfort.
Cuomo should have sent COVID-19 patients to these and similar facilities and isolated them for a fortnight, or until they either recovered or expired. This would have been safe, sane and smart.
Instead, Cuomo behaved like a clueless 10-year-old boy who tossed lit matches over his shoulder while skipping through parched brush on a sweltering, gusty day. Cuomo seemed to wonder: “What, me worry?”
“Mother Nature brought a virus,” Cuomo said April 23. “The virus attacks old people. Nothing went wrong. Nobody’s to blame for the creation of the situation.”
On Sunday, amid all this carnage, Cuomo finally reversed his deadly policy. Better late than never, as the ghosts of 5,352 deceased nursing-home dwellers would agree.
In stunning contrast, Floridians have fared far better.
“We had all staff required to be screened for temperature,” Gov. DeSantis told President Trump April 28 in the Oval Office. “And then we did require the wearing of PPE, such as masks.”
DeSantis assigned 120 “ambulatory assessment teams” to 3,800 long-term care facilities, “to figure out where they were deficient so we could try to get ahead of this.”
The Health Department’s “rapid emergency support teams” offered infection-control education and other training.
Furnishing sanitary gear was pivotal, including “almost 7 million masks to the nursing facilities in Florida,” DeSantis said, “almost a million gloves, half a million face shields, 160,000 gowns.”
By April 28, 50 “strike teams” had conducted 6,000 tests in nursing facilities. DeSantis and the University of Florida collaboratively assessed retirees at The Villages. This included drive-up screenings for elders in golf carts. “The result of that was pretty astounding,” DeSantis said. “Zero tested positive out of 1,200 asymptomatic seniors.”
With New York’s 5,352 COVID-19 nursing-home deaths, its fatality rate is 27.5 per 100,000 among 19,453,561 denizens. With Florida’s 665 such decedents, its death rate is 3.1 per 100,000 of its 21,477,737 people.
In this tale of two governors, Andrew Cuomo turned New York’s nursing homes into a de facto death panel, while Ron DeSantis created a model of emergency elder care.
Bucknell University’s Michael Malarkey contributed research to this opinion piece.