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With New York City's lockdown executive order set to expire on May 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo celebrated a steep decline in hospitalizations and deaths due to the coronavirus during Sunday's daily briefing with reporters — even as he sought to address the state's sky-high nursing home death count, which came after a state directive mandating that nursing homes take on positive COVID-19 patients.
Cuomo said new hospitalizations were roughly where they were on March 20, when the “New York State on Pause” executive order locked down the state. And, the number of deaths in the state — just 203 on Saturday — was similar to where it was in late March, as well.
The numbers "take us right back to where we started this hellish journey," Cuomo said. "March 20 is when we did the close down order, and where we are today with the number of new cases is basically right where we were when we started."
"It's all thanks to what New Yorkers did," he added.
This weekend, Cuomo extended New York’s coronavirus emergency declaration through June 6, but the "pause" order is still set to expire within days. Locales in New York can begin slowly reopening on May 15, depending on a variety of factors — including the rolling average of new coronavirus cases, the daily rate of decline of hospitalizations and testing per capita.
Cuomo said he would have more to say about the pause order on Monday.
He further announced on Sunday that all nursing home staff must now be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, saying, "this rule is not optional — it’s mandatory."
Cuomo also issued a new directive stating that hospitals cannot send patients back to nursing homes in the state unless they tested negative for the virus. The move appeared to largely invalidate his March 25 state directive that required nursing homes to take on new patients infected with COVID-19.
The previous directive stated that "[nursing homes] are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission."
The policy, similar to one in neighboring New Jersey, was intended to help free up hospital beds for the sickest patients as cases surged. Several other states had similar nursing home directives.
Now, "we're just not going to send a person who is positive to a nursing home after a hospital visit," Cuomo said Sunday. He said such patients would be accommodated elsewhere, such as sites originally set up as temporary hospitals.
The new policy still allows nursing homes to take some people with COVID-19, such as those who are at home and need care. But hospitals are responsible for finding alternatives for the patients they discharge, and nursing facilities shouldn't take on coronavirus patients if unable to care for them, Cuomo said.
Stephen Hanse, the president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, told Fox News in a statement that "we are grateful that hospitals can no longer discharge new patients into nursing homes that have tested positive or were suspected to have COVID-19."
"From the onset of this pandemic, nursing homes and assisted living providers have been on the front lines of the battle," Hanse said. "The only way we will defeat this virus is working together with the State to ensure all nursing homes and assisted living providers are afforded the necessary resources to accomplish this goal.”
Hanse added: “The State’s action today acknowledges the concerns providers voiced over the March 25th Department of Health advisory and we must continue to work together to implement solutions to assist long-term care providers. We are all in this together, and together, all of our actions must be directed at safeguarding our most vulnerable and lead us to overcome our present circumstances and create a stronger and safer future.”
Previously, Cuomo has seemed dismissive and resigned to defeat when asked about his state leading the nation in nursing-home deaths.
Of the nation’s more than 26,000 coronavirus deaths in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, a fifth of them — about 5,300 — are in New York, according to a count by The Associated Press, and the toll has been increasing by an average of 20 to 25 deaths a day for the past few weeks.
"Any nursing home that fails to follow health procedures will lose their license," Cuomo tweeted as the briefing unfolded. "Remember: If a nursing home cannot provide adequate care, they MUST call the State Department of Health to transfer the resident."
Residents’ relatives, health care watchdogs and lawmakers from both parties have also cited problems with testing and transparency that have prevented officials — and the public — from grasping the full scale of the catastrophe.
"The way this has been handled by the state is totally irresponsible, negligent and stupid," said Elaine Mazzotta, a nurse whose mother died last month of suspected COVID-19 at a Long Island nursing home. "They knew better. They shouldn’t have sent these people into nursing homes."
"The numbers, the deaths keep ticking up," said MaryDel Wypych, an advocate for older adults in the Rochester area. "It's just very frustrating."
Cuomo faced criticism at a recent briefing for saying that providing masks and gowns to nursing homes was "not our job" because the homes were privately owned.
"It was such an insensitive thing to say," said state Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who noted it wasn't until just this past week that New York and neighboring states announced a plan to combine forces to buy protective gear and medical supplies for nursing homes.
"If we had focused on that early on," he said, "we could have saved a lot of lives."
Cuomo’s administration defended its response to the crisis, saying it has provided more than 10 million pieces of protective equipment to nursing homes and created a database of 95,000 workers who have helped out in hundreds of New York homes.
"This was an overwhelming situation for everyone," said Jim Malatras, who has been serving on the governor's COVID-19 task force. "There were deaths and it's unfortunate, but it doesn't mean we weren't aggressive."
One key criticism is that New York took weeks after the first known care home outbreaks to begin publicly reporting the number of deaths in individual homes — and still doesn’t report the number of cases. By the time New York began disclosing the deaths in the middle of last month, the state had several major outbreaks with at least 40 deaths each, most of which were a surprise to the surrounding communities and even some family members.
"They should have announced to the public: 'We have a problem in nursing homes. We're going to help them, but you need to know where it is,'" said former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey, a Republican now heading the nonprofit Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. "Instead, they took the opposite tack: They hid it."
Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.