NY Health Officials: Nursing Home Workers Spread COVID-19 To Patients

WCBS 880 Newsroom
July 06, 2020 - 3:13 pm

    ALBANY, N.Y. (WCBS 880) — New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said the large number of nursing home deaths from COVID-19 is not the fault of state policy, but staff who unknowingly infected residents.

    According to a 33-page report by the Health Department released Monday, approximately 37,500 nursing home staff members were infected with COVID-19 between March and early June 2020.

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    After analyzing the timing of COVID-positive staff infections and nursing home deaths, the health department concluded that it is "likely that thousands of employees who were infected in mid-March transmitted the virus unknowingly—through no fault of their own—while working, which then led to resident infection."  

    According to the report, the average length of time between COVID-19 infections to death is between 18-25 days. The peak number of nursing home staff reported COVID-19 symptoms on March 16 —23 days prior to the date of the peak nursing home fatalities, which occurred on April 8. 

    "As with other health care professionals, many worked right up to the point when their symptoms were evident," Zucker said. "Given what we now know about this virus, that shedding can peak before symptom onset, this dedication may have inadvertently led to unintended consequences."

    Zucker said the state was following federal guidelines.

    "On March 16, a CDC memo said that symptomatic health care workers could return to work three days after symptoms had resolved and one week from initial symptoms. But it did not address the return to work for symptomatic health care workers and this is not to be critical either, they, we, everyone did not know. It was a new virus, it is a new virus, and we're learning more each day," Zucker said.

    While Zucker says he's not blaming nursing home workers or the CDC, he said not enough was known about the virus earlier this year to implement stricter rules on when infected staff could return to work.

    Zucker said staff was selfless during the height of the outbreak and deserve praise.

    "I want to be clear on this, this is not to place blame at all on nursing home staff for resident fatalities, that's not what we're here to do. We're here to look at the science, try to figure out the answers in the data," Zucker said. "Many of the COVID-positive nursing home staff were actually asymptomatic, and as just mentioned testing was not available then. The extent to which asymptomatic individuals could transmit the disease was just not fully known in March."

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo said early on the state was limited at the time with testing and information on when the virus even came to New York.

    "If we knew the virus was here as early as we knew, start testing last January every nursing home employee," Cuomo said.

    Here were the key findings of the health department's analysis:

    • The timing of staff infections correlates with the timing of peak nursing home resident mortality across the state;
    • Nursing home employee infections were related to the most impacted regions in the state;
    • Peak nursing home admissions occurred a week after peak nursing home mortality, therefore illustrating that nursing home admissions from hospitals were not a driver of nursing home infections or fatalities;
    • Most patients admitted to nursing homes from hospitals were no longer contagious when admitted and therefore were not a source of infection; and,
    • Nursing home quality was not a factor in nursing home fatalities.

    Read the full report:

    Zucker and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have faced criticism for a March 25th order that required nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients. The governor has repeatedly said he was following a federal directive.

    The health department said an analysis of the timing of admissions versus fatalities shows that it could not be the driver of nursing home infections or fatalities.

    "The peak in nursing home fatalities was on April 8, the peak in admissions of COVID-positive hospital patients occurred on April 14, so what is strange about that? Well, if the policy was the direct driver in deaths, as some of the press had reported to be, then the peak of admissions would precede the peak in deaths," Zucker said. "However, it occurred the other way around. The peak in deaths occurred before the peak in admissions. In fact when you look at the curve you will see as the admissions of residents was increasing, the deaths were decreasing. Why is that important? Well it goes to the  false narrative that a resident who had COVID brought it from the hospital to the nursing home, but what we have to be is objective and the data does not support that."

    An analysis into whether nursing home visitations prior to the March 13 visitor ban may have contributed to a spread of infection was inconclusive because there was no tracking or testing available in February and early March.

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