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Senator O'Mara's weekly column: "The worst of NY's COVID-19 response belongs to two governors"

Senator O'Mara offers his weekly perspective on many of the key challenges and issues facing the Legislature, as well as on legislative actions, local initiatives, state programs and policies, and more.

For the week of July 18, 2022, "The worst of NY's COVID-19 response belongs to two governors":

In the end, when the retrospectives of New York’s COVID-19 response have been completed -- and, eventually, they will be -- what transpired within the state’s nursing homes and the loss of more than 15,000 lives will finally be granted the total, transparent scrutiny it demands.

Sadly, at the moment, this desperately needed assessment and examination appears not to be a priority for Governor Kathy Hochul, despite her reassurances a few months back that her administration would be reexamining “every aspect” of the state’s response.

Recent reporting has noted that there has been extraordinarily little movement since.

Albany Times Union columnist Chris Churchill recently wrote: “We all want to put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror. No sane person has any desire to relive all that COVID-19 wrought. A problem, though, is that many unanswered questions remain about New York's infamous order that pressured nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients -- and about the state's response to the pandemic more broadly. New York can't just sweep all that happened under the rug and pretend everything went well. It didn't.”

No, it didn’t. That’s the point many of us in the Legislature have been making since early on in 2020, shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic. As the ranking member on the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee, I have had a front row look at the stonewalling and whitewashing that have characterized two successive administrations.

We know the damage that was done under former Governor Andrew Cuomo. Unfortunately, truly little has changed on this front under the Hochul administration.

In fact, Hochul kept Cuomo's puppet of a Health Commissioner, Howard Zucker, on for months after her ascension to Governor and then chose a new Health Commissioner who testified at her confirmation hearing that she had no interest and no intention of reviewing the state's Covid response -- in particular, Cuomo’s fateful March 25th order that sent thousands of Covid-positive hospital patients into nursing homes.

New Yorkers deserve to have answers. Is Cuomo's $5.1 million book deal consummated while Cuomo lied to New Yorkers about nursing home deaths following his March 25th order not enough of a smoking gun?

It’s critical, unfinished work. The ongoing, unexplainable lack of urgency on a comprehensive, top-to-bottom, independent examination of New York’s COVID-19 response -- including its costs, what we did right and, equally if not more important, where things went wrong -- remains unacceptable, to say the least.

Not long ago, testifying before the Senate Aging Committee, Bill Hammond of the Empire Center for Public Policy, stated, “The key to being better prepared is to learn from hard experience. The state needs a careful and comprehensive investigation of its pandemic response -- ideally conducted by a commission of independent experts. Otherwise, there is a danger that the invaluable lessons of this once-in-a-century catastrophe will go to waste.”

He's right.

Unfortunately, the lessons continue to go to waste and timeliness remains ignored.

Governor Hochul obviously has the authority to not only initiate an independent examination (and she says she has) but more to the point, to move this work to the top of the list and demand its utmost attention, focus, and completion.

Her taste for getting it done appears lukewarm, at best. Why?

Likewise with the Senate and Assembly Democrat majorities that have repeatedly ignored calls by me and our Republican conferences to bring the countless layers of the COVID-19 response out into the light of day.

In his July 12 column, Churchill wrote, “Failing to thoroughly investigate would be an unconscionable act of malpractice, in part because COVID-19 will not be our last novel infectious virus. To avoid repeating mistakes, we need the honesty and transparency required to fully understand what went wrong and why -- the sooner, the better.”

A recent, scathing editorial from the New York Post cuts to the heart of it: “Perhaps other lingering Cuomo loyalists have somehow stalled the care-home probe. Or maybe Hochul fears she’ll be tainted by Cuomo’s wrongdoing, perhaps because she didn’t immediately fire Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who’s at the heart of the horror. Whatever the reason, whomever she’s protecting, it’s an outrage. New Yorkers who lost loved ones want answers, and the gov promised to get them. She needs to follow through, no matter who looks bad in the end.”

We need to know what went right, so that the state can build on that success and strengthen it. We also need to pinpoint what went wrong, and why, so that New York begins taking every necessary action, now, immediately, to identify and address weaknesses, and to fix the shortcomings as well as the outright failures.

Furthermore, taxpayers deserve an accurate, transparent, readily accessible accounting of the state’s enormous, emergency expenditures on the COVID-19 response.

The COVID-19 response spread across and consumed New York’s entire bureaucracy -- education, health care, labor, housing, social services, criminal justice, you name it -- and utilized vast state and federal resources. In numerous ways, it still is.

What took place in nursing homes, the loss of more than 15,000 lives, emerges as the tragedy of this pandemic. Cuomo's order sent 9,000 Covid hospital patients into nursing homes while the Javits Center field hospital and U.S.N.S. Comfort hospital ship sat unused.

Six thousand of those patients were new admissions to nursing homes, not prior residents returning from a hospital.

It was the state’s most egregious failure

We deserve to know why, no matter the political consequences or fallout.

The sooner, the better.


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