Nursing homes have been some of the hardest hit places for COVID-19. As of Sunday, state health department data showed about 5,300 nursing home residents have died from illnesses related to the coronavirus. That number reflects both confirmed and probable deaths, according to the state.

Those numbers do not include residents of nursing homes who have died in hospitals. 

The state recently added new health rules for those facilities, but an advocate for seniors in Western New York says they should've happened much sooner.

"This virus uses nursing homes. They are ground zero. They are the vulnerable population," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday, as he announced the new measures to help protect people living in nursing homes.

They will now have to test all staff members twice each week for COVID-19.

And hospitals will no longer be allowed to discharge patients who are positive for the coronavirus back into nursing homes. That's a change from a previous executive order in March which required nursing homes to admit people even if they had COVID-19.

"That was a big factor in this virus getting into these nursing homes," said Lindsay Heckler, an attorney with the Center for Elder Law and Justice.

The center provides legal services and advocates for seniors in Western New York. Heckler says despite the previous mandate that nursing homes accept positive cases, state law requires they only take in those they are able to care for.

"If there was a nursing home that short on staff, did not have enough personal protective equipment and other supplies, they should've pushed back from the hospital when they were trying to discharge a patient," Heckler said.

State health department data shows as of Sunday, 163 nursing home residents in Erie County and 31 in Niagara County have died from confirmed or suspected COVID-19 illnesses.

In Erie County, that's about 42 percent of all the coronavirus deaths. Several facilities have become hotspots. Heckler says the new regulations are a step forward, but might be too late.

"It's horrifying and extremely saddening, she said. “Residents and the employees working in these homes are suffering."

Heckler says it's up to nursing homes to let the state know if there are issues handling the crisis – and the state has to support them in finding solutions.

Gov. Cuomo said nursing homes could lose their licenses for failing to comply with the guidelines.

Heckler suggests having health department staff in place at those facilities that have an outbreak every day.

"There really needs to be some there on-site to remind staff and educate staff on how to properly wear PPE and how to properly follow infection control procedures, Heckler said.

If residents or families have concerns, Heckler urges them to reach out to the Center for Elder Law and Justice, local agencies, the state health department or the attorney general office.

  • Center for Elder Law and Justice - 1-844-481-0973 
  • Long-Term Care Ombudsman - 716-817-9222 (Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Niagara Counties) or 1-855-585-6769 (other WNY counties including Stueben)
  • NYS Dept. of Health - 1-888-201-4563
  • NYS Attorney General - 833-249-8499

1199SEIU, the union which represents 50,000 nursing home workers in New York state and 5000 in Western New York at more than 30 facilities, released the following statement in response to the new guidelines:

"1199SEIU has been working with our members and partners to make sure our healthcare workers have what they need to do their job well and under the best conditions possible. Keeping healthcare workers safe is our top priority. We are continuing to fight for access to lifesaving personal protective equipment to stop the spread of COVID-19. Without PPE, testing alone is not enough. We are still studying how the implementation of the Governor’s executive order may look for employers and caregivers."