Why did more than 6,000 nursing home residents die in New York during the height of the coronavirus pandemic?

It's not an academic question for those who still live in nursing homes and long term care facilities or their family members, especially if a second wave occurs in New York or for when the next pandemic strikes, said the Empire Center's Bill Hammond. 

Hammond, a former journalist who has studied health policy in New York, said in a Capital Tonight on Friday there needs to be an independent investigation of what occurred in nursing homes starting in March, and the state's own assessment released this week by the Department of Health fell short of that. 

"I don't think the point of an investigation is necessarily to assign blame or to make anybody look bad or good," Hammond said. "The point is to learn the lessons that we need to learn, to understand what we really happened in a rigorous way, so we can prepare for the next pandemic and not make the same mistakes."

The report released by Health Commissioner Howard Zucker determined asymptomatic visitors and staff brought the virus into nursing homes and largely absolved the effect of a March 25 guidance that required nursing homes to accept COVID positive patients. 

Hammond said that order is not the only cause of the spread of the virus in the facilities, but it likely played a role. He called it a "disservice" to discount that as a factor. 

"I think the basic conclusion that visitors and staff contributed to the virus -- I think that's valid," Hammond said. "Where they went wrong was when they concluded the infamous March 25 order was not a factor."

The state's report has been supported by hospital executives who have worked closely with the Cuomo administration during the pandemic as well as by Leading Age New York, a group that represents non-profit nursing homes in the state. 

State lawmakers have indicated plans to hold public hearings on the issue.