The state Department of Health has been stalling on releasing a complete and accurate number of all those who died from COVID-19 while living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities.
And it has been almost six months since health department officials said they would release this number.
Senator James Skoufis again put pressure on the state health department to release these numbers before the state health commissioner testifies during a joint budget hearing next week.
“I think it’s an insult to the legislature that the Department of Health is stonewalling us,” Senator Skoufis said.
Yet for months, state lawmakers have been calling for these numbers and have gotten nowhere.
During a legislative hearing in August, the State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker was questioned for hours by lawmakers asking him to release the complete count of nursing home resident COVID-19 deaths.
The official state tally only accounts for around 8,200 deaths, but does not include the number of nursing home residents who were taken to the hospital and later passed away there.
Health experts estimate the actual number to be almost double the state’s number.
After Dr. Zucker failed to answer these questions in August, Senator Skoufis brought up the possibility of issuing a subpoena for these numbers.
Now Skoufis insists that decision is not up to just him.
“The decision to issue subpoenas is not a unilateral one,” Skoufis said. “It’s one that the senate majority and leadership are involved in making. But I am certainly at my end of the rope so to speak, and if we don’t get answers by next week’s hearing, I think he’s going to have a very uncomfortable hearing.”
However, Senator Sue Serino disagrees.
She argues that Skoufis, as chairman of the Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, does not need the entire majority’s support if he wants to issue a subpoena.
“Take action and do it,” Senator Serino said. “If we’re not getting the answers, what’s going on? I don’t understand why they’re not moving forward with this. It almost makes you think that they are complicit. And I do not say that lightly.”
There is bipartisan legislation in the Senate and Assembly right now that would create an independent investigation, with subpoena power, to look at why so many nursing home residents died from COVID-19 during the pandemic.