Two members of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s inner circle threatened nursing-home association representatives with fines and license revocations during a heated, emergency call about COVID-19 vaccinations — even though it was based on erroneous information, sources on the call told The Post.
The call, held earlier this month, came as Cuomo has faced continuing scrutiny over his response to the health crisis in nursing homes, as well as allegations that he fosters a toxic work environment where bullying behavior permeates the upper ranks.
State Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Beth Garvey, special counsel to the governor, used the call to threaten nursing home operators for failing to pick up vaccine shipments they supposedly ordered — only for it to emerge that their gripes were based on inaccurate information, according to sources on the call.
“Why the over-the-top threatening? Why wasn’t it a phone call of ‘what are you guys hearing and are there issues getting the vaccine out?’” said one source. “You call people up with no notice, start threatening licenses and penalties — that’s your starting position? The first I heard something was wrong was on that call. Before that? Nothing.”
At 12:54 p.m. on March 17, representatives from nursing home associations statewide received an email from state health officials requesting that they take part in a “high” priority call at 1 p.m.
The email did not reveal what warranted the urgency — but when the representatives joined the call, Zucker and Garvey told them that their data showed hundreds of homes had requested shipments of the coronavirus vaccine for staff and residents, only to not pick up the doses.
“What are my options here?” asked Zucker, according to audio of a 26-minute portion of the call obtained by The Post. “There’s the option of fines. There’s the option of enforcement. There’s the option of shaming everyone and saying, ‘I can’t believe the people aren’t doing this.’
“I’m not trying to be difficult with all of you,” continued Zucker. “But the bottom line is, these are residents of these nursing homes and there are vaccines put aside for them, and the nursing home administrators need to pick them up and get them into the arms of those residents, and the staff as well. Anything shy of that is just irresponsible.”
Garvey picked up where Zucker left off.
“It is absolute malpractice to have these vaccines available and have not picked them up,” she said. “I would think that each and every medical director at these facilities should feel personal jeopardy for their medical licenses. We obviously have tools at our disposal.
“Every option is on the table, as far as issuing emergency regs, issuing fines and penalties,” she continued. “We have literally bent over backwards to try to see if the nursing homes would do the right thing. I think our only recourse at this point is to try to clean it up, because we have liability.”
Garvey went on to say that “this one time” the state would act “to solve our liability” by delivering the vaccines to the homes that had not picked them up.
The state concluded the call by promising to circulate a list of homes that had not picked up their vaccine allotments, and giving the association representatives until 5 p.m. to call the facilities and tell them to retrieve their doses under penalty of fines.
“They call you on this emergency phone call and immediately start threatening people? That’s how it starts?” one incredulous source who participated in the call told The Post. “This wasn’t the culmination of weeks of working with people not responding. This was right out of the box: Attack.”
After receiving the state’s list of more than 400 facilities that allegedly left their vaccine claims unaccounted for, the source called homes within their association — and found the state’s data misleading.
Representatives for some homes said that while they may have submitted required tallies to the state for their unvaccinated residents and staffers, that didn’t mean they needed vaccines set aside, according to the source.
Other homes said that they have already partnered with a pharmacy for their outstanding vaccine needs, had picked up their state allotments, or simply didn’t need the supplies.
As of March 29, 77 percent of nursing home residents and 56 percent of nursing home staff statewide have been vaccinated, according to state data.
The statewide rollout process has been marred by periodic issues, including vaccine shortages, and hiccups at the federal level amid the transition from former President Donald Trump to President Biden.
A second source on the call also questioned the guns-blazing approach — particularly since the state never bothered to conduct a follow-up call, as Zucker and Garvey said they would on March 19.
“It took people by surprise and I don’t think there’s any legal basis for the threat,” said the inside. “We continued to work through the list and see what we could do to help, but we’ve heard nothing from the department.”
The state DOH defended its hardball approach.
“The reality is some nursing homes are still failing to protect New Yorkers,” said spokesman Gary Holmes in a statement. “After the federal nursing home vaccination program ended, the state made clear to nursing homes that they had an obligation to vaccinate residents and staff going forward and offered to set aside specific allocations for them.
“We made repeated calls, determined if they could do shots themselves or needed a third-party provider, and have asked them daily for 6.5 weeks how many doses they need,” continued Holmes. “For some inexplicable reason, hundreds of nursing homes are letting vaccine doses sit on shelves — these failures border on malpractice, which is why we’ve deputized regional hub hospitals to pick up the slack.”
The department and the Cuomo administration have faced criticism for myriad issues throughout the pandemic with respect to nursing homes, starting with an infamous March 2020 directive forbidding nursing homes from turning away residents on the sole basis of a coronavirus diagnosis.
In January, a damning report released by state Attorney General Letitia James found that the state may have undercounted the death toll among nursing home residents by as much as 50 percent.
The next month, top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa was caught on audio acknowledging to state Democratic lawmakers that the administration obscured the true death toll because it feared an investigation from the federal government.
And this month it was alleged that, during the early days of the pandemic, Cuomo arranged then-scarce coronavirus tests for relatives and members of his inner circle — as his administration rebuffed requests for tests for some nursing homes.