ALBANY — Operators of New York's nursing home and assisted living facilities face a "voluminous task" as they struggle to comply with a Cuomo administration edict to conduct nearly 400,000 COVID-19 tests a week on employees, an industry leader said Tuesday.

Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the state Center for Assisted Living, said the facilities will need assistance in conducting that volume of testing. He added it is unclear whether sufficient tests will be available to meet the Cuomo administration mandate.

There are approximately 140,000 nursing home employees across the state, with an additional 45,000 people employed at adult care facilities, said.

With some 5,300 New York nursing home patients having died from the contagion — a sum that does not include those who succumbed after being transferred to hospitals — state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has faced criticism from some patient advocates and lawmakers relating to the state's effort to manage the crisis.

Cuomo, who appointed Zucker to his position, has directed the health agency to work with the state attorney general's office in an investigation into the nursing home industry and its response to the pandemic.

But Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who heads the Assembly Health Committee, said the Health Department's policies and its handling of nursing home patient welfare should also be a major focus of the investigation.

A veteran lawyer, Gottfried told CNHI the attorney general's office, because it often represents the Health Department in legal matters, has a "client conflict" and should thus bring on outside counsel to delve into the questions regarding Zucker's agency.

Cuomo, during a stop in the Binghamton region Tuesday, called the state's response posed by the virus to nursing home patients "a top priority."

As for the health agency's recent order requiring all nursing home employees to be tested twice a week, Cuomo said "Many of the nursing homes are saying it’s unnecessary and it’s a burden. I understand that it is burdensome, but I think we have to do everything that we can do. And I don’t think it’s unnecessarily burdensome."

Testing workers once a week would not be adequate, he said, adding: "All that tells you is that the day you took the test, you did not have the virus. So you get tested on Monday, you didn’t have the virus on Monday. Okay. But you could get it Tuesday and you can spread it Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, until you get the next test on Monday."

In Albany, Hanse noted that since the first New Yorker tested positive for the virus in early March, a total of 1.2 million COVID-19 tests have been administered in the state. The number of tests the state is expecting the nursing home industry to now conduct will "eclipse that total in short order," he said.

"We are requesting the state to direct the supply and allocation of tests to providers and ensure that the test results can be processed in a timely manner," Hanse said. He also urged the state to "ensure additional staff will be available to fill in for infected employees."

Another major pubic heath concern for both state and federal officials has been the spread of the virus behind prison walls.

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, said she and a bipartisan group of House representatives are urging the federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service test all inmates for COVID-19. The inmates should be confirmed negative before they are transferred to any Bureau of Prisons quarantine location, she said, including the Ray Brook federal prison. The federal agency has been screening for symptoms, she said, but has moved inmates who are asymptomatic for the virus though they could potentially infect prison staffers.

The state prison system, with nearly 40,000 inmates in custody, has had 15 prisoners die from COVID-19 infections in recent weeks, along with several staffers. Five parolees have also died from the virus, according to the Department of Corrections and Community Services.

David George, an activist with Release Aging People in Prisons Campaign, said the virus now poses a major health threat in New York's prisons, with the rate of spread increasing and less than 2% of the population tested.

"We have not seen the same flattening of the curve as there has been outside the prisons, and we're beginning to see an extreme ascent of the virus, which I think should be a real cause for concern for the governor and all of us as New Yorkers," George said.

Cuomo, meanwhile, noted an estimated 100 children have received hospital treatment for an inflammatory syndrome that appears to be related to COVID-19 infections.

Three New York children have died from the condition, he said as he directed hospitals to examine youngsters who exhibit symptoms tied to the inflammation.

The state reported 195 new fatalities from the virus Tuesday, increasing total deaths to 21,845 across New York since the pandemic began.

Communities in the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes regions have all been approved to be in the first phase of the state's reopening of the economy after hitting several testing and hospital capacity targets required by the state. More regions will join the reopening as they fulfill the requirements.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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