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Cuomo Distances State from Use of Experimental COVID-19 Cocktail at NYS-Run Veterans Nursing Home in Queens

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave an update in his Manhattan office on the state’s coronavirus response, July 1, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Gov. Andrew Cuomo deflected blame Tuesday for the use of an unproven COVID-19 treatment administered at a state-run nursing home in Queens.

His response came a day after a report by THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations found that at least 62 residents of the New York State Veterans’ Home at St. Albans were given the antimalarial hydroxychloroquine and antibiotic azithromycin last spring — despite risks documented by federal authorities years before the pandemic. 

When asked by THE CITY about the report during a conference call, Cuomo said he doubted the state ordered the use of the medications at St. Albans, one of four veterans facilities overseen by his Department of Health. 

“The state doesn’t do that,” Cuomo said. “The patient’s doctor orders a medication, and that’s between the patient and the doctor.”

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker takes part in a coronavirus press conference with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Manhattan, July 1, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, stressed the dire circumstances New York faced last spring. “We had little information,” he said. “Initial indications showed that the hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin might be a life-saving treatment.”

“When we realized that the data did not pan out, we stopped using it,” he added.

‘Poor Leadership’

Whether St. Albans doctors discussed the use of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin with patients is unclear. 

But at least eight families say they didn’t learn their relatives had received the drugs until after they were administered — sometimes, months later. Ten families could not recall being informed of the possible side effects.

While not all were empowered as health care proxies, the family members maintain that they were in charge of their relatives’ medical decisions at the time — in some cases, because the relative had dementia and was unable to comprehend treatment options. 

Current and former St. Albans staff said it is standard practice to consult with residents’ family, regardless of their proxy status.

“My uncle had vascular dementia,” said Colleen Hanley, who alleged that her uncle, Stephen Durnin, was given the drug cocktail at St. Albans without her consent. “If it was a doctor-patient decision, what made the doctor believe that severely ill patients understood they were being given an experimental treatment?”

Stephen Durnin, 85, with his niece, Colleen Hanley.

Courtesy of Colleen Hanley

Durnin, an 85-year-old Korean War veteran, died April 22. The primary cause on his death certificate is listed as cardiac arrest due to pneumonia and “presumed COVID-19.” 

Hanley — her uncle’s health care proxy — said she was disappointed by the governor’s comment. “This is a state-supervised facility,” she said. “How could the governor not know” about the use of hydroxychloroquine?

She also took aim at Zucker’s comments on what he called the initial lack of data about the drug cocktail. 

“It’s not enough to say, ‘We didn’t know what to do.’” 

“So, you panicked and gave these veterans something that could kill them?” she said. “At best, that’s poor leadership.”

From Optimistic to ‘Skeptical’

Cuomo did not directly address questions about families’ allegations. But he was quick to distance himself from the hype over the medications, which had been touted for months by officials at every level of government — most prominently by then-President Donald Trump.

“We were very skeptical of hydroxychloroquine,” Cuomo told reporters Tuesday. “My position was it was bogus from the beginning.”

Last March, however, Cuomo expressed hope in both hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as New York’s COVID-19 cases grew exponentially. “I’ve spoken with a number of health officials and there is a good basis to believe that they could work,” he said in a March 22 press conference. “We are all optimistic that it could work.”

On March 27, Cuomo issued an executive order allowing the use of hydroxychloroquine in skilled nursing facilities, including St. Albans. The order did not include any safety guidance, despite concerns that the drug could induce cardiac arrhythmias in aged and infirm patients. 

Cuomo’s action came a day before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued its own emergency-use authorization allowing the drug to be used in hospitals — but only after disclosing the risks

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Both hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin carry potential side effects, including anemia, neuromuscular damage, vision impairment and, of greatest concern, fatal heart arrhythmia. While rare in healthy patients, the risks increase with age and comorbidities like kidney or cardiovascular disease, experts say. 

According to THE CITY’s report, most residents who received the drug were over 70 and many had underlying conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cognitive impairment and kidney or heart disease.

The FDA revoked its authorization of hydroxychloroquine use in June, citing the life-threatening heart problems. New York followed in July.

To date, more than 13,000 nursing home residents have died in New York from COVID-19, according to the health department

That includes roughly 4,000 residents who died outside of the homes — a figure released only after a recent report by state Attorney General Letitia James documented undercounting by the Cuomo administration.

Cuomo, who has come under fire for his handling of nursing homes during the pandemic, inserted a measure into the state’s budget bill shielding the facilities from lawsuits over failures to protect residents from COVID-19.

The St. Albans nursing home has recorded at least 95 cases of confirmed COVID-19 among residents, with 43 virus-related deaths, although a list leaked by staff and obtained by THE CITY last May suggests the toll could be higher.

Dean Russell is a reporting fellow for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School.

This story was produced in collaboration with THE CITY, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations as part of “MISSING THEM,” THE CITY’s ongoing collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19. If you know someone who died or may have died due to the coronavirus, share their story here, leave us a voicemail at 646-494-1095 or text “remember” to 73224.

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