BATH, N.Y. (WETM) — Back in April, testing for COVID was key to saving lives. Steuben County officials said that they asked the State for tests after nursing home outbreaks, but many of those requests were denied.
After the first COVID outbreak in Hornell Gardens nursing home, the county asked the State Department of Health (DOH), for help. The state sent a “Strike Team” which delivered tests, according to Steuben County Director of Health Darlene Smith.
When the second outbreak of COVID occurred at the Elderwood nursing home, the county once again reached out to the DOH, but this time was different, according to Steuben County Manager Jack Wheeler.
“When we saw cases in the next few days start to creep up in Elderwood and Taylor, we made the same request,” Wheeler recalled. “Pretty quickly we noticed a change in tune or a shift from the New York State Department of Health.”
“We asked for the Strike Team to come, but instead they did an infection control assessment of the nursing home and did not send the nurses or the testing kits to do the universal swabbing in that nursing home, so we did it ourselves,” said Smith.
Smith said that it was exceedingly frustrating. Smith does not know why the other two nursing homes didn’t get the tests. She recalls that they were only asking for a few hundred tests, a drop in the bucket to the amount of overall testing done within the County.
“At that time, I suppose that amount seemed large, but now, knowing what we know from what other resources have reported, it certainly sounds like the tests were used for different purposes than swabbing in the nursing home.”
The other uses that Smith is hinting at are rumors that Cuomo used tests on a personal level. These allegations have not been confirmed.
When Smith and Wheeler knew that the county was not going to receive the tests from the State, they worked together with other county officials and volunteers to obtain and administer the tests.
“The example of testing at Elderwood and Taylor are some of the things that in retrospect kind of lift me up… about the good things that we can do as a community,” Wheeler said.
They turned to Steve Acquario, New York State Association of Counties Executive Director, for help getting roughly 500 tests. Wheeler said that Acquario, who was in Albany, drove from county to county collecting tests to give to Steuben.
“It’s a time where they are short on resources too, but Steve conveyed to them the desperate situation that we were in,” Wheeler said.
Smith is grateful for the tests that they were able to borrow but says that if the DOH had given the tests when they were requested, it would have been better for those living in the nursing homes.
“Every hour was critical, and that delay presented a lot of problems, and it is very unfortunate,” Smith said. “It’s heartbreaking obviously, not only the ones who ended up testing positive but for the families who lost their loved ones during this time period because it shouldn’t have happened this way, we should have been able to to help them sooner,” Smith said.
When the tests delivered by Acquario arrived, Wheeler reached out to local schools for volunteers to help administer them. “We only had a handful of nurses, and they [were] doing contract tracing at that time,” Wheeler said. “Schools were obviously out at that point in the second week of April, and about a half a dozen school nurses volunteered to do the testing themselves.”
DOH has a different perspective of what happened last April and is accusing the county officials of rewriting history.
“In the absence of any real federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State stepped forward and from the very beginning did everything we could to protect our most vulnerable population,”said Jonah Bruno, Director of Public Information at DOH. “Anyone can attempt to rewrite history or rehash out of context conversations a year later, but that doesn’t change the facts.”
“That’s their defense,” Smith said. “We were the boots on the ground, we were on the front line, we were the ones making the requests, we were the ones that did not get what we requested, we were the ones that fought the battles on the phone, and over email and we were the ones that strongly advocated for this county’s rural population.”
Wheeler also disputes the claims that they are fabricating what happened. He challenged the DOH, saying if they have email communications or any information to refute what they are saying, he would love to see it and even offered to be subpoenaed and go on record to tell their side of the story.
“We found a way to get it done, but in my view, that’s not the way it should have been,” Wheeler said.