“Families like mine deserve more from our state leaders than platitudes and delayed, toothless studies. We deserve truth, transparency and real accountability.”

Adi Talwar

A drive-through COVID testing site on Goulden Avenue in the Bronx in October 2020.

In 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul promised to bring out “the good, the bad, and ugly” about New York’s COVID-19 response. However, four years after such excruciating and heartbreaking deaths, we are still waiting for any significant action in our home state as members of Congress in Washington, D.C. get ready to question former Gov. Andrew Cuomo about the state’s handling of COVID.

My mother passed away in a nursing home during COVID—and as a leader of Voices for Seniors, I’ve spent the past four years working with family members who also lost loved ones in nursing homes and are desperate for accountability. New York must do better and create a truly independent commission, free from political bias—to bring out the good, bad, and ugly truths, as we were promised.

In the early days of COVID, over 15,000 New Yorkers died in nursing homes. New Yorkers lost parents, grandparents and loved ones in overcrowded facilities, unable to visit their relatives in their last days. The extended lockdowns in nursing homes in itself is something that needs an investigation, as both the impact of severe isolation and the true death toll from COVID is yet unknown.

In the weeks and months that followed, numerous legitimate questions were raised about whether these deaths were preventable, and what role then-Gov. Cuomo’s nursing home order played in contributing to this tragic death toll. Why were nursing homes forced to accept COVID-positive patients? Why were so many seniors exposed to this virus, leading to dangerous outbreaks among an already vulnerable population? Why was this policy created? Did elected officials understand how the virus was transmitted in these settings? And did contagious disease experts sign off on this order?

New York must answer these questions in order to better prepare for future health crises—and we deserve a nonpartisan investigation that avoids the specter of political theater. What appears clear to many of us who have spent the past four years advocating for the truth is that politics infiltrated every aspect of the state’s COVID response, and may have led to unnecessary tragedies. The only way to avoid more partisan posturing is to create a truly independent, apolitical commission staffed with health and policy experts.

As of today, the only COVID review offered by Gov. Hochul is through a private consulting firm without subpoena power to interview policy makers or review critical documents. Additionally, this consulting firm’s study has been long-delayed. Rather than demonstrate a true commitment to finding the truth, this consulting firm’s overdue and inevitably incomplete study is merely another platitude offered to families in pain.

In Albany, legislators are pushing for a truly independent, bipartisan pandemic response commission, staffed with public health experts, and with full subpoena power to interview all relevant witnesses, gather documents, and access all relevant records. Additionally, this commission would have the power to hold public hearings, allowing COVID survivors and relatives to share their experiences and input.

The commission would use the information gathered to present concrete recommendations for state action to prevent similar tragedies and better prepare for future emergencies. And the commission would be working for the public—not the governor—delivering its findings and recommendations directly to New Yorkers.

Similar reviews have taken place after natural disasters and large-scale emergencies across the country, from the bipartisan 9/11 Commission to National Transportation Safety Board investigations. After 80,000 deaths in New York, one of the first epicenters of the COVID pandemic, there is no excuse for our state to drag its feet instead of taking immediate action.

After I lost my mother to COVID-19, I was desperate to know whether her death in a nursing home rehabilitation facility was avoidable. And after meeting so many families with stories like mine, I imagined the state leaders we elected would want to quickly find the truth for us—no matter how ugly.

However, I never imagined four years later, I would still be calling for an honest and thorough  investigation. Families like mine deserve more from our state leaders than platitudes and delayed, toothless studies. We deserve truth, transparency and real accountability.

Vivian Zayas is the co-founder of Voices for Seniors.