ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo welcomes federal or state officials to investigate New York’s COVID-19 nursing home deaths, he said Wednesday, and religious services and ceremonies can resume statewide with 10 people or fewer.

Over the past several days, U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, joined other Republican New York members of the House of Representatives in calling for an investigation into the state’s adherence to safety and health regulations for nursing homes and long-term care facilities in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With 5,403 reported deaths at more than 600 nursing home and adult-care facilities across New York, Cuomo and the state have faced weeks of backlash after a March 25 state Health Department memo declared the state cannot discriminate against COVID-19-positive residents, and virus patients to return to those facilities, potentially infecting hundreds of the most vulnerable New Yorkers — senior citizens and people with underlying conditions.

“This is a political season — I get it,” Cuomo said Wednesday afternoon during a pandemic briefing at the state Capitol. “Anyone who wants to ask why we would do that with COVID patients in nursing homes... the state followed President [Donald] Trump’s CDC guidance.

“Ask President Trump.”

Officials do not regret the way it implemented the CDC guideline, the governor said.

“At the time, the issue was hospital capacity,” Cuomo said, adding officials wanted to free up hospital beds for the tens of thousands of critically ill patients that threatened to overwhelm New York hospitals in March and April.

Nursing homes cannot accept a patient they cannot provide care to, Cuomo reiterated Wednesday, and are required to contact the state Health Department to find a facility to properly quarantine, isolate and treat a virus-positive resident.

The state is permitting religious gatherings of 10 people or fewer with strict social-distancing guidelines enforced, officials announced Wednesday. All clergy and parishioners in attendance must wear masks.

Services and ceremonies were allowed starting Wednesday. Socially distanced drive-in and parking lot services will be allowed starting Thursday.

“At this time of stress when I see everyone so anxious and so confused, I think religious ceremonies are important,” Cuomo said, adding they must be held safely and smartly. “A religious ceremony, by definition, is a large gathering. The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony with more people infected.”

Cuomo and his aides will meet with the state’s Interfaith Advisory Council to discuss protocols for specific religions and denominations.

New York COVID-19 infections continue to dominate low-income and communities of color — especially in New York City and downstate areas, where the virus hit the nation the hardest. About 27% of 8,000 people the state tested at 24 New York City churches over the last 10 days have COVID-19 antibodies, which indicate they were exposed to and recovered from the virus.

The Bronx had the highest percentage of positive tests at 34%, compared to about 19.9% of the city’s general population, according to the governor’s office.

“The data shows not just a high number of people had a positive, but shows the spread is continuing in those communities and that’s where those new cases are coming from,” Cuomo said. “We’re seeing that pattern continue... That’s where the virus is still spreading.”

The state will expand testing to 44 total churches and 28 additional testing sites and develop education or outreach programs about social distancing and to procure hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment — such as masks and gloves — to target the pandemic in low-income and minority communities. The initiative will be done in partnership with Northwell Health and SOMOS Community Care.

Cuomo directed all local governments statewide to prioritize COVID-19 testing and educational programs to lower socioeconomic and communities of color.

“As you drive through some of these communities, you can see social distancing isn’t happening and PPE isn’t being used,” Cuomo said. “Hence, the virus spreads. ... Focus on low-income communities. Do the testing and the outreach.”

The state will also expand testing to 40 city public housing developments — up from eight.

New York’s COVID-19 fatalities reached 22,212 Wednesday — up from 22,100 Tuesday. Johns Hopkins University & Medicine’s online COVID-19 tracker, which includes probable virus deaths in its tally, listed the state’s virus death toll as 28,339 Tuesday afternoon.

The state saw 112 virus-related deaths Tuesday, including 82 in hospitals and 30 in nursing homes. The state’s coronavirus death rate is on a slow decline after totaling 105 fatalities Monday, 106 fatalities Sunday and 139 Saturday.

The state tested 1,505,836 people by Wednesday, revealing 354,370 total positive cases of COVID-19. New York’s hospitalization rates continued a downward trend to 5,570 patients Wednesday, according to the governor’s office.

“This was a long road down,” Cuomo said. “Fast spike, slow decline.”

The Capital District became New York’s seventh region to start reopening Wednesday, joining The North Country, Central New York, the Finger Lakes, the Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier regions, which resumed construction, manufacturing and curbside or in-store pickup retail industries May 15, and Western New York, which started Tuesday phase I of the state’s four-phase reopening plan.

The Mid-Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island regions remain under lockdown.

As the state reopens and officials monitor COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death rates, the governor reminded New Yorkers the importance of wearing face masks or coverings to protect yourself and others. Cuomo recalled other recent state surveys that showed COVID-19 frontline workers, including health care, transit and other essential employees, have a lower virus infection rate than New York’s general population.

“It’s because they’re wearing the mask — the mask works,” Cuomo said. “It’s in the data. It’s not that I’m saying it... It’s that they were right. The masks are protective and they work.”

Officials announced the top five finalists Wednesday in the competition where more than 600 New Yorkers created and shared a 30-second video explaining why people should wear a mask in public. The winning video will be used as a state Public Service Announcement.

One vote per person.

To view the top five videos, vote or for more information, visit WearAMask.ny.gov

To see where each region stands on reopening and the complete county breakdown of COVID-19 cases and deaths statewide, view the COVID-19 map and tracker at hudsonvalley360.com/site/covid19.html

The Tribune News Service contributed to this report.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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