Health Care

Richard Gottfried on the busy legislative front against COVID-19

Assembly Health Committee Chair said state needs to codify pandemic lessons learned.

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried.

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried. Hans Pennink/AP/Shutterstock

Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried said New York has come a long way in developing a state response to the coronavirus pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has implemented a new “microcluster” strategy, and new health care restrictions are being paired to the latest data. But there is still legislative work to get done in the remaining weeks of the year, Gottfried said in a recent interview. 

The governor has yet to sign legislation that would increase privacy protections for New Yorkers who share private information with contact tracers. Similar issues are arising in the upcoming vaccine distribution process. Then there are lessons learned about nursing homes and hospitals that need to be codified into state law. 

City & State recently caught up with Gottfried, the longest-serving member of the state Legislature, to get his thoughts on what the state needs to do as COVID-19 cases surge statewide. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

State lawmakers passed a bill months ago that would bar police and law enforcement from accessing contact tracing data. Why is the governor delaying in signing it?

We've been having conversations with them back and forth. I don't think they've come to any conclusions yet. What we've been exploring with them is primarily the question of how private entities that contract with a contact tracing agency store data. The city of New York raised some concerns. The discussion is whether the governor would want us to make some changes in a bill that we would pass in January. It would be in the form of a chapter amendment to the law. I think we can work out language that will satisfy concerns, but doesn't mean the governor will feel that way. 

Any chance of the state Legislature reconvening before January 2021?

At this point, we're not hearing much about reconvening in November or December. There had been discussion of that weeks ago. I have not heard anything either way in quite some time.

Cuomo has been warning that immigration authorities or law enforcement could access private data gathered through the upcoming vaccine distribution process. Do we need new legislation on that too?

Definitely. I have begun conversations with civil liberty and privacy advocates to develop a bill on that. It's obviously not something we would enact in the next few weeks, but it would be something we would aim to do in the coming year – hopefully, quickly.

Where do you see the state right now as a second wave of COVID-19 cases gathers force?

I think the state and the city are pretty well on target about close-down orders and trying to make sure that our health care providers are as well provided for as they can be. There are fundamental problems in our system that I think were certainly highlighted in the first wave that have not really been dealt with such as the financial stability of hospitals and other health care providers, the supply of hospital beds and whether our nursing homes are ready to properly isolate COVID (positive) residents. 

Visitors might have played a big role in spreading the coronavirus in nursing homes early on. Should they be allowed if things get worse?

We need to recognize that family members visiting is not just a matter of emotional need. It's critically important to the well being of nursing home residents – including the fact that family visitors help in providing care to nursing home residents, and are very important for spotting inadequate or improper care and speaking up about it. 

It's well known that nursing home residents who are regularly visited by a family member are treated a lot better by the nursing home staff. While the state health department has made some changes in their visiting rules, they don't go anywhere near far enough to enable selected family members to visit nursing home residents