The US Justice Department has opened a preliminary inquiry into the coronavirus nursing home policies of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan that it says “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”
The Justice Dept. release says the state “required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients to their vulnerable populations, often without adequate testing.”
The Justice Dept. particularly honed in on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker’s controversial March 25 order that required nursing homes accept recovering COVID-19 residents discharged from hospitals while barring the facilities from screening them for the killer bug.
The release even quotes from New York’s order which stated: “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to [a nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. [Nursing homes] are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”
Cuomo rescinded the March 25 nursing home order after facing a firestorm of criticism.
“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations. We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk,” said Eric Dreiban, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.
State Health Department data says there’s been 6,453 confirmed or presumed nursing home deaths from COVID-19. Critics point out that figure does not include potentially thousands of nursing home residents who contracted the virus and were transported to hospitals and died. An Associated Press analysis found that number could be closer to 11,000.
The state Health Department issued its own internal report which claimed its nursing home order was not the cause of deaths of nursing home residents.
The report claimed that infected nursing home staffers and family/visitors unknowingly spread the virus to the frail and elderly residents. Critics panned the report as self-serving and incomplete.
One Democratic lawmaker Wednesday hailed the federal inquiry.
“It’s the right thing to do. We need to know if any of the policies contributed to the deaths of 6,400 nursing home residents,” said Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim.
“What happened to nursing home residents is a human right violation.”
The Justice Department is evaluating whether to initiate a full investigation under the federal “Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act” (CRIPA), which protects the rights of residents in “state-run nursing homes, among others.”
Justice’s Civil Rights Division seeks to determine if the state orders requiring admission of COVID-19 patients to nursing homes is “responsible for the deaths of nursing home residents,” the release said.
In its release, the Justice Department noted New York’s top-in-the-nation deaths from the coronavirus — 32,592 overall. New York has the second highest death rate in in the country per population, with 1,680 deaths per million people.
New Jersey’s death rate of 1,733 deaths per million people is the highest per capita in the nation.
In contrast, Texas reported just over 11,000 deaths, though its population is 50 percent larger than New York and has many more recorded cases of COVID-19.
Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a joint statement Wednesday evening accusing the Trump Justice Department of playing partisan politics with nursing homes and the COVID-19 crisis.
“This is nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention. It’s no coincidence the moment the Trump administration is caught weakening the CDC’s COVID-19 testing guidelines to artificially lower the number of positive cases, they launched this nakedly partisan deflection,” Cuomo and Whitmer said.
“At least 14 states — including Kentucky, Utah and Arizona — have issued similar nursing guidance all based on federal guidelines and yet the four states listed in the DOJ’s request have a Democratic governor. DOJ should send a letter to CMS (Center for Medicare Services) and CDC since the State’s advisories were modeled after their guidance.”
Cuomo, who has said COVID-19 spread through nursing homes “like fire through dry grass,” has long maintained that New York was following the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control in transferring coronavirus patients from hospitals to nursing homes. But White House and federal health officials have disputed that claim.
Cuomo has also opposed calls for an independent probe of nursing home deaths, saying state and congressional legislative hearings were adequate.
One federal health official applauded the Justice Department inquiry.
“For months, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been ducking his personal responsibility for ordering the seeding of New York nursing homes with the coronavirus, a tragic mistake which killed thousands of grandmothers and grandfathers,” said Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Michael Caputo, who hails from Western New York.
“He’s shifted blame, he even tried to clear himself with a crony inquiry nobody in the nation took seriously. Thankfully, a federal investigation has begun, far from the dark and cynical manipulations of the second floor of the New York State Capitol.”