News & Politics

'Death Sentence': Why Did Dem. Governors Place COVID-Positive Patients Back in Nursing Homes?

In this image provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich., Monday, April 6, 2020. Whitmer said Detroit-area hospitals are running "dangerously low" on personal protection equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also reported an "incredible surge" in the number of unemployment claims and promised that people would get paid, despite computer woes and bureaucratic red tape. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)

This week, House Republicans on the Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis sent five letters to Democratic governors, demanding answers as to why these state leaders ordered nursing homes to admit patients who had tested positive for coronavirus. The House Republicans noted that the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) issued guidance suggesting that nursing homes should only admit patients if the facility could follow quarantine guidelines.

“Democrats failed our nursing home residents, plain and simple,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) declared in a statement Monday. “Despite clear warnings about exposing nursing homes to this virus, some Democrat governors decided it made more sense to force nursing homes to take in coronavirus patients, which resulted in countless avoidable deaths. The American people deserve to know what informed and motivated these decisions so it doesn’t happen again.”

“The decision of several governors to ignore federal protocols and instead mandate COVID-positive patients be forced back to their nursing homes ended up being a death sentence for tens of thousands of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the ranking member on the committee, said in a statement.

Jordan, Scalise, and their colleagues sent letters to Governors Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.), Gavin Newsom (D-Calif.), Tom Wolf (D-Pa.), and Phil Murphy (D-N.J.).

Each letter requests “information, at a granular level, about the science and information used to inform your decision to mandate nursing homes and long-term care facilities admit untested and contagious COVID-19 patients from hospitals. This decision likely contributed to the thousands of elderly deaths in [your state].”

The letters quote CMS guidance issued on March 13. “This guidance does not direct any nursing home to accept a COVID-19 positive patient, if they are unable to do so safely,” the letters note. Indeed, the guidance urges that “nursing homes should admit any individual that they would normally admit to their facility, including individuals from hospitals where a case of COVID-19 was/is present” only if the nursing home can follow” CDC guidance.

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CMS Administrator Seema Verma also warned, “Under no circumstances should a hospital discharge a patient to a nursing home that is not prepared to take care of those patients’ needs.”

Yet in each state represented by these governors, nursing homes were mandated not to turn away patients who had tested positive for coronavirus. The New York order came on March 25, the Michigan version on April 15, the California order on March 30, the Pennsylvania version on March 18, and the New Jersey one on March 31. Each came after the CMS guidance and arguably contradicted the spirit of the federal guidance.

According to a study of over 1,000 patients admitted to the hospital with the coronavirus in New York City, over 90 percent contracted the virus from close contact with an infected person, including sheltering at home or contained living situations like in nursing homes and jails.

Each letter noted the fact that coronavirus deaths in each particular state represent a high proportion of that state’s coronavirus deaths.

New York has suffered 6,360 nursing home coronavirus deaths, a number that represents more than 25 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths and more than 4 percent of the state’s nursing home population.

Michigan has suffered 2,297 nursing home coronavirus deaths, a number that represents more than 41 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths and more than 3 percent of the state’s nursing home population. Whitmer has yet to rescind the order.

California has suffered 2,560 nursing home coronavirus deaths, a number that represents more than 50 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths and 1 percent of its nursing home population.

Pennsylvania has suffered 4,268 nursing home coronavirus deaths, a number that represents more than 68 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths and more than 3 percent of its nursing home population.

New Jersey has suffered 6,432 nursing home coronavirus deaths, a number that represents more than 50 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths and more than 10 percent of its nursing home population.

It may be impossible to parse out exactly how many elderly Americans in each of these five states suffered exposure and death due to these deadly orders, but the nursing home policies of Cuomo, Whitmer, Newsom, Wolf, and Murphy certainly contributed to these horrific death tolls.

“We owe it to those who died and their grieving families to get to the bottom of why these deadly decisions were made by these governors,” Scalise said in a statement.

Indeed, these governors owe their citizens an explanation, especially since their orders contradicted the spirit of the CMS guidelines. The Republicans are demanding documentation explaining why these governors made these deadly decisions and the number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 positive patients returned to a nursing home between the time of the order and the present.

While most media outlets present coronavirus statistics in a misleading way that exaggerates the threat and seems bound to stir panic, the coronavirus threat in nursing homes is very real, and these Democratic governors’s orders are simply unconscionable. These Republicans are right to demand answers, and Democrats should join them.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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