HARRISBURG - Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania on Thursday used a hearing to ask Gov. Tom Wolf’s top health official whether it was a mistake to order COVID-19 patients to be readmitted to nursing homes, although it is far from clear that the policy led to an outbreak or death.
Since Pennsylvania’s first coronavirus spike in cases last spring, Republicans have accused Wolf’s administration of fueling the outbreak in nursing homes by ordering the facilities to readmit residents who had been treated for the virus in a hospital.
Despite a high number of nursing home deaths in Pennsylvania, no investigation has thus far pointed to the policy as a cause of death or outbreak. Meanwhile, nursing home trade associations in Pennsylvania say they are not aware of a nursing home that was forced to accept a COVID-positive patient against its will, or that the order led to death or an outbreak.
Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny, repeated that claim — that the order "contributed" to Pennsylvania’s nursing home deaths — during Thursday’s Appropriations Committee hearing. She also urged acting Health Secretary Alison Beam to say that the department’s order, issued last March 18 amid fears of a surge of COVID-19 patients needing medical treatment, was a mistake.
"Could you just say to us today that March 18 order was a mistake?" Mihalek said.
Beam responded that the state wanted to ensure that hospitals weren’t overrun and, "to the extent that it could be done safely," allow nursing home residents to recover in their homes.
Beam also said the state’s order "clarified" confusing federal guidance that nursing homes could accept readmissions of residents treated for the virus in hospitals.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, followed up, saying, "the fact that you are avoiding the answer clearly makes it clear that it was a mistake."
The Department of Health has not released data on the number of COVID-19 patients who were released back to nursing homes, or which nursing homes readmitted such patients.
In August, the Justice Department, under then-President Donald Trump, sent letters to the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and New Jersey — all Democrats — seeking data on whether they violated federal law and caused deaths by ordering nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals.
The outcome of that investigation is unclear. The Department of Justice declined comment on it Thursday.
Pennsylvania is the most populous of about a dozen states where coronavirus-related deaths in long-term care facilities account for 50% or higher of the total coronavirus-related deaths, according to data assembled by the COVID Tracking Project through last week.
Last spring, nursing homes and long-term care homes struggled to contain the virus, many lacking the trained staff, testing supplies and personal protective equipment in the early going that could have helped them slow the spread, public health experts said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had advised nursing homes to create a plan for managing readmissions of residents who contracted the virus as well as admissions of new residents who were infected.
Nursing homes were told to place those residents in a single-person room, or in a separate observation area to be monitored for evidence of the virus.
A national nursing home trade group, the American Health Care Association, advised nursing homes last March to create separate wings, units or floors, as well as staff, to handle admissions from the hospital.
The American Health Care Association has pointed to research that it says shows the location of a nursing home, asymptomatic spread and availability of testing were determining factors in COVID-19 outbreaks.
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