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Grim Reaper stalks Pa. nursing homes

The state Health Department is coming under increased criticism for its bungled handling to the COVID-19 pandemic at nursing homes. Nearly 70% of all deaths in the state attributed to the coronavirus have occurred at these and other elder-care facilities.

Legislators and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro are weighing in, too. The situation has become so alarming that Shapiro last week announced his office has opened criminal investigations into several long-term facilities, although he did not indicate which are involved.

As of Sunday, 69% of all deaths in Pennsylvania have been traced to residents and employees of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The crescendo of criticism has resulted in the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf announcing last week that the state is launching universal once-a-week coronavirus testing in nursing homes to try to stop the spread of the deadly virus among this vulnerable group. The average age of deaths among Pennsylvanians is about 80 years.

A new Spotlight PA investigation reveals the state had an aggressive plan to protect nursing homes from COVID-19, but it was never fully implemented, and a similar but far more limited plan wasn’t activated until mid-April, long after major outbreaks at these facilities had taken hold. That put the Wolf administration in the embarrassing position of playing catch-up.

On the legislative front, Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, plans to introduce a bill that would prohibit the Health Department from requiring nursing homes and other long-term facilities to admit infected patients.

In late March, the Wolf administration ordered medically stable residents infected with the coronavirus to be returned from hospitals to these long-term care facilities. The American Health Care Association warned that this ill-advised directive could lead to the loss of more lives. Regrettably, these predictions turned out to be accurate.

The deadly coronavirus has spread like wildfire through many nursing homes across the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, and state officials are scrambling to better protect these most susceptible members of society while their loved ones look on in horror and near helpless frustration.

State Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Northampton and Monroe, said that while the Health Department’s stepped up testing plan is a step in the right direction, ‘more work remains to be done to ensure they get the resources and supplies they need.“

State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine conceded that because of the vagaries of how the coronavirus strikes, a person can test negative one day and positive the next, so the frequency of testing beyond once a week will be individualized based on the number of cases in a facility. Levine said daily public updates will now include cases, deaths and infected staff members at these facilities.

Carbon and Lehigh nursing homes have been particularly hard hit with 13 or 76% of Carbon’s 17 deaths recorded there, while in Lehigh 109 of 139 of its total deaths (78%) occurred in nursing homes. Other counties include: Northampton, 128 of 199 deaths (64%); Monroe 35 of 70 deaths (50%), and Luzerne, 93 of 127 (73%). At the other end of the scale, Schuylkill County’s nursing homes have had just two of the county’s 15 deaths (or 13%).

As of Sunday, nursing homes and other long-term facility residents have accounted for 3,057 of the state’s 4,418 reported COVID-19 deaths, or 69%. This is a similar pattern nationwide.

Meanwhile Levine has become the target of at least one legislator. State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a first-term Republican representing Franklin and parts of adjoining counties, called on Levine to resign because of the department’s slow response to COVID-19 infection in nursing homes.

Mastriano said the policy to allow COVID-19 positive patients to be returned to elder-care facilities after being hospitalized resulted in the virus breaking out like wildfire and is the equivalent of “policy malpractice.”

Levine said these patients must test negative before they are returned from a hospital to the elder-care population.

He also accused Levine of a conflict of interest for allowing her 95-year-old mother to move from an assisted-living facility to a hotel.

On the surface, these optics look terrible for the health secretary, but she explains it this way: Her mother was in a personal care home, which is overseen by the Department of Human Services, unlike nursing homes which are overseen by her department. Levine said that her mother requested the move, so she and her sister complied.

“My mother is … very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions,” Levine said. Gov. Tom Wolf also strongly defended Levine after Mastriano’s call for her resignation, saying she is doing a “phenomenal job.”

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com