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Move over Cuomo? Democratic officials facing heat for herding COVID patients into nursing homes

Critics allege COVID readmission policies drove up death rates among senior citizens.

Updated: March 10, 2021 - 2:58pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Multiple Democratic officials are facing increasing political pressure due to policies that directed nursing homes to take COVID-positive patients — rules that critics claim drove up the rate of deaths among vulnerable populations in care facilities. 

Chief among those politicians is New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is under fire not only for imposing such a policy on New York State last year but for his administration's subsequent coverup of the true number of COVID deaths among elderly New Yorkers. Listed at just under 9,000 at the end of January, a full accounting of the state's care facility death toll since then has brought the number up to over 15,000. 

Now feeling heat over a similar policy is Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose administration last year also directed nursing homes to accommodate patients who were infected with COVID-19. 

That state policy said that nursing home residents "with COVID-19 that require hospitalization can and should be discharged back to the facility of residence once they are clinically stable regardless of whether COVID-19 testing is still positive or not."

The policy stipulated that nursing homes could only accept patients "as long as the facility can follow CDC guidance for Transmission-Based Precautions," among which were adequate facilities for isolating such patients from the general population.

The Cuomo administration also stipulated such a rule, though some nursing home administrators have claimed to have felt pressured by the state to take virus patients even if they lacked facilities to properly isolate them from other residents. 

Multiple Michigan state senators asked the Department of Justice last week to investigate the state's nursing home policy and its effect on elderly COVID deaths. This week, Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido raised the possibility that Whitmer herself could face the prospect of legal charges over her policy.

"If we find there's been willful neglect of office," he told local news station WXYZ this week, "if we find there's been reckless endangerment of a person's life by bringing them in, then we would move forward with charges against the governor. Of course, we would. Nobody's above the law in this state."

Whitmer fired back in a statement. "Mr. Lucido's comments are shameful political attacks based in neither fact nor reality," the governor told WXYZ. 

Biden pick has controversial link to nursing home policies

Critics have alleged that rules like Cuomo's and Whitmer's have led to highly elevated cases of nursing home deaths relative to states that did not implement those policies. As early as May of 2020, for instance, the New York Post was blaming the state's nursing home death rate on Cuomo's policy.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, the states with the three highest totals of nursing home deaths — California, New York and Pennsylvania — all implemented versions of the same policy. When adjusted to percentage of total COVID deaths in each state, however, those states' rankings tumble, suggesting a more complex picture. Still, the markedly high raw numbers of care facility deaths in such states have helped fuel ongoing controversy and criticism among pundits as well as family members of deceased residents, many of whom are demanding answers.

The daughter of one resident in a Buffalo, N.Y., nursing home, for instance, called the outbreak that took her father's life as it tore through the facility a "death sentence," one she blamed on Cuomo's policies. "I just feel like the state set these poor facilities up to completely get ravaged by COVID," she said last May. 

Among the Democratic officials facing scrutiny for such rules is Rachel Levine, the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and currently President Joe Biden's pick for assistant health secretary.

Levine, a transgender woman, generated controversy last year when she and her sister moved their mother out of a care facility into a hotel even as the state was directing nursing homes to accept COVID-positive residents.

Levine has defended that decision, claiming it was her mother's decision to do so and that the institute in question was a "care facility" and not a nursing home, two distinct types of business under Pennsylvania law. 

Following Biden's pick of Levine, Pennsylvania Rep. Sean Parnell criticized the nomination, claiming "thousands died" because of the Pennsylvania policy and that Levine "should not be getting a promotion" into the federal government. 

Pennsylvania representatives in Congress, meanwhile, have called for an investigation into the state's nursing home policy, asking Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to look into the state's handling of the crisis, including to what extent the policy may have contributed to the high number of deaths in the state. 

The policies ordering infected nursing home patients into vulnerable care facilities was driven largely by fears that COVID-19 infections could overwhelm local hospital systems, leading officials to order the discharging of COVID-positive nursing home residents in order to free up space for an anticipated surge of coronavirus hospitalizations. 

Many officials and experts appear to have far overestimated the number of beds that would be needed to treat COVID patients. In mid-March 2020, for example, Cuomo warned that the state would soon peak at 110,000 simultaneous COVID hospitalizations. The state's actual peak, about a month later, was at less than 20,000, according to state data.

The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, meanwhile, predicted in late March that Michigan would need more than 14,500 beds to treat COVID patients in that state by Apr. 10. In reality, the state only saw about 3,800 COVID hospitalizations on that day, a number which began to go down shortly thereafter.

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