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DOJ won’t investigate how Pennsylvania handled nursing homes

July 23, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Justice Department told Gov. Tom Wolf’s office on Thursday that it has decided not to open an investigation into whether Pennsylvania violated federal law by ordering nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for COVID-19 in a hospital.

The letter comes 11 months after the department told the governors of Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Jersey and New York that it wanted information to determine whether orders there “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”

The one-page letter, from Steven H. Rosenbaum, chief of the department’s special litigation section, said they had reviewed information supplied by Pennsylvania, as well as “additional information available to the department.”

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Michigan received an identical letter Thursday. But New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s office said it had not received one while New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesperson Richard Azzopardi said he was checking to see if that administration had received one.

Separately, the Justice Department last October requested data from New Jersey and New York about their nursing home deaths, and launched a formal investigation into care at New Jersey’s veterans homes after receiving what it described as incomplete answers to its request for data.

This year, federal prosecutors in Manhattan were probing how Cuomo’s administration has handled data on nursing home deaths. The status of those probes are unclear.

In spring 2020, 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.

Across the country, tens of thousands of COVID-19 patients were accepted by nursing homes, more than 250,000 in the 12 months through March 1, according to federal data.

The number in Pennsylvania was relatively unremarkable, about 12,300. That was eighth in the country for a state that is fifth in population, with one of the nation’s highest proportions of residents who are 65 and over.

The orders by the four governors’ administrations — all Democrats — were criticized for potentially fueling the spread of the virus and drew the attention of then-President Donald Trump’s Department of Justice in the midst of the presidential campaign.

In Pennsylvania, the order was the subject of particularly sharp criticism from Republican lawmakers and candidates, but it is far from clear that the policy led to an outbreak or death.

No investigation or report has thus far pointed to the policy as a cause of death or outbreak.

The American Health Care Association, a national nursing home trade group, 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.

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. No nursing home has come forward to make that claim, either.

At the onset of the virus, 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.

The American Health Care Association advised nursing homes in March 2020 to create separate wings, units or floors, as well as staff, to handle admissions from the hospital.

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Associated Press reporters Bernard Condon in New York City and Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter