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In January, a report by the New York attorney general revealed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration deliberately undercounted nursing home deaths in the state by more than 50 percent. Since Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf has sought to emulate his partner up north on almost every COVID-19 policy and strategy, it isn’t farfetched to wonder if Pennsylvania’s long-term care deaths are deliberately undercounted as well.
Indeed, in September, Spotlight Pennsylvania reported that weekly reports released by the Pennsylvania Department of Health were consistently missing death and case data for more than 100 of the state’s 693 nursing homes.
Let us also not forget this past summer, when dozens of county coroners questioned and refuted the numbers of COVID-19 deaths reported by the Wolf administration. For instance, the most recent weekly report from Mar. 10 shows that 138 facilities are still showing “no data” for several COVID-19 deaths.
It took courage for the New York attorney general to investigate the policies of her own administration and reveal the undercounting of reported deaths. Sadly, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has turned his attention to investigating the facilities that were forced into a bad position to begin with.
In May, the attorney general stated, “We will hold nursing facilities and caretakers criminally accountable if they fail to properly provide care to our loved ones.” Yet Shapiro refuses to investigate the decision-making of the Wolf administration and the accuracy of the reported deaths.
In March 2020, Wolf faced a crucial decision in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for long-term care facilities to all 50 atates. It’s worth noting, however, that “guidance” is the important word here and was not a “directive” to each governor.
The March 13 CDC guidance stated that nursing homes “should” admit any individuals that they would normally admit (with or without COVID-19). But it did not say that they “must” admit these individuals.
The governors of 45 of the 50 states followed scientific information and rejected the idea of sending sick COVID-19 patients into the most vulnerable population. Yet the governors of five states — Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and California — foolishly and recklessly had their respective health secretaries issue guidance to send the sick back into long-term care facilities, unleashing a plague among our elderly.
For Pennsylvania, this catastrophic decision was made before many of the other states. On March 18, in arguably the biggest science-denying scam in our state’s history, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine issued the now infamous directive to long-term care facilities to accept COVID-19 positive residents back from hospitals.
It is tragically ironic that the same folks who espouse the mantra of “believe in science” completely ignored their own platitude. The data was clear before the March 18 directive that individuals over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions were at the greatest risk of severe illness and death. The Wolf administration was aware of this and still made the disastrous decision.
The ensuing fallout from the March 18 directive was predictable. Admitting COVID-19-positive residents into nursing homes accelerated the transmission of the virus and exposed our state’s most vulnerable residents to severe illness and death. By May, cases of the virus in nursing homes were spreading like wildfire. Roughly two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths at the time were residents of long-term care facilities. In several counties, 100 percent of all COVID-19 deaths were in these very homes.
Privately, Levine realized the failure of the policy six weeks after the fateful decision. At that time, 70 percent of all deaths in Pennsylvania were attributable to Levine’s action. For the safety of Levine’s mother (then 95 years old and in an elder home), she was placed safely in a hotel suite to keep the virus from killing her.
Instead of having the moral fortitude to alert Pennsylvania of the danger that resulted from this failed policy, however, Levine never gave the citizens of our state the same chance or warning to protect their loved ones. Incidentally, the world learned of Levine’s sinister behavior the day after I demanded the secretary’s resignation for incompetence and gross negligence in May 2020.
Instead of meeting condemnation and investigation for her decision-making, Levine was rewarded with a promotion and an appointment to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Wolf was quick to congratulate, stating ridiculously that “the steady hand and calm approach were critical to managing Pennsylvania’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Corporate media was nowhere to be found. Instead of exposing the incompetence of our secretary of health, they doubled down on protecting Levine and lauding praise upon the secretary’s handling of the crisis.
Sadly, that “steady hand” was the same that signed off on a policy leading to the suffering and death of our elderly. Instead of being held accountable or resigning in shame for the deaths that were caused by these science-denying policies, Levine has been “promoted” to even a more powerful position in the Biden administration.
Where are the justice and outrage? Why is failure being promoted and praised? What about those who died as a result of Levine’s bungling incompetence?
Today, more than half of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 deaths are traced to long-term care facilities. The official number is just over 12,600 deaths. While that figure is staggering alone, the question must be asked: Is that number accurate, or is it undercounted as was the case in New York?
It is time for a full investigation into the handling of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities. Arguably, the least we can do to ensure that our most vulnerable population is never treated like this again. The question that must be answered is: how did such science-denying decisions occur in our state, and who will be held accountable for the 12,600 deaths of our loved ones?
We demand to know the truth, and these families must see those who destroyed so many lives be held accountable. We owe it to their families to get to the bottom of why this directive was issued and the true extent of its tragic effects.