DOJ Seeking Data on COVID-19 Nursing Home Deaths From Four States

August 27, 2020 by Dan McCue
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a news conference in the Red Room at the State Capitol in Albany, New York on March 31, 2020. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department announced Wednesday it is seeking data from the governors of four states that issued orders “which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”

Officials said Wednesday afternoon that the department’s civil rights division is evaluating whether to initiate investigations under a federal law that protects the rights of people in state-run nursing homes and other facilities.

The four states of interest are New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all of which have Democratic governors.

“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said in a written statement. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

But Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer immediately fired back, saying “protecting the health, safety, and wellbeing of our seniors and most vulnerable residents has been a top priority throughout this crisis.

“The fact that this letter was sent during the middle of the Republican National Convention week to four Democratic governors should make it crystal clear that this is nothing more than election year politics,” Brown said.

The crux of the Justice Department inquiry is its claim that the governors forced nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients into their facilities, “often without adequate testing.”

It makes particular note of a March 25, 2020 order issued in New York which said, “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to [a nursing home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. [Nursing homes] are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission.”

It then goes on to cite Centers for Disease Control statistics that show New York having experienced the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States, with 32,592 victims.

“New York’s death rate by population is the second highest in the country with 1,680 deaths per million people,” a release from the department said. “New Jersey’s death rate by population is 1,733 deaths per million people – the highest in the nation.

“In contrast, Texas’s death rate by population is 380 deaths per million people; and Texas has just over 11,000 deaths, though its population is 50% larger than New York and has many more recorded cases of COVID-19 – 577,537 cases in Texas versus 430,885 cases in New York. Florida’s COVID-19 death rate is 480 deaths per million; with total deaths of 10,325 and a population slightly larger than New York,” the release continued.

However, the comparisons offer a distorted picture of what has actually occurred and is expected to occur when it comes to the pandemic.

According to The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, New York’s outbreak peaked on or about April 9. But the rates in Florida and Texas are not projected to peak until March 2 and March 20, 2021, respectively.

As for the death rate from COVID-19, the latest research examining deaths out of the total number of infections, which includes unreported cases, suggests that Covid-19 kills from around 0.3% to 1.5% of people infected. 

Most studies put the rate between 0.5% and 1.0%, meaning that for every 1,000 people who get infected, from five to 10 would die on average.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and is about to publish a new book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” on Oct. 13.

Neither Cuomo nor his office immediately responded to the Justice Department request for data, but the governor did appear on television Wednesday, telling MSNBC’s Katy Tur that New York will ignore new federal testing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control.

The new guidelines say that even if an individual is known to have been exposed to a person with the coronavirus, they don’t need to be tested unless they start showing symptoms.

Critics have said the new guidelines are an attempt by the administration to drive down positive test results ahead of the November election.

According to Cuomo, “My health commissioner spoke to the CDC, people who are at the CDC, and they suggested to my health commissioner, on a confidential basis obviously, that this was basically more of a political position that they’re taking.

“It’s totally inconsistent with everything the CDC has said. It’s totally inconsistent with everything we have learned about this virus. It’s totally inconsistent with everything every public health official says,” the governor said.

He continued by saying the new guidelines cannot be justified “on any public health basis.”

“That’s politics,” he said. “That is this president saying, ‘If you don’t test, if we don’t test, then we won’t see the number go up and then we’ll have this false comfort, right?’ President Trump has been saying we only know that we have cases because we test. If we don’t test, then we won’t know that we have the cases, which is obviously absurd and more of his denial strategy. If you don’t screen for cancer, then you won’t know that you have cancer.”

In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer’s spokesperson said the governor will review the Justice Department’s request for data, “and respond as appropriate.”

“However, Americans would all be better served if the Trump administration stopped the partisan games and focused on delivering a real plan to defeat COVID-19,” she said.

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