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US Justice Department Mulling Probe of COVID-19 Deaths at Nursing Homes


FILE - In this June 25, 2020, photo, residents at the Southern Pines nursing home are separated and wear face coverings during their daily bingo game in Warner Robins, Georgia.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Wednesday that it is considering investigating four states over rules requiring nursing homes to take in COVID-19 patients, saying the mandates may have led to the deaths of thousands of elderly people.

The four states — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan — are all led by Democratic governors. Republican lawmakers and other critics have long claimed that the rules issued by the governors contributed to disproportionately high numbers of deaths at long-term care facilities in those states.

Now, the Justice Department says it wants the four states to turn over data including the number of people admitted to nursing homes after contracting COVID-19 and the number of deaths as the department considers opening a civil rights violation investigation.

"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," Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Dreiband's request for COVID-19 data came in letters sent Wednesday to the governors of the four states. In the letters, Dreiband wrote that the civil rights division is "evaluating" whether to launch a probe of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

In Hammonton, New Jersey, EMTs load a patient into an ambulance outside of the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare one of numerous nursing homes to have staffing shortages, May 19, 2020.
In Hammonton, New Jersey, EMTs load a patient into an ambulance outside of the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare one of numerous nursing homes to have staffing shortages, May 19, 2020.

In a joint statement, the governors of New York and Michigan blasted the Justice Department inquiry as a political move.

"It's no coincidence the moment the Trump administration is caught weakening the CDC's COVID-19 testing guidelines to artificially lower the number of positive cases, they launched this nakedly partisan deflection," Governors Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer wrote.

At least 14 other states, including Kentucky and Utah, have issued similar nursing home guidance, they added.

A spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said the governor's office is reviewing the request.

"We look forward to working with the DOJ to provide whatever information is needed to fulfill the request," the spokeswoman said in a statement to VOA.

A spokesperson for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy did not respond to a request for comment.

As in many other countries, COVID-19 has killed a disproportionately high number of elderly people in the United States. What's more, according to a New York Times analysis, more than 40% of the nearly 180,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are linked to nursing homes.

Of the four states drawing the Justice Department's scrutiny, Pennsylvania has the highest percentage of COVID-19 deaths linked to long-term care facilities, at 67%, while New York has the lowest, at 20%, according to the Times analysis.

The deaths followed rules issued by the four states' governors during the early peak of the pandemic. In March, New York Governor Cuomo mandated that long-term care facilities accept COVID-19 patients. In April, Michigan Governor Whitmer issued an order requiring nursing homes with less than 80% occupancy to open a separate COVID-19 unit and to take in new patients.

Critics have claimed that the directives turned nursing homes into pandemic hotspots, leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands. Under pressure, Cuomo in May changed his mandate to say that only hospital patients testing negative could be released into nursing homes.

Still, officials in New York and elsewhere have dismissed the criticism. In a July 20 report, the New York Department of Health said the infection of nearly 37,500 nursing home workers contributed to the infection of residents.