WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday requested information on COVID-19 in nursing homes from the Democratic governors of four states while asserting that their orders during the pandemic “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents” — a move that drew some questions as being politically motivated.
In a news release, the Justice Department announced it had sent letters to the governors of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan seeking the data so it could determine “if the state orders requiring admission of COVID-19 patients to nursing homes is responsible for the deaths of nursing home residents.”
Eric Dreiband, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, wrote in the missives that officials were weighing whether to initiate investigations under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act but added, “We have not reached any conclusions about this matter.”
“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,” Dreiband said in a statement. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”
The novel coronavirus has killed tens of thousands in nursing homes — which house those most vulnerable to it — and even as community transmission wanes in other areas, it appears to have surged again in such facilities. An outbreak can often rip through a facility rapidly, causing dozens of deaths.
In a news release, the Justice Department said New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients “often without adequate testing.” The department pointed in particular to a March order in New York that said that a nursing home could not deny admission to someone “solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19,” and that nursing homes were prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who was medically stable to be tested before admission to a nursing home.
The department asked for a raft of data, including the numbers of residents and nursing home employees who contracted COVID-19, the number who died and all state directives on the subject.
In a joint statement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said: “This is nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention. 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.”
The two governors asserted that at least 14 states — including Kentucky, Utah and Arizona — had issued similar nursing guidance but that only Democratic-led states were targeted. All of the guidance, the governors asserted, was “based on federal guidelines.”
Alyana Alfaro Post, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, similarly said, “The fact that this request from the Department of Justice, sent only to four states with Democratic governors, was announced by news release during the Republican National Convention speaks volumes about the nature of the review.”
Using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, the department’s release contrasted New York and New Jersey’s death rates with the lower rates in Texas and Florida, which both have Republican governors.
“Throughout the pandemic, the State of New Jersey followed CDC guidance and took numerous actions to protect residents of our nursing homes,” Post said. “We do not comment on investigative inquiries and will respond through the appropriate channels in due course.”
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, said, “We look forward to working with the DOJ to provide whatever information is needed to fulfill the request.”