Are PA, NJ COVID nursing home deaths out of control? According to an article last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Justice Department is considering pursuing a civil rights investigation into COVID-related nursing home deaths in certain states, New Jersey and Pennsylvania among them.

At issue is a directive put forth by each of these states—which also include New York and Michigan—requiring nursing home facilities to admit patients who were confirmed or suspected to be infected with COVID-19. In an effort to determine if this guidance contributed to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in long-term care facilities in the early months of the pandemic, officials have requested the governors of the states in question to hand over all coronavirus data relating to state-run nursing homes. Pennsylvania has 27 such public nursing homes, and New Jersey runs 11. The Justice Department looks to discern whether or not the state officials running these homes violated the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

The requested information, as outlined in a letter sent to each governor, includes:

  • The number of residents, staff members, and visitors to state-run nursing homes who contracted the coronavirus, regardless of where they might have contracted it
  • The number of COVID-infected public nursing home residents, staff members, and visitors who died from the virus, including those who perished after having been transferred from the nursing home to another location
  • All information regarding admission to state-run homes, including every State-issued directive, advisory, or executive order and the dates they came into effect
  • The number of COVID-positive persons accepted into a state-run nursing home from another facility or location during the period the guidance or orders were in effect

While both Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey have agreed to respond to the request for data, the governors also defended the guidance they issued to facilities early on in the pandemic, claiming that the policies were intended to keep hospital beds open in the event of a surge of COVID cases.  PA Health Secretary Rachel Levine went on to say that, according to epidemiologists, the spread of COVID-19 to nursing homes is directly related to its prevalence in nearby communities, and that no evidence exists linking the government guidance to any deaths.

The department’s inquiry echoes recent criticism by Republicans in the U.S. Congress and the PA State Legislature of Pennsylvania’s guidance to admit COVID patients to nursing homes. According to the Inquirer, New Jersey was also flooded by similar inquiries, and the concern in regard to both states stems from the possibility that taking on COVID patients put healthy nursing home residents at risk.

A number of factors have situated long-term care facilities as especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. Aged residents, many of whom have underlying health conditions, live in close quarters with one another, making them not only susceptible to contracting COVID-19, but also in a weak position to overcome it. The facilities’ inability to contain the rampant spread of the virus has compounded the problem. As a result, the virus’s heaviest tolls have taken place within long-term care facilities. In New Jersey, the nearly 8,000 nursing home deaths comprise about half of the state’s total COVID-related deaths, while Pennsylvania’s over 5,000 COVID nursing home deaths amount to two-thirds.

According to the Inquirer, the Justice Department’s focus on Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, and New York stems from these states’ high per-capita death rate from COVID. While the department has yet to reach any conclusions regarding the matter, officials say that, should an investigation develop under federal law, they will pursue it.

Protecting the Rights of the Vulnerable Elderly

In these uncertain times, knowing that your loved one’s rights, dignity, and safety is protected within his or her Philadelphia/PA or NJ nursing home is more crucial than ever. That the Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, or New Jersey facility meets every hygiene and safety regulation is of utmost importance. Should you have any concerns about the quality of a Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, or New Jersey nursing home or if you suspect neglect or abuse has taken place at the Philadelphia/PA or NJ facility in which your loved one is residing, please contact nursing home abuse attorney Brian P. Murphy to discover your legal rights and options.