U.S. Justice Dept. wants to know if Murphy order led to COVID nursing home deaths in N.J.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

The U.S. Department of Justice is asking New Jersey and three other states to provide data about orders that “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents” during the coronavirus pandemic.

The department announced Wednesday it had sent letters to Gov. Phil Murphy and the governors of New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania seeking the information.

The department’s civil rights division is considering whether to launch an investigation under a federal law that protects the rights of people in state-run nursing homes and other facilities, officials said.

In addition, officials said the department is trying to determine if orders from those states requiring COVID-19 patients to be admitted back into to nursing homes is responsible for the deaths.

“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 U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband said. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

Murphy’s office noted that all four of the governors who received the letters from Republican President Donald Trump’s administration are Democrats and that the news was released during the Republican National Convention.

“The fact that this request from the Department of Justice, sent only to four states with Democratic governors, was announced by press release during the Republican National Convention speaks volumes about the nature of the review,” said Alyana Alfaro, a Murphy spokeswoman. “Throughout the pandemic, the State of New Jersey followed CDC guidance and took numerous actions to protect residents of our nursing homes. We do not comment on investigative inquiries and will respond through the appropriate channels in due course.”

More than 7,000 of New Jersey’s nearly 16,000 deaths related to COVID-19 have been of residents or staff members of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. That’s among the highest death rates in the nation.

Republicans and some irate families have repeatedly accused Murphy’s administration of sending residents with the virus back into nursing homes when they were released from the hospital. The governor has repeatedly pushed back against that, saying nursing homes were told that they could only accept patients with the virus if they were segregated from uninfected residents. He has argued that nursing homes that did otherwise violated the order.

“That talking point is myth,” Murphy said Aug. 10. “It may’ve happened, but it was completely against our and (state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli’s) directives. ... There will be a full review of every step we have taken but the directives about COVID positive patients or residents being reintroduced to facilities was black and white, crystal clear. And if folks violated it, they will pay a price.”

Persichilli released a memo on March 31 directing facility operators not to accept returning residents unless they had the room to “cohort” or segregate infected from uninfected residents, as well as ample staff and personal protective equipment.

Within a week of sending the memo, 200 long-term care facilities contacted the health department to report they could not accept admissions under these circumstances, Persichilli’s spokeswoman Donna Leusner said. Leusner also shared a spreadsheet listing the names of nursing homes and assisted living facilities that said they could not accept residents back, and when they had declined admissions.

Still, some nursing home employees and union representatives told NJ Advance Media at the height of the pandemic that they were forced to reuse soiled equipment like masks and wore tablecloths and garbage bags because protective equipment was in such short supply.

According to state health department inspection reports, employees told investigators in April, May and June they had often took care of COVID-19 residents as well as uninfected residents at the same time.

The federal justice department gave the Murphy administration 14 days to respond to his request for information. The office is seeking the number of cases of COVID-19 reported in long-term care facilities, the number of deaths attributed to the disease, the number of residents discharged from the hospital back to their facilities, and any memos or directives the state sent to operators.

“We have not reached any conclusions about this matter. In the Division’s many years of enforcing CRIPA, (the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act), the good faith efforts of state, county, or local jurisdictions working with us have enabled us to resolve many matters amicably,” the letter said.

State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, the sponsor of a package of bills that would improve working and living conditions at nursing homes, said she believes transparency will enable states like New Jersey, which became the “epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis” to learn how to better respond if and when a second wave hits.

“It is my hope that any examination of our state’s response will yield a comprehensive and thorough analysis of what can be done better in the future,” Huttle said in a statement. “There is no room for politics when lives are on the line.”

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