Pennsylvania will not be investigated by the Justice Department over its decision to order nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for COVID-19 in a hospital, but that doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t be conducting its own review and assessment of how it handled the pandemic.
Last August, the Justice Department, under then-President Donald Trump, sought information from Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York and New Jersey to determine whether orders in those states “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.” Officials in Pennsylvania has since received letters saying there would be no federal investigation.
Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania were critical of the order and have attempted to link nursing home deaths to the decision to admit those treated for COVID-19, but it is unclear if that led to an increase in cases and deaths in the facilities.
Still, the pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for operators of nursing homes and long-term care facilities (and for government leaders, as well.) The facilities faced staffing shortages, uncertainty at the outset over how to best contain the virus, and a lack of personal protective equipment initially. Ultimately, thousands of the state’s most vulnerable residents died. Of the more than 27,000 COVID-related deaths in the state, nearly half were residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
Regardless of the decisions by federal officials not to investigate, Gov. Tom Wolf and state lawmakers owe it to Pennsylvania residents to analyze how things were handled. A select committee should review every aspect of the decisions made and the policies enacted during the pandemic, and in fact the state House Government Oversight Committee was charged in March to investigate the handling of nursing homes. The committee will issue a report when its investigation is complete. This is not for the purpose of assigning blame, but to be better prepared for the future — and the inevitable arrival of another pandemic, even as this one continues.
Health experts say it’s not a matter of “if” the world will face another pandemic, but “when.” It might be another variant of COVID-19, or an entirely new illness that spreads quickly and is lethal. And just as we’ve learned from this pandemic, disease knows no borders as it moves from country to country, state to state, town to town.
Completing a thorough analysis of what worked and what didn’t in handling the COVID-19 outbreak will offer a blueprint for how to handle future outbreaks, what protocols to put in place and how to best protect vulnerable people in congregate settings.
The state’s order to have nursing homes accept patients who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 may or may not have increased outbreaks at facilities, but it is one aspect of the pandemic that health officials should be analyzing to determine if there are better ways to handle contagious disease in the future.
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette