The U.S. Justice Department is asking New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan to provide COVID-19 data to determine whether the government will initiate an investigation into whether orders by those states contributed to the deaths of nursing home residents.
The announcement, which was made Wednesday and applies to four Democrat-led states, specifically cited a March 25th order from Governor Andrew Cuomo that prohibited nursing homes from denying admission to a resident "solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19."
More than 6,600 nursing home residents in New York have died as a result of the virus, a toll that some say is much larger because the state does not count those who were transported to hospitals and died there. Only New Jersey has a higher nursing home death toll due to COVID-19.
“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,” said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Division Eric Dreiband, in a statement. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”
Cuomo has repeatedly said that his orders were in keeping with recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency that he has castigated for its slow and inadequate response. On Wednesday, he said he would not follow the agency's new widely criticized testing guidelines that recommend asymptomatic individuals exposed to the virus to not get tested.
In July, the state Department of Health released a study that officials said conclusively showed that the virus had infected nursing homes far earlier than once believed and that readmitting residents did not contribute to a higher fatality rate in those facilities. Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, also pointed out that the share of nursing home deaths due to coronavirus in New York is relatively low compared to other states, that of 20% according to a New York Times analysis.
The state legislature has held two hearings on the impact of the pandemic on nursing homes and the administration's response. A group of legislators have also proposed a bill that would set up an independent, bi-partisan commission to investigate nursing home deaths in New York.
Cuomo has repeatedly called the efforts "political."
In a joint statement with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Cuomo called the latest DOJ inquiry "nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention."
The governors added: “At least 14 states — including Kentucky, Utah and Arizona — have issued similar nursing guidance all based on federal guidelines, and yet the four states listed in the D.O.J.’s request have a Democratic governor.”
Democratic assemblymember Ron Kim, who represents Queens and lost an uncle in a New York nursing home, has been among the most strident critics of Cuomo's nursing home response. In July, he helped push through a bill that allows families to sue facilities over certain aspects of care, such as failing to prevent the spread of the virus by not following proper isolating procedures.
In a statement released Wednesday, Kim accused the state of "hiding critical information and data relating to statewide policies."
"The Department of Justice should investigate every state that issued orders which may have led to nursing home deaths. My family and over 12,000 others who lost loved ones in nursing homes deserve nothing less than the truth, closure, and justice," he said.