Federal Look at COVID-19 Nursing Home Deaths May Be Very Limited

Source: NJ Spollight Health

The federal Department of Justice appears to be focused on just a tiny sliver of nursing homes in its request to New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which were hard hit by the virus and are led by Democratic governors. In fact, the data inquiry could apply to fewer than a dozen facilities in New Jersey — or less than 3% of the state’s nursing homes, according to an NJ Spotlight analysis of state health department records.

“We obviously take (the request) seriously; we’ll obviously respond in an orderly fashion,” Murphy said Wednesday at his regular media briefing. “We are obsessed with long-term care and we have been since moment one. (COVID-19) exploded there, whether it’s in our own veterans homes, (or) whether it’s in the entire industry.”

Since March, 38,200 long-term care residents and staff have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus and more than 7,000 have died as a result — roughly half the state’s 14,181 total lab-confirmed fatalities. Another 388 cases and 146 deaths are connected to the three veterans homes. According to federal figures, New Jersey has the highest long-term care case rate nationwide and the second-highest death rate, after Massachusetts.
Infection control guidance

Murphy has repeatedly pledged to evaluate how the state and the nursing home industry responded to the pandemic. In May, DOH hired consultants Manatt Health to provide short and longer-term guidance on how to improve infection control at the state’s 372 skilled nursing facilities and the three veterans homes; the consultants were paid $500,000 for roughly three weeks worth of work, which cumulated in a 100-page report released in early June

Murphy said Wednesday the state would continue to examine how it can help nursing homes better address the pandemic. The process will involve “not only trying to figure out what happened, but also trying to figure out what happened (so it) doesn’t happen again,” he said. “If the question is, ‘Do we need the Department of Justice to establish that focus?,’ the answer is no.”

Federal DOJ officials appear particularly focused on controversial state orders relating to how hospital patients were discharged to nursing homes, where individuals can regain strength before going home. “New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients to their vulnerable populations, often without adequate testing,” it noted in a news release.

In New Jersey, DOH Commissioner Judy Persichilli issued a directive in late March that forbid long-term care operators from denying admission to anyone with COVID-19, in part to relieve pressure on overcrowded hospitals. The order — which was based on federal guidance at the time but has since sparked strong criticism — also required facilities to carefully separate patients with symptoms and to alert state officials if they could not safely accommodate infected individuals.

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