Governor Defends PA Health Secretary Rachel Levine over Botched Nursing Home Policy

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KYW News Radio

Gov. Tom Wolf (D) is defending Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine as she faces increasing criticism over the devastating impact the Chinese coronavirus has had on nursing homes — a devastating impact worsened, critics say, by the controversial interim guidance provided by the state’s department of health, requiring nursing homes to readmit “stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus.”

“Our secretary of health, Dr. Levine, decided that it would be good to allow COVID-positive patients to be returned to elder-care facilities,” state Sen. Doug Mastriano said during a Monday rally outside the Capitol, calling for Levine, the “first transgender person appointed to a Pennsylvania cabinet position,” to resign.

“And as a result of that, it broke out like fire,” he continued, calling it “unconscionable, unacceptable” and adding that Levine “needs to be held accountable for that awful decision.”

Levine’s department released the “Interim Guidance for Nursing Facilities During COVID-19” on March 18, which outlined procedures for nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic. Despite leaders continually stressing that the coronavirus poses the most danger to older individuals with preexisting conditions, the department advised nursing homes to readmit nursing home residents who were treated for the virus, citing the need to lessen the burden on hospitals.

The guidance states:

Nursing care facilities must continue to accept new admissions and receive readmissions for current residents who have been discharged from the hospital who are stable to alleviate the increasing burden in the acute care settings. This may include stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus.

Nursing homes in Pennsylvania have since been ravaged by the virus. As reported last week, roughly 80 percent of the recent coronavirus-related deaths — reported in the state on Thursday — occurred at either a nursing home or personal care facility.

As the Morning Call reported last week:

A total of 3,416 coronavirus deaths has been reported statewide through Thursday. Of those, 2,355, or nearly 69%, were associated with nursing or personal care homes.

This week, the nursing homes operated by Lehigh and Northampton counties, Cedarbrook and Gracedale, respectively, both reported sharp increases in deaths.

Over the last seven days, about 76% of deaths added to the state’s total — 850 of the 1,124 newly reported deaths — were at personal care homes or nursing homes.

Despite that, Wolf is backing his health secretary, praising Levine for doing a “phenomenal job.”

“My assessment of Dr. Levine is that she is doing a phenomenal job, and I think we’ve got to be careful about blaming the messenger for the message,” Wolf said in reaction to Mastriano’s remarks.

“I think it’s a tribute to her that Pennsylvania has actually done a better job than many of our surrounding states in terms of the infection rate and the death rate,” the governor added.

As of Sunday, 2,552 of Pennsylvania’s 3,731 coronavirus-related deaths stemmed from nursing home facilities, according to PennLive.

The White House is recommending all nursing home residents to be tested for the virus.

“We really believe that all one million nursing home residents need to be tested within next two weeks as well as the staff,”  Dr. Deborah Birx stated.

Meanwhile, Wolf is continuing to bar healthy individuals from reopening their respective counties and resuming work.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s (UPMC) Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Steven Shapiro, noted during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) last week that the median age of death from the virus in the state is 84.

“In sum, this is a disease of the elderly, sick and poor,” he said, warning against “extended social isolation” and urging leaders to focus on serving and protecting seniors, “especially those in nursing homes.”

“If we do that, we can reopen society, and though infectious cases may rise as in the Theodore Roosevelt, the death rate will not, providing time for the development of treatments and vaccines,” Shapiro added.

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