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Justice Department Considers Whether Murphy, Cuomo COVID Nursing Home Policies Killed Thousands

NBC's Chopper 4 got an aerial shot of people in heavy protective gear outside St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge.
NBC's Chopper 4 got an aerial shot of people in heavy protective gear outside St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge. Photo Credit: NBC News4 New York

U.S. Justice Department officials said they are trying to determine whether COVID-19 policies of New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents."

Federal authorities said they hadn't launched an investigation.

Rather, they said, they're conducting preliminary inquiries into COVID policies in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan while considering a possible civil rights investigation under a federal law that protects the rights of residents in state-run nursing homes, among others.

Letters sent to the four governors gives each two weeks to supply information on the number of public nursing home residents, employees, staff, guests and visitors in their state who tested positive for COVID-19, no matter where they contracted the virus. 

The Justice Department also wants to know how many died, even if it wasn’t in one of the facilities.

The DOJ is also asking how many were admitted to public nursing homes from a hospital or any other health care facility after testing positive. Federal authorities also requested that the governors include copies of all executive orders, directives, advisories and guidance issued to the nursing homes.

“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 Eric Dreiban, an assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

At the same time, the letter to the governors says that federal officials “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,” it says.

Murphy’s office cried politics. A spokeswoman noted that he, Cuomo and the other two letter recipients 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.”

New Jersey’s death rate of 1,733 deaths per million people – more than 7,000 of 16,000 combined -- is the highest per capita in the nation.

New York is second – at 1,680 per million – and at the top in the U.S. with 32,592 overall.

Of those, New York has had 6,453 confirmed or presumed nursing home deaths from COVID-19, according to recent state figures.

That apparently excludes as many as 11,000 COVID-positive nursing home residents who were taken to local hospitals and died.

New York “required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 patients to their vulnerable populations, often without adequate testing,” the Justice Department release notes.

Cuomo and state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker ordered nursing homes in March to accept recovering COVID-19 residents discharged from hospitals – and, at the same time, prevented the facilities from screening them for the virus.

Cuomo rescinded the nursing home order amid intense criticism.

Murphy, meanwhile, called reports that nursing homes were forced to take back infected patients a myth.

“It may’ve happened,” he said earlier this month, “but it was completely against our and (state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli’s) directives.”

Persichilli said she ordered operators of the facilities not to accept COVID-positive returnees unless they could be isolated from uninfected residents and they could provide enough staff and PPE.

Any nursing homes that violated those conditions, Murphy said, “will pay a price.”

Employees, however, reportedly told state health inspectors that they often tended to both coronavirus patients and uninfected residents at the same time.

State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat from Bergen County, said she hopes transparency helps New Jersey – “the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis” – and other state learn how to properly respond if a second wave hits.

The lawmaker said she’s hoping for a “comprehensive and thorough analysis of what can be done better in the future. There is no room for politics when lives are on the line.”

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