Justice Department asks N.J., Pa. for data on nursing home coronavirus policies

A resident is pictured using a wheelchair inside a nursing home.

File photo: A resident is pictured using a wheelchair inside a nursing home. (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

Updated 5:40 p.m.

The Justice Department has asked the governors of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and two other states for data on policies that allowed nursing home residents who tested positive for COVID-19 back into the facilities where they lived.

Elderly and medically vulnerable people — many of whom live in long-term care facilities across the country — have been at a higher risk for severe illness or death from coronavirus.

According to a Justice Department press release issued Wednesday, some states’ policies “may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”

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“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 Dreiband, 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.”

The Justice Department is evaluating whether to open investigations under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which applies to state-run nursing homes, according to the press release. The other states included in the request for data are New York and Michigan.

In New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy has fielded criticism over the state’s policy to allow nursing home residents who tested positive for COVID-19 to return to the nursing homes where they lived, which critics warned could cause further outbreaks.

But Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli have maintained that nursing homes were directed to readmit COVID-19 positive patients only if they could “cohort” them in a separate wing or floor of the facility, and said that nursing homes that ignored that directive would be held accountable.

“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 Murphy’s press secretary Alyana Alfaro.

“Throughout the pandemic, the State of New Jersey followed CDC guidance and took numerous actions to protect residents of our nursing homes. We do not comment on investigative inquiries and will respond through the appropriate channels in due course,” she added.

More than 6,700 long-term care facility residents in New Jersey have died from COVID-19 as well as 121 staff members.

As of Wednesday, Pennsylvania had reported a total of 5,155 deaths from COVID-19 associated with nursing homes and personal-care facilities.

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