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Trump administration considers civil rights probe over nursing home deaths

Albert Pautler

The Trump administration said Wednesday that it’s requesting data from a handful of states, including New York, to determine if the federal government should open a civil rights investigation into how those states have handled COVID-19 at nursing homes.

The U.S. Department of Justice sent letters to four governors on Wednesday, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, requesting that data.

Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband from the Civil Rights Division said the data will be used on a fact-finding mission to determine if those states violated the civil rights of elderly individuals, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“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,” Dreiband said. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

In the letter to the four governors, Dreiband said the federal government is seeking four sets of data: the number or nursing home residents who became infected, the number of residents who died from the virus, any state policies regarding nursing homes, and the number of residents who were admitted to a nursing home after testing positive for COVID-19.

The Trump administration is also asking for data on any nursing home employees, staff, guests, or visitors who either contracted or died from the disease, regardless of where that happened.

Importantly, the federal government said in its letter that it wants states to say where each nursing home resident died, whether it was in a hospital or at the nursing home. That’s data that hasn’t yet been made available to the public in New York.

Cuomo and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, another target of the request, issued a joint statement later Wednesday labeling the query as political.

“This is nothing more than a transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention,” the statement said. “It’s no coincidence the moment the Trump administration is caught weakening the CDC’s COVID-19 testing guidelines to artificially lower the number of positive cases, they launched this nakedly partisan deflection.”

New York’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic has come under fire at times by individuals who believe the state has underreported the death count at those facilities, and may have put residents in danger by allowing COVID-positive patients back into nursing homes.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in late March, issued an executive order that required nursing homes to accept recovering COVID-positive patients from hospitals as long as they could adequately care for them and separate them from the rest of the facility.

The state also has a unique way of counting deaths linked to nursing homes. If a resident is transferred from a nursing home to a hospital before they die, they’re not included in the state’s death count at nursing homes. Critics have said that’s caused an undercount.

The Cuomo administration has defended both policies. Cuomo and his top aides have said they allowed recovering patients to be transferred back to nursing homes with the expectation that those facilities could provide adequate care and protect other residents from infection.

On the policy for counting nursing home deaths, State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has said the agency doesn’t want to accidentally double-count any individuals who die from the virus by separating nursing home patients from the overall hospital death count.

The state Legislature held a pair of hearings in early August on the state’s handling of nursing homes, and Congress has also considered an investigation. No legislative changes have garnered support in response to those queries.

According to the letter sent Wednesday, each of the four states have two weeks to get the requested data to the Trump administration. From there, the federal government will decide if a civil rights probe should proceed.

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