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GOP to probe handling of virus in nursing homes

Referral comes after GOP dissatisfied by answer at committee hearing

A state House committee will investigate the Wolf administration’s handling of COVID-19 in long-term care.

Of prime interest is its early order — in keeping with nonbinding federal guidance — that those facilities accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals — an order Republicans say contributed to the state’s 12,000-plus long-term care deaths.

House Leader Kerry Benninghoff’s “referral” to the Government Oversight Committee comes after acting Health Secretary Alison Beam didn’t answer questions about the long-term care order to the satisfaction of Republican lawmakers in an Appropriations Committee hearing last week.

The Democratic administration dismissed the Republican plans as political opportunism and argued that there’s no empirical evidence that the order led to additional deaths.

Still, Gov. Tom Wolf in a news conference last week invited the kind of oversight the Republicans are planning, saying “if there’s something that we can learn from anybody, taking a look at what we’re doing, including the press, we would welcome that,” Benninghoff said.

Wolf said then he was willing to be transparent, but so far, “Pennsylvanians and families have been left only with some excuses and/or deflections” about the issue, Benninghoff said.

“We need to know what went wrong,” said Rep. Natalie Mihalek, R-Allegheny.

Wolf always seemed to be “trying to do what he thought was best” during the pandemic, acknowledged Rep. Clint Owlet, R-Tioga.

But the order for long-term care facilities to take COVID-positive patients back from hospital never seemed to make sense, Owlet said.

It also didn’t make sense for the administration early in the pandemic to collaborate with New York, New Jersey and other states, yet not consult with the administration’s own Department of Aging before issuing the controversial order, Owlet said.

The March order was encouraged by the federal government, so that long-term care facilities understood what protective measures needed to be taken and so hospitals could have patient turnover and not be overrun, Department of Health officials said last week.

Moreover, long-term care facility patients coming back from hospitals were merely coming home, they said.

The plans announced by Benninghoff Monday reflect “baseless, ongoing insinuation by the GOP (that) portray a significant lack of understanding of the role of the Department of Health and (its) guidance provided to nursing facilities,” stated department spokeswoman Maggi Barton in an email.

Not all facilities necessarily complied with the department’s guidance, and thus may have had unfortunate outcomes, Barton said.

Early in the pandemic, many nursing facilities couldn’t comply with such guidance, because they hadn’t had time to learn and they lacked staff and protective equipment, Pennsylvania Health Care Association CEO Zach Shamberg said recently.

Then-state Health Secretary Rachel Levine removed her 95-year-old mother out of a facility early in the pandemic, noted Benninghoff, suggesting Levine was fully aware of the problematic situation.

Her mother asked to be moved, Levine said in May, adding that her mother lived in a personal care home overseen not by Levine’s department, but by the Department of Human Services.

Despite her age, her mother was capable of making her own decisions, Levine added.

“‘No investigation has thus far pointed to the (patient-return) policy as a cause of death or outbreak,'” Barton wrote in her email, citing a recent Associated Press story.

The primary source of infections in nursing homes was asymptomatic or presymptomatic staffers, Levine said in May.

“It’s not our goal to have the investigation reach any particular outcome,” Benninghoff said. “We want it to be fair and thorough.”

It would be “great” if it turned out there was no problem, Benninghoff said.

Owlet’s presumption seemed different.

“We can’t fix the wrong that was done,” Owlet said. “But we can learn from our mistakes.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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