Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine has moved her mother out of a nursing home, raising questions on whether having a close relative move out of the type of facility that is within the health secretary’s area of oversight sends the wrong message while COVID-19 sweeps through nursing homes, killing elderly residents.
It comes as some 70 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, an unsettling situation that state authorities have sought to address by issuing new guidance (pdf), which centers on expanded testing.
“By testing every resident and every staff member in every nursing home, we will be able to pinpoint exactly who has COVID-19, who has been exposed but has no symptoms, and cohort positive cases to prevent further spread,” Levine said, announcing the new guidelines on Tuesday, ABC27 reported.
The new guidelines are a reversal for the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, which previously said that only people with symptoms should be tested.
President Donald Trump criticized governors across the United States on Monday for not doing better testing in nursing homes, with the president saying that he would consider making testing in all nursing homes mandatory.
“I think it’s important to do,” Trump said.
Levine was asked by a reporter on Tuesday about her 95-year-old mother being moved out of a long-term care facility. The health secretary said she was acting at the request of her mother to move from a personal care home to a hotel.
“My mother requested, and my sister and I as her children complied to move her to another location during the COVID-19 outbreak,” Levine said, ABC27 reports. “My mother is 95 years old. She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions.”
Levine earlier commented on her mother’s situation discussing state regulations for long-term care facilities.
“We are seeing community spread of this virus in most areas of Pennsylvania. And we need to make sure that our loved ones in nursing homes stay safe. And that is why actually I am not able to visit my mother, either,” Levine said on March 29, when Pennsylvania, along with some other states, ordered nursing homes to admit medically stable residents infected with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the novel coronavirus that emerged from China last year and causes the disease COVID-19.
The American Health Care Association was among the groups to criticize the move, saying health directives such as the one in place in Pennsylvania would introduce the highly contagious virus into more nursing homes and “there will be more hospitalizations for nursing home residents who need ventilator care and ultimately, a higher number of deaths.”
The association said “the solution is for hospital patients to be discharged to nursing homes that can create segregated COVID-19 units and have the vital personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to keep the staff safe. Sending hospitalized patients who are likely harboring the virus to nursing homes that do not have the appropriate units, equipment and staff to accept COVID-19 patients is a recipe for disaster.”
Another group, the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine (AMDA), said in a statement (pdf) “that COVID-19-naïve nursing homes should not be forced by local hospitals or officials to accept new admissions who demonstrate clinical evidence or a positive test for active COVID-19, unless they are considered non-infectious based on current CDC guidelines.”
The organization urged local authorities to arrange alternative care settings for COVID-19 positive patients “and ensure that post-acute and long-term care patients are not placed at undue risk of the infection.”
Levine has faced calls to resign over the department’s handling of the outbreak.
“Our secretary of health, Dr. Levine, decided that it would be good to allow COVID-positive patients to be returned to elder-care facilities. And as a result of that, it broke out like fire,” Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano said Monday at a rally, Trib Live reported.
Levine did not comment when asked about the resignation demand, WJAC reported, though the governor defended her.
“She’s done a phenomenal job,” Wolf said. “I think it’s a tribute to her that Pennsylvania has actually done a better job than our neighboring states on infection rates and death rates.”
Pennsylvania’s new guidelines to ramp up testing reflect preparatory moves already being taken by many long-term care facilities, according to Lisa Sofia, CEO of Premier Healthcare Management LLC, a company that owns four nursing homes in the state.
“It’s a heads-up” for nursing homes to get ready for “the mandate that you must test everyone,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer.