Op-ed: One year later: Reflecting on a disastrous policy and the preventable deaths of over 12,600 PA Residents

In March 2020, Governor Wolf faced a crucial decision in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC issued guidance for long term care facilities to all 50 States. “Guidance” is the important word here as this was not a “directive” to each Governor.  

The March 13th CDC guidance stated that nursing homes “should” admit any individuals that they would normally admit (with or without COVID). But it did not say that they “mustadmit these individuals.

The governors of forty-five out of the all fifty states followed the science and rejected the absurd, science denying idea of sending sick COVID patients into the most vulnerable population.  However, the governors of five states (Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California), foolishly and recklessly rejected science-based germ theory and had their respective health secretaries issue guidance to send the sick back into long term care facilities.

For Pennsylvania, this catastrophic decision was made before many of the other states.  On March 18th, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Levine issued the now infamous directive to long term care facilities to accept COVID positive residents after release from hospitals.

It is tragically ironic that the same folks who espouse the mantra of “believe in science” completely ignored their own platitude.  The data was clear before the March 18th directive that individuals over the age of 65 and those with underlying health condition were at the greatest risk of severe illness and death. The Wolf Administration was aware of this and still made the disastrous decision.

The ensuing fallout from the March 18th directive was predictable. The admission of COVID-positive residents into nursing homes accelerated the transmission of the virus and exposed our state’s most vulnerable residents to severe illness and death. By May, cases of the virus in nursing homes spread like wildfire. Roughly two-thirds of COVID deaths at the time were residents of long-term care facilities. In several counties, 100% of all COVID deaths were in these very facilities.

Privately, Secretary Levine realized the failure of the policy six weeks after the fateful decision.  At that time, 70% of all deaths in Pennsylvania were as a result of Levine’s science-denying directive.  Fearing for the safety of her own mom (then 95 years old and in an elder home), Levine whisked her out of the facility and into the safety of a hotel suite. Instead of having the moral fortitude to alert Pennsylvania of the danger that resulted from this failed policy, Levine never gave the citizens of our state the same chance or warning to protect their own loved ones.  Incidentally, the world learned of Levine’s sinister behavior the day after I demanded her resignation for incompetence and gross negligence in May 2020.

The people of our state found themselves cut off from their loved ones due to Levine’s fateful decision to send the sick into the nursing homes.  Families were denied access to their parents. Reports of neglect, hopelessness and despair were reported as thousands upon thousands were left to die abandoned and alone.  Tragic stories of beautiful people, who were good citizens, lived good lives in the commonwealth, and served their county with valor, were condemned to a lonely and isolated death cut off from their families and loved ones.

Instead of being met with condemnation and investigation for her decision making, Secretary Levine was rewarded with a promotion and a Presidential appointment to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. Governor Wolf was quick to congratulate, stating ridiculously “the steady hand and calm approach were critical to managing Pennsylvania’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The mainstream media was nowhere to be found.  Instead of exposing the incompetence of our secretary of health, they doubled down on protecting Levine, and lauding praise upon the secretary’s handling of the crisis. 

Sadly that “steady hand” was the same which signed off on a policy leading to the suffering and death of our elderly.  There is no “steady hand” with the death of 12,600 of our dear loved ones.  Instead of being held accountable or resigning in shame for the deaths that were caused by these science denying policies, Levine has since been “promoted” to an even a more powerful position in the Biden Administration.  Where is the justice and outrage?  Since when is failure promoted and praised?  What about those who died as a result of Levine’s incompetence? 

Today, more than half of Pennsylvania’s COVID deaths are traced to long term care facilities. The official number is just over 12,600 deaths.

While that figure is staggering alone, the question must be asked. Is the 12,600-figure accurate or is it as undercounted as the figures were in New York?

In January, a report by the New York Attorney General revealed that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Administration deliberately undercounted nursing home deaths in the state by over 50%.

Since Governor Wolf has sought to emulate his partner up north on almost every COVID policy and strategy, is it farfetched to wonder if Pennsylvania’s long-term care deaths are deliberately undercounted as well?

Spotlight PA reported in September that weekly reports released by the PA Department of Health were consistently missing death and case data for more than 100 of the state’s 693 nursing homes.

This past summer, dozens of county coroners questioned and refuted the numbers of COVID deaths reported by the Wolf Administration. There is something nefarious here and it looks like the long-term health care death rates may have the same irregularities here in Pennsylvania as we see in New York.

For instance, the most recent Department of Health weekly report from March 10th shows that 138 facilities are still showing “no data” for number of COVID deaths.

It took courage for the Attorney General in New York to investigate the policies of her own Administration and reveal the undercounting of reported deaths.  

Sadly, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has turned his attention to investigating the facilities who were forced into a bad position to begin with. In May, the AG stated that “we will hold nursing facilities and caretakers criminally accountable if they fail to properly provide care to our loved ones.” Yet, Mr. Shapiro refuses to investigate the decision making of the Wolf Administration and the accuracy of the reported deaths.

It is time for a full investigation into the handling of COVID-19 in long term care facilities. It is the least we can do to ensure that our most vulnerable population is never treated like this again.

The question that must be answered is how did such science denying decisions occur in our state and who will be held accountable for the 12,600 deaths of our dear loved ones?  We demand to know the truth and these families must see that those who destroyed so many lives are held accountable.  We owe it to their families to get to the bottom of why this directive was issued and the true extent of its tragic effects.

Senator Doug Mastriano represents the 33rd Senate District, which includes all of Adams County, and portions of Franklin, Cumberland and York counties.