EDITORIAL: Spotlight on Pa. nursing homes leads to damning report on state's response

York Dispatch Editorial Board
  • Pennsylvania had a plan to protect its nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Spotlight PA is reporting that the state failed to fully implement that program.
  • As of Friday, state officials reported infections at 522 nursing homes.
  • Also as of Friday, the state reported 2,458 deaths at state nursing homes.
Pennsylvania emergency response officials had a plan to protect nursing homes before the coronavirus swept across the state, but it was never fully implemented. Now, many say the state still isn't doing enough, and what it is doing might be too little, too late.

During a pandemic, it’s important to have a plan in place for all contingencies.

It’s even more important, however, to actually implement the plan. Otherwise, it's worthless.

Unfortunately, that’s the sad state of affairs in Pennsylvania right now, and our senior citizens are paying a heavy — sometimes fatal — price.

That is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn after the release of a scathing Spotlight PA report on the state’s plan to protect its nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic — a plan that was described as robust and aggressive.

Pa. had an early plan to protect nursing home residents from the coronavirus, but never fully implemented it

Spotlight PA is an independent, statewide, nonpartisan newsroom partnership that has been doing vital work during the recent outbreak.

Unfulfilled blueprint: Its report states that in mid-March, before the coronavirus had widely taken hold across the state, emergency response officials drafted a three-page blueprint for quick-strike teams of medical professionals that would respond to facilities as soon as a few positive cases were confirmed.

That detailed plan was critical, since it was expected that the impact of the coronavirus would be particularly acute among older populations in Pennsylvania, which has one of the highest numbers of nursing homes in the U.S.

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There was just one major problem. The plan was never fully implemented, and a similar — though far more limited — effort wasn’t activated until mid-April, long after major outbreaks had already taken hold.

Scary numbers: The results of that failure by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration are hardly surprising, but they are alarming.

As of Friday, state officials reported infections at 522 nursing homes and 2,458 deaths, which was 68% of all COVID-19 fatalities statewide. Despite the frightening numbers, the Wolf administration has stuck by its modest goals for increased statewide testing and has not committed to wider testing at nursing homes.

By contrast, Maryland, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and Tennessee have committed to testing all long-term care residents and staff. In Maryland and Massachusetts, health officials also have formed “strike teams” to help overwhelmed facilities navigate outbreaks and mitigate the spread.

Now, a growing chorus of providers, advocates, lawmakers, families and residents say that state officials were too slow to act and are still not doing enough to help.

Transparency problem: To make matters worse, transparency has become a major issue for the state.

It’s hard to assess the effectiveness of the state’s response or which nursing homes are facing the biggest crises because the Wolf administration has refused to release a facility-by-facility list, even as neighboring states — including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Ohio — have done so.

Federal regulators are taking steps to make facility data public, but it’s unclear when it will be available. Advocacy groups, including the AARP of Pennsylvania, have called on Wolf to reverse course, saying that information is critical to accountability.

State's response: The state, of course, has a different take.

A spokesperson for the state health department, April Hutcheson, said she was unaware of the quick-response-team plan, but noted that many of the concepts that were part of it have been implemented. State Health Secretary Rachel Levine said nursing homes have always been a priority.

Well, let’s just say we’re extremely skeptical about the state’s commitment to our elderly population, especially given the litany of shortcomings described in the Spotlight PA report.

The state’s long-term care ombudsman, Margaret Barajas, said her office is currently taking resident complaints by phone and is hoping to create a virtual visiting service soon to see the conditions inside facilities. But without widespread testing and protective gear at nursing homes, she fears the number of deaths will continue rising.

“We may have flattened the curve,” Barajas said, “but I don’t believe the consumers I am responsible for advocating on behalf are any safer today than they were in early March.”

Gov. Wolf, that is simply not acceptable.