The partisan sparring over the individuals and agencies that deserve the most blame for the COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes continued into the long holiday weekend.
After a group of Senate Democrats issued a scathing report criticizing the federal response to the coronavirus crisis in long-term care, a trio of House Republicans fired back in defense of the Trump administration, calling the senators’ accusations “half-baked.”
Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Gary Peters of Michigan, and Ron Wyden of Oregon focused on the time the federal government took to compile and release national data on COVID-19 in nursing facilities, while also criticizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) effort to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) to facilities — a program that has been plagued by stories of unusable supplies and insufficient quantities of needed items.
As has become common in the national political discourse around the crisis, the Republican response — from Reps. Kevin Brady of Texas, Greg Walden of Oregon, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana — zeroed in on the controversial decision by several state governors to require nursing facilities to accept COVID-19 residents.
While Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has received the most publicity regarding his state’s nursing home mandate, the Republicans implicitly called out out Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who have also received public criticism and scrutiny over their decisions.
“Senate Democrats’ latest report about the administration’s nursing home response is incomplete, one-sided, and grossly misleading,” the representatives said in a joint statement. “The fact that Sens. Casey and Peters put their names on something that fails to address their own governors’ failures shows just how unserious and partisan it is.”
The Republicans pointed to a laundry list of actions taken by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) since the earliest days of the pandemic as proof that the Trump administration has taken the crisis seriously — and implied that the state governors’ actions were the primary driver of the death tolls in those states.
“Anyone paying attention knows that five states failed their nursing home patients,” they wrote. “Once again, the grieving families affected by these orders still deserve answers, and no amount of desperate blame-shifting will stop us from getting them.”
The most recent official CMS data on nursing home deaths does show New Jersey, one of the states Republicans have singled out for criticism over admission policies, in the lead with the most deaths per 1,000 residents, though Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York lag behind other states that did not have such orders.
Emerging research has also demonstrated that the severity of outbreaks in nursing homes can mirror the infection rate among the general population; the Northeast bore the brunt of the initial wave of COVID-19 infections.
The question of federal-versus-state responsibility for failures in protecting seniors from COVID-19 has become the defining narrative in Washington as lawmakers seek to derive lessons from the spring of 2020, with distinctly partisan overtones.
Scalise was one of several Republicans who demanded answers from five Democratic state governors in a series of letters sent in mid-June.
That action came after the Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn, chair of the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, launched his own investigation into the federal response — while also requiring five prominent nursing home operators to submit sheafs of information about how they handled COVID-19