TRENTON — The U.S. Justice Department has requested nursing home-related data from state officials in four Democratic-led states, saying that the information could lead to an investigation into whether the states put their vulnerable populations at risk.

A new release on Wednesday announced the letters to the governors of New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania suggests that state officials could be to blame for the high number of deaths at long-term care facilities, although Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband says in his letter to Gov. Phil Murphy that the Civil Rights Division "not reached any conclusions about this matter."

A spokeswoman for Murphy characterized the request as a politically motivated effort during the week that President Donald Trump accepts his party's nomination for a second term.

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J. 9th District, condemned the request in harsher terms.

"Trump has sicced [U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr] to blame governors for trump’s own homicidal failures that have killed thousands of Americans," the North Jersey Democrat said on Twitter.

In New Jersey, more than 7,000 nursing home residents and staff have died from COVID-19, representing half of all deaths in the state since March.

The Murphy administration has faced repeated criticism from Republican lawmakers regarding its handling of long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

Republicans in the state Senate plan on Thursday to seek a vote on their proposal to impanel a committee to investigate deaths at long-term care facilities and the three state-run veterans homes.

One of the most persistent voices on the GOP side has been state Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris, who last week sent the state health commissioner a second letter requesting information, including how the state tallies deaths attributed to nursing homes.

The news release from the Justice Department points out that "New Jersey’s death rate by population is 1,733 deaths per million people – the highest in the nation."

The statement contrasts that rate to Texas, which has counted 380 deaths per million people, and has had fewer deaths — 11,000 — despite having more cases than New York or New Jersey.

The statement, however, leaves out the fact that New York and New Jersey were hit by the pandemic much sooner than Texas or Florida, with New Jersey peaking in mid April whereas Texas had its highest one-day total of hospitalizations near the end of July. Texas reported more than 6,000 new cases on Tuesday while New Jersey reported just 288.

The Justice Department's letter to Murphy on Wednesday requests within 14 days:

  • The number of public nursing home residents, employees, other staff, guests and visitors who contracted COVID-19, regardless of where they contracted COVID-19.
  • The number of public nursing home residents, employees, other staff, guests and visitors who died of COVID-19 including those who died in a public nursing home or after being transferred to a hospital or other location.
  • All state-issued guidance, directives, advisories or executive orders regarding admissions to public nursing homes.
  • The number of people who were admitted to a public nursing home from a hospital or any other facility after testing positive for COVID-19 during the period the guidance or orders were in effect.

Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro Post said the administration would respond to the Justice Department's request "through the appropriate channels in due course."

“The fact that this request from the Department of Justice, sent only to four states with Democratic governors, was announced by press release during the Republican National Convention speaks volumes about the nature of the review," she said in a written statement. "Throughout the pandemic, the State of New Jersey followed CDC guidance and took numerous actions to protect residents of our nursing homes."

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli has previously answered questions about the state's handling of the pandemic vis-a-vis nursing homes.

At a May news conference, Persichilli outlined the steps state officials took, including notifying nursing homes about the importance of infection control on March 6, two days before the first reported COVID-19 case in the state, and restricting visitation on March 14, a day before the first known outbreak at a facility.

Also in March, the state provided long-term care facilities waivers in order to quickly hire more staff, required facilities to screen residents and staff for symptoms, required facilities to create separate wings or floors to house COVID-19 survivors released from hospitals, and mandated face coverings in facilities even though the CDC had not yet recommended that measure.

On March 31, the state informed long-term care facilities that they had to be able to adhere to infection-prevention requirements before they could accept patients returning from hospitals.

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