Gov. Tom Wolf and Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine have come under intense criticism from Republicans for a decision in mid-March to send stable COVID-19 patients from hospitals to nursing homes.

Wolf and four other Democratic governors are facing scrutiny this week from GOP congressmen serving on a subcommittee addressing the coronavirus for the move the ranking member claims resulted in a “death sentence for tens of thousands” of nursing home patients.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican whip, leveled the charge at Wolf, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. It came as a Republican member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives introduced a resolution Tuesday with 24 co-sponsors to impeach Wolf on several counts, one of which focused on the transfer of COVID-19 patients.

Wolf’s spokeswoman, Lyndsay Kensinger, said House Republicans keep trying to “score political points” rather than solve problems in the pandemic.

Disproportionate impact

While nursing home residents make up 0.6% of the U.S. population, they account for 42% of nationwide coronavirus deaths. In Pennsylvania, they accounted for about 68% of the deaths. According to federal data, there were 3,225 transfers from hospitals to nursing homes in Pennsylvania from Jan. 1 through May 31.

“The decision of several governors to ignore federal protocols and instead mandate COVID positive patients be forced back to their nursing homes ended up being a death sentence for tens of thousands of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” Scalise said.

Lauren Fine, communications director for Scalise, said the governors were sent letters seeking information. “We continue to wait for responses,” Fine said. “We intend to ask the Coronavirus committee majority to compel these governors to testify.”

Democratic members of the congressional subcommittee did not participate in the request for new information.

Federal guidance

There’s no question nursing homes have been the epicenter of the pandemic in Pennsylvania, with 4,279 deaths.

As the outbreak became more prevalent in March, officials here and elsewhere worried about having enough hospital and ICU beds.

“A number of things are important to remember,” Levine told reporters recently. “That was federal (CDC) guidance &tstr; the same guidance almost all other states have followed including Pennsylvania. For a vast majority of those patients, they contracted the COVID-19 in the facility. Because they got sicker, they were transferred to the hospital. And then when they were better, they were transferred back to their home, which is the facility.

“I have no questions or concerns about the initial guidance,” Levine has said. “That was the federal guidance at the time, and that’s what we followed.”

Industry figures interpret the federal guidelines differently.

“We believe the CDC guidance to say providers can’t discriminate based on COVID-19 status. It does not, however, mandate providers to accept all new admissions,” said Shayna Varner, communications director for the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.

Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the association, echoed Republicans’ criticism.

“Mandating discharges for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results from the hospital to nursing homes puts lives in danger and risks the safety of staff and residents, especially if those nursing homes do not have access to adequate personal protective equipment, testing or the additional supplies necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

Hearing, impeachment

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Altoona, who chairs the Senate Aging and Youth Committee, said a Senate hearing is planned June 25 on lingering questions about nursing homes, including the COVID-19 transfers.

In the state House, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe introduced a five-count impeachment resolution. One of the counts is based on the transfers.

“We must not and cannot ignore the more than 3,000 deaths in Pennsylvania’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities that are directly linked to Wolf’s and his secretary’s unconscionable orders to admit infected COVID-19 patients,” Metcalfe said.

He could not be reached to explain the direct link.

Nate Wardle, a spokeman for the Department of Health, said, “It is absolutely inaccurate to say that the deaths in long term care facilities are directly due to residents of long-term care facilities returning to their homes for further treatment after being in the hospital."

G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, wasn’t aware of a Pennsylvania governor ever having been impeached.