Nursing homes in Lancaster County and across the nation have been hit especially hard in the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve also become a flash point in a growing partisan clash over how and when to reopen businesses.
In Lancaster County, the city’s Democratic mayor staked out a position this week that cast the divide into sharp relief and sets her apart from the mostly-Republican political establishment here, which is pushing to gradually reopen businesses even as deaths and infections continue to rise.
“Enough with the blame game,” Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace said at a Tuesday news conference, where she was surrounded by the county’s Republican congressman and county commissioners. “Nursing homes are not holding us hostage.”
Sorace, in an interview, said her remarks were a response to emails, phone calls and social media posts received by her office that claimed Lancaster County is “being held back” from reopening by outbreaks of COVID-19 at the large number of nursing homes here.
But they are in sharp contrast to the arguments being made by Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C., who are pressing the government to open areas of Pennsylvania and the nation based on infection and death rates outside of nursing homes.
“I do not believe that Governor Wolf’s current standard for reopening is appropriate for Lancaster County when the pandemic is clearly centered on an elderly population in our nursing homes,” state Sen. Ryan Aument, a Mount Joy Republican, tweeted in late April. “This must be considered.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a Republican who represents Lancaster County, has said the reopen can begin even as nursing homes confront the outbreaks. “We can provide a robust response to stop the spread in these facilities and safely, gradually reopen some businesses here in our community at the same time,” he said at this week’s news conference.
He previously argued that “unnecessary delays will further endanger the long-term health of our economy and will significantly impact the lives of people all across our communities.”
About 20 percent of the COVID-19 infections in Lancaster County and 80 percent of the deaths have occurred in nursing homes, government data show. But experts have repeatedly warned that the problem is not confined to nursing homes.
The vast majority of new infections — the metric Gov. Tom Wolf is using to determine when to reopen counties — are occurring outside those facilities.
“Make no mistake,” Dr. Michael Ripchinski, CCO at Penn Medicine LGH, said at the same press conference. “Anyone from age four months to 102 is at risk.”
Wolf, a Democrat, and Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine have made the same argument in rejecting some counties' requests to exclude nursing home data from their calculations.
In a letter to both of them last week, Bucks County officials said the current method could “permanently keep Bucks County in the ‘red zone.’” Still, Wolf said there are no plans to change the metric, and Levine reiterated it while facing questions about it in a recent state Senate hearing chaired by Sen. Scott Martin, a Republican from Martic Township.
Martin said the high numbers in three nursing homes here are unfairly keeping other rural parts of the county closed, but Levine said they have to be factored in because the staff live in the surrounding communities.
In Lancaster County, about 80 percent of the 209 reported deaths have been in nursing homes — and half have been within just three facilities in Lancaster Township, according to the coroner. More than 2,000 cases have been reported total, according to state officials.
Sorace said there’s been confusion when talking about death rates and infection rates, and that, while she didn’t disagree with Smucker, she would have “framed it differently.”
The deaths are important for knowing long-term care facilities need more critical resources, Sorace said. But in the governor’s criteria for reopening businesses, they’re not a factor at all.
Josh Parsons, a Republican Lancaster County commissioner, declined to say whether nursing home data should be included because, he argues, the governor’s metrics have been inconsistent and subjective. The administration should be considering hospital capacity, the availability of ICU beds, ventilators and other equipment, he said.
“We need to ensure we safely bring the economy back in a way that sustains that. The governor is not managing that right now,” Parsons said. “The decisions seem to be based more on whims than science.”