Pennsylvania’s top health official has become a poster child for elitism amid the political battle over coronavirus policy, and now some are calling for her resignation.
A Republican representative introduced a resolution Monday seeking the resignation or forced removal of Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine, and at least one Delaware Valley house member is already on board.
The resolution, from Rep. Dan Diamond of Lebanon County, is the latest in a growing number of calls for Levine’s resignation over her alleged mishandling of the state’s longterm care facilities (LCTFs) during the COVID-19 pandemic. Levine’s story went national when it was learned she moved her 95-year-old mother from a personal care home to a hotel at the same time her department was forcing care facilities to admit and re-admit coronavirus-positive patients.
“Confidence in Secretary of Health Rachel Levine’s ability to handle the COVID-19 outbreak has been called into question after data revealed that 69 percent of the deaths in Pennsylvania have taken place in senior care facilities under the oversight of the state’s Department of Health,” Rep. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), told Delaware Valley Journal.
“Levine failed to implement plans designed to protect our most vulnerable seniors residing in nursing homes and long-term care facilities from COVID-19,” Toepel continued. “And not only were those plans not implemented, but facilities were also required to accept patients who tested positive for the virus. It is time for the governor to replace the secretary with someone who can more successfully lead the state in responding to this health crisis.”
Draft language for House Resolution 879 has yet to be released, but a memo on the state House website says Levine “put our most vulnerable populations at even greater risk” by instituting “guidance for nursing facilities to admit and re-admit patients who were positive for COVID-19.”
A request for comment to Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) office on the resolution was not returned. Comment was also not returned from five Democratic state house members from the Delaware Valley.
Earlier this month, Monroe County Coroner Tom Yanac called for Levine to resign or be fired, accusing her of mismanaging the state’s electronic death registration system.
On Thursday, state GOP Chairman Lawrence Tabas joined in, saying, “It is unthinkable that PA Secretary of Health, Dr. Rachel Levine, would move her mother out of a personal care home, and into a hotel, while ordering nursing and personal care homes to accept COVID patients.”
The editors of the public policy website Broad + Liberty have written a lengthy argument in favor of Levine’s resignation. Like Tabas, they pointed to the Health Department’s guidance telling nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients in order to help with hospital availability.
“Indeed, at a May 6th meeting with state legislators, Dr. Levine testified that of the 37,000 available hospital beds in Pennsylvania, only 2,572, or about seven percent, were occupied by confirmed COVID-positive patients,” the editors at Broad + Liberty wrote (emphasis original).
“Hospital beds have been available all along, so the justification for forcing nursing homes to reabsorb COVID-positive patients was nonexistent,” they concluded.
Levine has tried to defend her decision to move her mother to a hotel by claiming the 95-year-old made the decision for herself. “She is very intelligent and more than competent to make her own decisions,” Levine said of her mother.
At a Tuesday news conference, Levine was asked if the administration would have done anything differently, but sidestepped the question.
“We are everyday thinking about how we can help those facilities, help them in different ways. So now of course, we have the National Guard that is going out to facilities,” Levine said. “We just reported that we have the [Centers for Disease Control] teams going out and looking at those facilities.”
“And we’re going to be testing all of the residents of those facilities as well as the staff. So, we continue to revise and update our plan.”
Ramped up testing of all LTCFs is an additional concern for Delaware Valley elected officials trying to get the Wolf administration to move their counties from the “red” lockdown phase into the “yellow” hybrid phase of reopening. These officials want the fact that infections and deaths are occurring in LCTFs and not the population at large to be taken into the state’s calculations.
The Democratic-controlled board of county commissioners in Bucks wrote a letter to Gov. Wolf about two weeks ago making the case that as long as infections at long-term facilities were included, it would “permanently keep Bucks County in the ‘red zone.’”
The county’s health director, Dr. David Damsker, expressed similar concerns at the time.
“The increased number of cases is clearly in our nursing homes who are also doing increased testing,” Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker said on 1210 WPHT’s The Dom Giordano Program. “There are some nursing homes that are doing mass testing. So, we’re not artificially driving up rates — they are true cases — but they’re not impacting the community in any way.”
State data from Monday showed that more than 30 percent of all cases in the Delaware Valley were in nursing homes, and more than 80 percent of all fatalities in the four surrounding counties were in those facilities as well.