Montgomery County Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh said Wednesday she has “strong confidence” in Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health secretary and currently the target of Republican efforts to force her resignation.
However, just two weeks ago, Arkoosh testified before a Democratic Senate Policy Committee meeting on the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes and told of two occasions where she believed the state’s Department of Health (DOH) had failed to meet its responsibilities.
State and local data continue to show residents of long-term care facilities (LTCFs) are at the highest risk of dying from the coronavirus. At a Wednesday news conference, Arkoosh told reporters that 479 of the county’s 548 COVID-19-related deaths — about 87 percent — were at LTCFs.
Beyond the escalating death toll, the nursing home issue has become a scandal of sorts for the Wolf administration and Levine, after the health secretary revealed she removed her own mother from an LTCF and placed her in a motel. Levine justified the actions by saying her mother requested the move. The entire ordeal made national news.
At the May 6 hearing, Arkoosh related how the county gradually became aware that the crisis was most acute in LTCFs, and that the DOH bore most of the responsibility.
“This was something that wasn’t initially on our radar here in the county,” Arkoosh said. “And we were under the assumption that these facilities would be assisted by PA DOH, which is their licensing authority and regulatory authority.
“So, these institutions were not first and foremost on our to-do list,” she added. “We had a lot going on in the early days of this pandemic, and we knew very clearly what was directly under our purview for our county and our county offices of public health and we did not think that these facilities were on that list.”
Calls to 911 from nursing homes increased, however, and Arkoosh said the county was contacted directly by paramedics who believed the LTCFs were at the core of the outbreak.
The chairwoman said they contacted DOH about the developing crisis.
“We again mistakenly assumed that there would be some on-sight assistance to some of these most highly impacted facilities, and we actually gave DOH our kind-of top dozen of facilities we were concerned about,” Arkoosh said.
“However, it did become clear that there was no capacity to make on-sight visits to these locations, so as a county we decided that it was the right thing to do to try to take this on ourselves.”
Despite these shortcomings by the DOH, Arkoosh stood by the agency Wednesday, calling the relationship “collaborative.”
“Every time I have reached out to them and asked for a phone call to discuss our situation, we have quickly gotten that call scheduled,” Arkoosh said in response to a question from Delaware Valley Journal.
“We’ve had very — in my view — helpful and honest conversations with one another, particularly around what the department of health was or was not going to be able to provide Montgomery County in the kind-of immediate, next-few-days type situation.”
“I do have very good and strong confidence in Secretary Levine.”
However, at the same May 6 meeting where Arkoosh testified, Democrat State Sen. Andrew Dinniman offered a blunt assessment.
“There’s no excuse for what’s going on, OK? I’m not going to be as polite as everyone else,” Dinniman exclaimed. “The department of health has failed our nursing homes.”
Dinniman’s office did not respond to a request for comment on whether he still has confidence in Levine, especially now that Republicans have taken concrete action in the General Assembly to try to force her resignation.
At the federal level, Republican Rep. Scott Perry (PA-10) has called for a federal investigation of the governor’s handling of the nursing home crisis.
Levine sidestepped a question on Tuesday as to whether the administration would have handled the nursing home situation differently.
“We are every day thinking about how we can help those facilities, help them in different ways,” Levine said. “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.”