Having a Pennsylvania Secretary of Health with an expertise in treating pediatric eating and addiction disorders may have been sufficient for the Commonwealth in normal times. But, as every one of our readers understands, we are not living in normal times.
Dr. Rachel Levine, who has led Governor Tom Wolf’s coronavirus response, has been laudable in one specific way: she has actually taken questions from the press, as opposed to the governor, whose office stopped processing public health records requests in mid-March, he says, due to the present state of emergency.
However, under Levine’s leadership, the results for Pennsylvanians’ health — and specifically for those living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities — have been ruinous.
Pennsylvania has over 4,000 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths, in the top five nationally in raw numbers and in the top ten per capita. Most of the most impacted states are clustered in the Mid-Atlantic and New England, partially an unfortunate accident of geographic proximity to America’s first major hotspot, New York City and its suburbs.
But Pennsylvania also surpasses most of its neighbors in our deaths at nursing homes and long-term care facilities, where over 65 percent of the victims of this virus have met their demise. Compare that to New York State (under 20 percent of deaths in nursing homes or care facilities), Maryland (under 50 percent), Delaware (under 60 percent), and New Jersey (40 percent). The public has been told repeatedly to “trust the experts” and that, under Dr. Levine’s stewardship, our most vulnerable would be protected to the best extent of our state officials’ ability.
Yet the Wolf Administration, with Levine at the helm, made one fatal error: mandating that nursing homes re-admit Covid-positive patients. Levine, like her counterparts in some other states (notably New York), issued guidance to that effect in mid-March, anticipating the height of the pandemic, in order “to alleviate the increasing burden” in hospitals. But as the Bucks County Courier-Times notes, “hospitals in most counties [of PA] were never overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.”
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.
Hospital beds have been available all along, so the justification for forcing nursing homes to reabsorb Covid-positive patients was nonexistent.
Instead, the decision to compel nursing homes to care for elderly or otherwise unwell Covid-positive patients spurred devastating results. As carriers of the disease returned to nursing homes to “recover,” they shed the virus at an exponential rate amongst their neighbors and caretakers.
Did Dr. Levine reconsider the guidance, knowing full well that our hospital capacity was sufficient to support Covid patients without forcing nursing homes to re-admit them? Did she mimic what states like Connecticut are doing in creating Covid-only facilities, so that carriers are isolated but still able to receive care once they’re out of acute treatment? Did she centralize the procurement of necessary but scarce personal protective equipment for these facilities by leveraging state purchasing power?
No. Dr. Levine did what she has demonstrated an unsettling propensity towards doing amidst a rapidly evolving public health crisis: she stubbornly insisted that the Wolf Administration’s previous assumptions remained accurate and effective. And then she did something truly remarkable. She quietly moved her 95-year old mother out of one such facility, into a high-end hotel.
Had Dr. Levine revised the guidance on forcing nursing homes to readmit Covid-positive patients, or encouraged Pennsylvanians to do what she and her family chose to do — and move their ailing parents to safety — she may have deserved to stay on as Pennsylvania Health Secretary.
But she did not.
Notwithstanding the current debate over Governor Wolf’s iron-fisted, tone-deaf approach to keeping the state’s economy shut down, this move from Dr. Levine is a damning self-indictment of the ability of the governor’s administration to handle the public health crisis.
Responding to what is now national news, Levine claims her mother made her own decision. Perhaps. But this only means that her own mother shares our concerns. Doesn’t everybody’s mother or father deserve to be protected? Why didn’t Dr. Levine suggest other families consider what hers chose to do? Is this fundamentally different from U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, Kelly Loeffler and Dianne Feinstein cashing out millions in stocks due to insider information — while assuring the American public that we were in good hands, and not to panic? One of those senators is under federal investigation.
The Wolf Administration’s lack of transparency on this issue, and on all issues related to its coronavirus response — from the opaque manner waivers were granted to businesses to its refusal to abide by standard Freedom of Information requests — has been stark.
The media’s response, too, has been for the most part abysmal, underscoring the need for a genuinely adversarial press corps — and not one that runs cover for one political side or another (and we all know which side).
In light of the situation on the ground — as Pennsylvania’s Covid death count climbs in comparison to other states, as more of our deaths come from nursing homes than any of our neighbors, and as the Wolf Administration’s performance has come under more and more scrutiny — this Editorial Board calls on PA Secretary of Health Rachel Levine to resign. If she does not, Governor Wolf should fire her, and replace her with a trained epidemiologist who is willing to face down this virus with integrity and competence.
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