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Chairman Wenstrup Opens Hearing on Deadly COVID-19 Nursing Home Policies: “Politics” Not “Science” Behind Decisions

Washington, D.C. - Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic Chairman Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) opened today’s hearing titled “’Like Fire Through Dry Grass’: Nursing Home Mortality & COVID-19 Policies” by reminding Americans that policy makers, health organizations, and state officials knew from the beginning of the pandemic that elderly individuals faced an increased risk of COVID morbidity and mortality. Chairman Wenstrup slammed Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and other public health officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for forcing nursing homes and long-term care facilities to admit positive COVID-19 patients — leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 elderly Americans. He also pointed out that the “must-admit” nursing home orders and the subsequent cover-up of the true death tolls were driven by a political agenda, not “science.” The Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic will seek to hold these officials accountable for their deadly policy decisions and provide transparency for all affected families.

Click here to view Chairman Wenstrup's opening statement.


Below are Select Subcommittee Chairman Wenstrup’s remarks as prepared for delivery.

Today the Select Subcommittee is holding a hearing to examine the disastrous “must-admit” orders that states—namely, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania—issued mandating nursing home residents admit COVID positive patients back from the hospital.

Throughout my medical career, I treated many very serious infections—usually very vulnerable patients with serious comorbidities. The very idea of placing infected, contagious patients in a facility with uninfected, vulnerable patients troubles me deeply. Especially, when other more viable options were available.

These must admit orders led to the deaths of tens of thousands of elderly Americans;

We hope this hearing is step one to providing accountability for the thousands of American families seeking answers.

It quickly became evident that COVID-19 was especially dangerous for the elderly.

There was a thousand-fold higher risk of poor outcomes—specifically, hospitalization and death—for older people relative to younger populations.

It also became clear that individuals with pre-existing comorbidities were at an increased risk. 

Therefore, it was critically important that the public health response prioritized these high-risk populations to reduce their risk of infection.

This was understood by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who put forth guidance consistent with these priorities.

On March 13, 2020, CMS issued guidance that specifically directed nursing homes to only accept COVID-19 positive patients if they were able to do so “safely,” and only if the nursing homes could properly follow CDC isolation and quarantine guidance.

This science-based guidance aimed to keep COVID-19 out of nursing homes as much as possible; it intended to prevent the at-risk elderly population from exposure to a highly transmissible virus; and it was designed to avoid infections, hospitalizations, and deaths among the most vulnerable population.

While many states followed these guidelines, states such as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, imposed mandates directly contrary to this guidance.

These states instead implemented “must admit” orders that effectively required nursing homes and long-term care facilities to admit COVID-19 positive patients, regardless of the home’s ability to protect their patients.

These orders unjustifiably exposed America’s most vulnerable to COVID-19, with predictable but deadly consequences.

Prior to issuing New York’s “must-admit” order, then-Governor Andrew Cuomo said “[f]or nursing homes, this could be like fire through dry grass.” He was seemingly quite aware of the risks. 

According to the most recent available data, New York suffered more than 15,000 nursing home deaths as a result of COVID-19.

Pennsylvania suffered more than 12,500 nursing home deaths; and

New Jersey suffered more than 9,000 nursing home deaths. 

Of that, more than 200 veterans at state-run veterans’ homes in New Jersey died as a result of COVID-19—including 89 at a single veterans’ home in Paramus, New Jersey—in what has been described as a “horror show.” 

In Andover, New Jersey, authorities discovered that a nursing home was storing 17 bodies in a “makeshift morgue.”

These were fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, grandpas, and grandmas.

They deserved better—from our public health authorities and from our politicians—they and their families were failed by these deadly “must-admit” orders.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that decision making by politicians, not science, or scientists, was responsible for these misguided decisions.

Science never supported “must-admit” orders.

Science did not support rejecting the federal government’s help. 

The Trump Administration sent the USNS Comfort and transformed the Javits Center to address capacity issues at New York City Hospitals.

However, Governor Cuomo failed to use these facilities, at the expense of overwhelmed hospital systems.

Why? Why did he fail to take advantage of the resources offered?

Science certainly did not lead state officials to fraudulently conceal and coverup the number of nursing home deaths in their respective states.

Governor Cuomo knew that the “must admit” order was wreaking havoc on nursing homes throughout New York. And so, his administration “froze” the state’s nursing home deaths data.

In an investigative report on COVID-19 Nursing Home policies, New York State Attorney General Letitia James found that the Cuomo administration underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths by approximately 50 percent.

This was done by design, to not only avoid accountability from the Department of Justice, but to escape political accountability from the American people.

My father used to say to me: “I don’t care what you did wrong, but if you lie to me, you are in much more trouble!”

Finally, science did not support threatening retaliation against one’s political enemies.

Cuomo threatened to “destroy” New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim—whose uncle died in a New York nursing home—for not participating in his fraudulent scheme to conceal the true nursing home data.

Unlike Cuomo’s COVID-19 response, this Select Subcommittee was not created to score political points, nor to sell books.

We owe it to the lives lost as a result of these “must-admit” orders to conduct a “fact-based” review of State responses to the pandemic.

And we owe it to the victims’ families to hold those who implemented these deadly mandates accountable.

And the public officials who engaged in political cover-ups and manipulated mortality rates for political expediency—they must answer to the American people.

We’re not here to “Monday morning quarterback” or to negate the difficulty of decision making during an unprecedented pandemic.

But once science was clear, those who made wrong decisions must be held accountable.

We are holding this hearing today to look back to help prepare for a future pandemic.

To determine what went wrong, to recommend how to do it better.

To ensure that future public health policy decisions are based on scientific facts, not political calculations.

And I suspect some today will talk about how changes have been made and suggest better ways going forward. That is appreciated. However, we must identify wrongdoing and hold people accountable. Otherwise, it will happen again, and victims and their families will never feel whole again.

I look forward to a strong, on topic, discussion today.