Politics

Biden Health Pick Forced Nursing Homes to Accept COVID Patients

Rachel Levine pulled mother from personal-care facility as elderly deaths ravaged state

Pennsylvania secretary of health Rachel Levine / Twitter

Biden health nominee Rachel Levine directed Pennsylvania nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients—even as she pulled her own mother out of a longterm-care facility over pandemic concerns.

President-elect Joe Biden named Levine assistant secretary for health in a Tuesday announcement, saying her "steady leadership" was needed "to get people through this pandemic." But as Pennsylvania's health secretary, Levine faced considerable scrutiny.

Last March, she issued a directive requiring nursing homes to take in COVID-positive patients. Trade groups warned the decision could prove costly. The American Health Care Association said it would put "frail and older adults who reside in nursing homes at risk" and "result in more people going to the hospital and more deaths."

Nearly two months after instituting the policy, Levine confirmed that she had moved her 95-year-old mother out of a longterm-care facility and into a hotel. At the time, more than two-thirds of Pennsylvania's coronavirus deaths had occurred in such facilities. Multiple Republicans responded with calls for Levine's resignation. State lawmaker Russ Diamond accused Levine of "withholding information" by failing to make Pennsylvania residents "immediately aware of her actions" and the "underlying reasons" she took them.

But criticism of Levine's pandemic response also came from within her own party, and the controversy could undermine her eventual Senate confirmation vote. Rep. Conor Lamb (D., Pa.) requested a federal investigation into one Pennsylvania nursing home at the center of a deadly outbreak, saying Levine's health department acted "too little, too late, and too slow" and lacked the "proper sense of urgency."

The Biden transition team did not return a request for comment.

Pennsylvania was one of only a handful of states to issue the nursing-home directive, but it slipped under the national media radar, which focused on larger states like New York.

Levine faced further scrutiny last summer after releasing faulty data on nursing-home cases and death counts, according to Spotlight PA. Figures at some facilities were overreported, while others were underreported. Levine admitted to the errors, and the agency quietly altered the data. Nursing and personal-care homes have accounted for 10,022 of the 19,390 deaths in the commonwealth to date, or roughly 52 percent of the statewide fatalities.

"The decision of several governors to ignore federal protocols and instead mandate COVID positive patients be forced back to their nursing homes ended up being a death sentence for tens of thousands of our nation's most vulnerable citizens," Rep. Steve Scalise (R., La.) said last June.

Levine claimed the decision to relocate her mother from a longterm-care facility to a hotel was made at her mother's request following multiple confirmed cases within the facility.

Longterm-care facilities in Pennsylvania now say the state is far too slow in vaccinating its residents. Experts say a faster administration of the vaccine could cut COVID death rates in half by March.

Levine's health department also issued "safer sex and COVID-19" guidelines in October, noting that sex is a "normal part of life" and should be practiced in a way that protects "your health and the health of your sex partner(s)." The guidelines encouraged Pennsylvania residents to "try to identify a consistent sex partner," "avoid kissing," and wear a face covering as a "good way to add a layer of protection during sex with those outside your household."

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris praised Levine's nomination, saying the Pennsylvania official holds "the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic."