July 5, 2022 | 10:19 a.m
Marc Levy/The Associated Press
Coverage of Pennsylvania politics, government and scandals for @AP. The wicked flee when no one pursues them. @Colorado native. As honest as a Denver man can be.
Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for governor, has made an electoral cause out of claims that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s policy of transferring COVID-19 patients from hospitals to nursing homes has caused thousands of deaths — a baseless claim for which no investigator or researcher has provided evidence.
In fact, multi-layered inspections by researchers have pointed to something else entirely – nursing home workers introducing the virus every day – while investigators found administrators disregarding staffing requirements or infection control procedures.
Additionally, no nursing home in Pennsylvania has made a claim like Mastriano’s, and a national nursing home trade association agreed with the findings of researchers, who say the spread of the virus in nursing homes is directly related to its spread in the community.
Regardless, Mastriano has repeated the baseless allegation to a friendly audience and has weaponized COVID-19 to hurt Democrats in one of the country’s most important gubernatorial races this mid-election cycle.
Mastriano, a senator and retired US Army colonel who won the Republican nomination while trading conspiracy theories, seemingly came from nowhere to become a rising force in right-wing politics, largely through the leadership of Anti -Shutdown rallies in the early days of the pandemic.
Opposition to the shutdowns and mask and vaccination requirements is a key element in Mastriano’s campaign.
It’s also a key line of attack for Mastriano against Democrats, including the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office has helped defend Wolf’s pandemic policies against court challenges.
Over the past two years, new research has accumulated on how COVID-19 entered nursing homes.
The virus was largely introduced by asymptomatic workers in areas where the virus was highly transmitted, researchers say.
“Our research was pretty clear that by far the most important factor in determining whether there is an indoor outbreak is community spread,” said Vincent Mor, professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University . “Nothing else comes close.”
David Grabowski, a professor of health policy at Harvard Medical School, echoed this, saying, “I’m pretty strongly convinced that staff was the dominant route for COVID to enter these buildings.”
In the early days of the pandemic, nursing homes lacked trained staff, testing supplies and personal protective equipment that could have helped them slow the spread, researchers say.
Nursing home administrators did not know if staff were asymptomatic. But they knew staff had to deal with residents returning from hospitals according to infection control protocols, said R. Tamara Konetzka, professor of health economics and public health research at the University of Chicago.
Additionally, the number of staff coming and going from nursing homes each day — hundreds a day at some facilities — dwarfed the number of hospitalized patients being readmitted, who may have been no more than a handful at any facility during the first few months of the pandemic , Konetzka and said other researchers.
Some of Konetzka’s research involved using cellphone data to track workers’ movements and comparing them to the location of the outbreaks.
Yet the unproven theory of hospital readmissions surfaced in Mastriano’s May 17 election-winning speech.
Mastriano made it his prime example of Democrats being “extreme” — an attempt to counter criticism, including from some in his own party, that he was too extreme to win the general election next fall.
“Only a Democrat could get away with a failed policy, send the sick home, kill thousands and get away with it,” Mastriano said.
Mastriano continued, saying: “They are the ones who sent the sick back to the homes. Your politics, the politics of the Democrats, and killed so many. That is extreme.”
Wolf’s office fired back, saying Mastriano’s claims were “manifestly false.”
Mastriano, according to Wolf’s office, is a “science denier” who has “put lives at risk throughout the pandemic by openly downplaying the crisis and opposing vaccines and other containment measures.”
Mastriano has touched on some aspects of Pennsylvania’s handling of the pandemic.
First, Pennsylvania has reported more COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes than any other state, according to federal data — although researchers have raised questions about whether states have counted COVID-19 deaths the same way and whether Pennsylvania has a disproportionately large nursing home population.
Second, Wolf’s administration — like those of several other Democratic governors in hard-hit states — issued orders requiring nursing homes to continue accepting residents returning from hospitals to protect against overwhelmed hospitals.
Last week, Mastriano posted a meme on social media accusing Wolf and other governors whose administrations issued a similar order of “premeditated murder” — another baseless allegation.
Wolf’s administration argued that the order also requires nursing homes to be able to protect other residents and that it is working with nursing homes that have concerns, it said.
In any case, readmissions were routine in all federal states and the federal government and business associations gave nursing homes early guidance on how to handle hospital readmissions.
That’s because hospitals in every state had to offload convalescent patients to ensure they had beds for incoming patients, researchers say.
A Justice Department probe into these orders that began in 2020 — during the final phase of the presidential campaign under former President Donald Trump — ended quietly last summer under President Joe Biden.
The researchers pointed out that states hit by the post-Pennsylvania pandemic were still unable to protect their nursing home populations, even though they had been given more warning and had no policy directing nursing homes to accept readmissions.
The spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes “was a much bigger problem than any policy could have caused,” Konetzka said.