A man with a mask walks past a sign advertising the Sapphire Center nursing home after reports of a number of deaths there came to light during an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 17, 2020. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Sarah N. Lynch

The U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday said it may investigate whether four states led by Democratic governors violated the civil rights of the elderly by requiring nursing homes to admit coronavirus patients, a practice which critics say led to thousands of deaths.

The department said it was seeking COVID-19 data related to nursing homes from four states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

Spokeswomen for Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy both issued statements calling the request a partisan move.

“We will review this letter and respond as appropriate. However, Americans would all be better served if the Trump administration stopped the partisan games and focused on delivering a real plan to defeat COVID-19,” Whitmer’s spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

A spokeswoman for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said his office was reviewing the request and looked forward to working with the Justice Department to provide whatever information was needed to fulfill it.

The elderly and people with underlying chronic health conditions are among those at highest risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19.

Since the pandemic hit the United States, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and assisted-living centers have registered some of the most lethal localized outbreaks across the country. In one grisly example, a “makeshift morgue” was discovered at a nursing facility in New Jersey, sparking a state investigation.

Two of the four targeted states, Michigan and Pennsylvania, are among the most hotly contested in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

All four states have been hit hard by the pandemic, reporting among the highest number of COVID-related cases and deaths associated with nursing homes, according to figures reported by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The Justice Department did not issue data requests to other states that have reported comparable caseloads at nursing home facilities, such as Texas, Florida and California.

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