Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

According to the lawsuit, residents at long-term care facilities are “represent the most fragile in our society and deserve protection, not exploitation.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Health put nursing home residents at risk by failing to inspect nursing homes during the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a class-action lawsuit filed earlier this week. The lawsuit also alleges that the department failed to protect residents from experimental procedures without their consent.

The long-term care facility listed in the lawsuit is Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County. Pennsylvania’s emergency management agency reported there were at least 266 cases of COVID-19 within Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center as of Monday—which is more than half of current residents. Jodi Gill, the daughter of Brighten resident Glenn Oscar Gill, is the plaintiff in the case. 

Officials at Brighton confirmed an outbreak in the facility in late March but failed to provide updates on patients in early April, according to the complaint filed Tuesday. On Monday, state data showed an increase of 18 resident cases at nursing homes and two employee cases. The entire county had an increase of 21 cases, including 20 in the Beaver ZIP code and one in the Beaver Falls ZIP code—indicating that all of those cases are at Brighton Rehab.

According to the Beaver County Times, the facility is one of six in the county and is the only one to have a major outbreak of the virus. Two other long-term care facilities in Beaver County have publicly announced that they had one case each of the virus.

Gill alleges that she was called by a nurse who convinced her to sign a consent form for an experimental drug study for her father, who was not diagnosed with the virus. The experimental drug study was allegedly to find out whether the drug combination of hydroxychloroquine and zinc could be used as a preventative measure against COVID-19.

Hydroxychloroquine is an anti-malarial drug toted by President Donald Trump as a possible treatment for COVID-19. Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned people not to use hydroxychloroquine unless they are in a hospital or participating in a formal clinical trial; they cited reports of “serious heart rhythm problems” and death.

RELATED: ‘Serious Heart Rhythm Problems’: FDA Warns Against Using Drugs Trump Promoted

According to the lawsuit, residents at long-term care facilities are “at immediate risk of contracting COVID-19 and are clearly at immediate risk of being experimented upon. These individuals represent the most fragile in our society and deserve protection, not exploitation.”

Federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid require the state health department to inspect these facilities—the failure to do so is directly responsible for the unauthorized experiments, according to the complaint.

The experiments are in the form of clinical trials to determine if taking the drug hydroxychloroquine in conjunction with a zinc tablet will prevent people from being infected with Covid-19, the complaint said.

The complaint also states residents were given a “consent for post-exposure prophylaxis” form, but the would-be class plaintiffs say “there is no evidence that this ‘study’ was approved by an Institutional Review Board, or that a Data Safety Monitoring Board was engaged, or that any kind of actual informed consent was sought or given.”

In the state of Pennsylvania, residents at nursing homes have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 out of any community. On Wednesday, the Department of Health reported 479 new COVID-19 deaths — 339 at nursing and personal care homes — raising Pennsylvania’s death toll to more than 2,100. Nursing homes now account for 65% of the total.

Nursing homes cite shortages of personal protective equipment and say they haven’t been able to do enough diagnostic testing to quickly identify and isolate patients and staff who have the virus. They say testing is critical because people can spread the virus without knowing they have it.

“If we know who has it, then we can isolate effectively, we can mitigate spread much more effectively. And until there’s testing … that makes it incredibly difficult,” said Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, which represents hundreds of nonprofit nursing homes statewide.

“The more testing we can do, the better,” he said. “The need is great, and the testing supplies are a real difficulty right now.”

State health officials have consistently said they don’t have the capacity to test all nursing home residents, and that only those with COVID-19 symptoms should be tested.

Additional reporting from the Associated Press.