Numbers don’t always tell us what we want to know, but they often tell us what we need to know.
Our society places a lot of importance on counting things. Cars, chairs, tickets, balls, doughnuts, money, stars, trees, miles, calories, students, wheels on the bus — you get the idea.
So why has the state of Michigan found it so darn hard to provide accurate counts of people infected with COVID-19 in long-term care facilities and nursing homes?
It seems like a somewhat simple task. The facilities we’re talking about have finite numbers of residents. And they’ve been commanded to adhere to regular testing protocols for monitoring and preventing the spread of COVID-19 in the vulnerable adults for whom they care.
Yet, somehow the tracking conducted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services looks like a stock market chart that rises and falls from day to day, depending upon who’s counting.
Worse, a Record-Eagle tracking of the state’s “dashboard” found the numbers sometimes linger for long periods without being updated. That’s despite state overseers’ pledge to provide new statistics each business day.
Lawmakers, family members, and this editorial board for months have repeatedly called on state officials to provide accurate counts. That’s why the continued lack of consistent, accurate numbers from state agencies that regulate such facilities is so concerning.
Do those in charge of overseeing and licensing nursing homes and care facilities really know what’s going on inside the places that carry their stamp of approval?
We fear the floppy data betrays deeper systemic flaws in the oversight mechanisms constructed to keep our most vulnerable adults safe. We worry the oversight system tasked with keeping residents at nursing homes and long-term care facilities well is as shot-through with flaws as the one Record-Eagle reporters found situated over the state’s adult foster care system.
In the case of AFC homes, Record-Eagle reporters uncovered a regulatory mechanism rife with overwhelmed inspectors who can’t possibly provide meaningful checks. A system that, at best, could be called reactive. A system that lets problems fester out of control before taking action to preserve the wellbeing of vulnerable adults.
Maybe that’s why we’re suspicious of what we aren’t being told by state officials about what they’re doing — or not doing — to keep COVID-19 from running wild through our state’s most vulnerable population. What we know about the things state officials didn’t want us to know is more than enough to confirm our fears.
Weeks ago, Record-Eagle reporters, through records produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, discovered MDHHS officials worked to keep their ill-conceived regional COVID-19 “hub” system under wraps. That scheme — one that defies common sense — called for paid bonuses and premiums to a number of nursing care facilities that volunteered to house COVID-19 patients who are well enough to leave hospitals, but can’t go home.
Now, four months later, our reporters learned MDHHS has commenced a quiet dismantling of that network that effectively paid a premium to move people infected with the pandemic disease into close proximity to those who statistics show are most likely to die if they become infected.
It seems unfathomable that agencies constructed to provide oversight of nursing homes and care facilities couldn’t — nearly six months after the first cases were detected in Michigan — provide accurate, consistent and updated counts of COVID-19 infections.
The numbers state officials seem incapable of providing don’t tell us what we want to know about the pandemic’s impact on our most vulnerable friends, family and neighbors.
But their absence tells us what we need to know about the system we rely upon to protect them.
— TRAVERSE CITY RECORD-EAGLE