For more than a year, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has cited “science and data” as the basis for her dozens of executive orders in response to the COVID pandemic. Yet a recently settled lawsuit related to nursing homes highlights an appalling lack of state data on the tracking of virus deaths.
Thanks to the efforts of Detroit journalist Charlie LeDuff, who was represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, we now have a clearer picture of just how little the state of Michigan actually knows about who died of COVID-19 and where they got the illness.
The state has counted nearly 7,000 of the 19,000 COVID deaths in Michigan based on “vital records” reviews that do not classify where individuals lived (such as in a nursing home) and how they contracted the virus. Apart from a limited sampling early on, the state hasn’t bothered to find out.
Only the number of deaths reported directly by long-term care facilities are included in current official state tallies, meaning many patients who became infected at these homes but died elsewhere have likely been excluded.
When the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services initially denied the public records request, the Mackinac Center and LeDuff sued. In the settlement, they only got a small portion of the original request because the records simply don’t exist.
This is pertinent information that the health department should have been tracking all along — especially since Whitmer was making decisions determining what we could and couldn’t do based on the “data.”
The state should have done everything in its power to fully understand how Whitmer’s orders related to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities were impacting this vulnerable population. According to the data available on the state’s website, about 5,600 COVID deaths are tied to nursing homes. Yet that number in reality could be much higher.
That’s always been the concern since Whitmer’s orders mandated these facilities take on COVID patients after they were released from the hospital. This was a terrible policy, and the governor stubbornly refused to back down from it, even after elder-care leaders warned against the practice.
Whitmer didn’t change course until late September. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is under fire for underreporting nursing home deaths by 50 percent, changed a similar mandate in his state in May — months before Whitmer did.
An investigation by the New York attorney general revealed the state hadn’t properly counted nursing home deaths when patients died at the hospital. But at least New York had that information.
The Michigan health department did release some documents that show officials attempted to track information on those deaths for a limited time, and those results are damning. Of 1,468 vital records examined by the state between March and June 2020, about 44 percent were in fact traced to nursing homes.
After that time, however, the department said it stopped tracking that data as it was too “time-consuming,” according to LeDuff.
The health department should have made the time. Steve Delie, the Mackinac Center attorney and FOIA expert on the case, says this “leaves open the possibility” that the state has undercounted nursing home deaths by leaving out those that could have been determined from vital records.
Earlier attempts to get Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate Whitmer’s nursing home policies have proven futile. Given this latest development, she should start looking into the numbers.
— THE DETROIT NEWS