Michigan Won’t Report How Many of Its Coronavirus Deaths Were Nursing Home Infections

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with reporters after inspecting the Elm Street bridge over the Red Cedar River, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer says it is important that the public knows the seriousness of the state's "infrastructure crisis." (AP Photo/David Eggert)
AP Photo/David Eggert

Michigan is now the only state among the 19 states with more than 900 COVID-19 deaths that is not reporting the number of those deaths that are from nursing homes.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has failed to implement state level reporting on the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state from long term care facilities more than one month after local media reports first indicated the state of Michigan has a serious problem with COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes.

That pattern of failing to report this key public health information continued on Tuesday when Gov. Whitmer refused to answer a reporter’s question about long term care facility reporting in the state.

“Could you update us on the status of long term care facility reporting. I know we’re transitioning to a new process. Tell us what hasn’t been worked and what we can expect?” the reporter asked at the governor’s daily briefing.

“You see me grabbing my mask, because I’m going to hand this over to Dr. J.,” Whitmer responded as she dodged the question and called the state’s Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Joneigh Khaldun to the podium.

Khaldun’s response was evasive and indefinite:

So, great question. So if you go to our website now it will say we are currently updating it because what has occurred we are working with our long term care facilities to make sure we’re getting accurate infommation and that they understand what we’re actually asking them to report. What we found before is that every facility had a different interpretation of how to report so we wanted to fix that.ho

In the mean time, CMS, at the federal level, has actually asked everyone in the country to report in a certain way, so now we’re aligning what we had previously asked our long term care facilities to do with the CMS guidance with the most accurate data when that’s available.

Michigan Rising Action, a conservative political action committee, tweeted out the video of the governor dodging the question:

As of Wednesday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website to which Dr. Khaldun referred still shows the following message, two days after it had originally promised to provide updated COVID-19 nursing home reporting:

Michigan’s Long-Term Care data collection is undergoing a transition May 21 -25 as  MDHHS enhances its data collection process to improve accuracy, timeliness, and to align with new guidance from the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Nursing facility data will be available once the transition period has ended and data appropriately validated.

Gov. Whitmer’s failure to report COVID-19 nursing home deaths provides more reason for critics who already have faulted her COVID-19 nursing home policies for contributing to the crisis in those facilities.

Even Democratic legislators have criticized Whitmer’s approach to nursing homes, as Click On Detroit reported earlier this month:

Whitmer issued an executive order last month that requires seniors who are positive for COVID-19 to be brought to the TCF Center in Detroit or to “regional hubs,” which are nursing homes where the state says there has to be separation of the COVID-19 positive and negative patients.

Rep. Leslie Love (R-Detroit) is critical of the practice.

“To return seniors into an environment, seniors with the virus still recovering from the virus, into an environment with, well, seniors, just didn’t seem — it’s not a good idea,” Love said.

Conservatives and Republicans have also criticized Whitmer for mismanaging nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Whitmer administration has failed to release accurate nursing home data for months. We now know COVID-19 in nursing homes account for 42% of deaths nationwide yet Michigan still hasn’t released data or a thorough plan to protect the most vulnerable,” Tori Sachs, executive director of Michigan Rising Action, said on Tuesday.

“Gov. Whitmer and the state’s Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun have both said they are following ‘facts,’ ‘science,’ and ‘data.’ How can Michiganders take that statement seriously if the state doesn’t have data on the most vulnerable population to COVID-19?” Sachs added.

Two recent studies released last week, one from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and a second from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity,  show that 42 percent of all COVID-19 deaths from 37 states that report this data are from nursing home residents.

As Table 1 below indicates, Michigan is now one of only 13 states that are not reporting nursing home COVID-19 deaths, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and it is the only state with more than 900 COVID-19 deaths that is failing to provide this critical public health information.

Table 1
13 States Currently Not Reporting Nursing Home COVID-19 Deaths
    Ranked by Total Number of Report COVID-19 Deaths
May 27,2020
State COVID-19 Deaths Rank Among 50 States
Michigan 5,266 4
Arizona 807 21
Missouri 701 22
Wisconsin 517 26
New Mexico 325 33
Arkansas 119 39
North Dakota 54 44
South Dakota 50 46
Hawaii 17 47
Montana 17 47
Wyoming 13 49
Sources: Worldometers
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation

 

As far back as April 3, Bridge Michigan reported on the danger COVID-19 posed to the state’s nursing home residents:

Roughly 10 to 12 Michigan nursing homes have reported COVID-19 cases, according to the Health Care Association of Michigan (HCAM), an industry group, though it declined to name them.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services also could not provide precise numbers on the coronavirus. The department is “not currently tracking data on nursing home cases or nursing home workers,” spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told Bridge on Wednesday.

That has left residents, including families of nursing home residents, to rely on  homes themselves to self-report or follow news reports of COVID-19 outbreaks: approximately 20 at the Roseville home, 36 people at Metron in Cedar Springs in west Michigan, and so on.

It was not until April 24 that the MDHHS began reporting the number of positive cases of COVID-19 at nursing homes, but it has failed to officially provide COVID-19 nursing home death data.

A number of Michigan media outlets, however, have been able to obtain “partial” COVID-19 nursing home death data from MDHHS sources, but that data has been inconsistent and not officially confirmed.

On April 23, Click on Detroit reported partial COVID-19 nursing home death data, apparently provided by public health officials at three of the hardest hit areas in the state: Macomb County, Oakland  County, and the city of Detroit:

The city [of Detroit] is running tests in 21 of its 26 nursing homes, with 357 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 129 deaths. . .

Oakland County has just over 200 nursing home and rehab facilities. So far, 127 have had positive cases — 1,038 people, including staff and residents, testing positive for COVID-19. There have been 146 coronavirus-related deaths.

Macomb County has 77 long-term care facilities, and 46 of them have had COVID-19 cases. There have been 332 positive cases and 128 deaths.

On May 9, for instance, the New York Times reported that only 5 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths at the time, or 211, were from nursing homes.

Then on May 22, Michigan Public Radio reported 748 COVID-19 nursing home deaths according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, but that number, they acknowledged, was likely under reported.

The percentage of COVID-19 deaths from nursing homes among the 37 states that currently report that data ranges from a low of 20 percent in New York to a high of 81 percent, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Skepticism abounds on the quality of the reporting from some states–like New York–where the percentage is at the lower end of that range.

The lack of any reporting to date from Michigan on the percentage of COVID-19 deaths from nursing homes does not engender confidence in the quality of the reporting that may emerge from the state at some point in the future.

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