Whitmer COVID-19 nursing home policy was “misleading,” GOP lawmaker says

Under an expanded definition of long-term care facility, an Auditor General report saw a 42% increase in deaths. Michigan Republicans are using the report to attack the policies of the Whitmer administration, but lack evidence to back claims the policy actually led to more deaths.

Partial view of senior male patient in wheelchair at hospital

A report released last week by Michigan’s Auditor General used a broader definition of long-term care facility to determine the number of deaths in the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic. It included places not required to report deaths to the state, like adult foster care homes. Using that expanded definition, the report saw a 42% increase in deaths in those facilities.

Michigan Republicans are using that information as a way to attack the policies of the state health department and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — even going so far as to say she had “blood on her hands.”

Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) is chair of the House Oversight committee. He tells WDET’s Russ McNamara it’s important to hold hearings about this issue. In April 2020, Whitmer issued an executive order directing nursing homes to accept elderly, recovering COVID-19 patients released from hospitals back to their long-term care facilities.

“This was the most vulnerable population,” Johnson says. “It made sense to not place COVID positive patients there. And as we try to discern the fallout from that decision, we wanted to know the proper amount of deaths in nursing homes. And the numbers that we were given by the administration did not include all of the facilities that were subject to this executive order.”

(Editor’s Note: This definition was later changed, and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel claims was never enforced.)

“The numbers that were given to us were merely self-reported numbers by the facilities, and the department never went and audited those to see if they’re accurate,” Johnson says. “The Auditor General came through and provided us a much more accurate account now far more in depth. And it’s showing us 42%, higher than what we were originally led to believe.”

Listen: Rep. Johnson says the administration’s reporting on COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes was misleading.


Michigan State Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland)

Russ McNamara, WDET News: Doug Ringler, the Auditor General, testified on Thursday, that it was unfair to say the state underreported the number of deaths from COVID-19 for residents of long-term care facilities, because of differences in methodology.

Rep. Steven Johnson: The department never once tried to count the numbers, they only reflected what was self-reported. That’s what the federal government requires. It was important that we actually have a better accounting of all these facilities, because her order to place COVID positive patients in nursing homes apply to all these facilities. So the federal government didn’t have a requirement that all these facilities report because most states didn’t do this disastrous policy. For the administration to present their nursing home death numbers to us without including everything, in my mind is misleading.

Is there evidence that this policy actually lead to more nursing home deaths?

That’s something that you can’t ever know definitively. But I think, through common sense, and you can look at that and say, “We’ve heard from different individuals and facilities that have told us that a COVID-positive patient was placed into there, and then COVID spread.” Now you’ll never know had COVID gotten there anyways, without that.

I looked it up, I haven’t been able to find a study that shows that housing COVID-19 patients in the same building with people who weren’t infected with the disease — there was no indication that that led to further spread. But there’s been multiple studies that seem to indicate that when it comes to long-term care facilities, the staff, nurses and doctors were the drivers of infection in nursing homes, and not really the residents. So I’m wondering was that maybe the bigger issue here, and not necessarily patient to patient.

Certainly, when we’re dealing with an infectious disease like COVID, there is no perfect solution out there. But we should be taking steps to try to be as safe as possible in these facilities when you have that vulnerable population. And to have a proactive step of placing a COVID positive patient into that nursing home is going to create or increase the likelihood of an increase in COVID positive rates among a very vulnerable population. So I think anyone with an ounce of common sense can look at this and say, that didn’t make any sense. And further, when we asked Director Hertel, would you actually admit that this was a bad policy? We shouldn’t do this again. She refused to answer that. Apparently, the Whitmer administration is standing by their policy to put COVID positive patients into nursing homes. I think that was a disaster.

But essentially, that policy is still ongoing right now. There are COVID-positive patients in the same nursing home as those who are negative. Without any indication that there is spread resident to resident — that’s why I’m wondering, is that not an argument for a vaccine mandate for medical workers? Because if the proven spread is from worker to patient, and then from worker to other patients, wouldn’t it make more sense to have the workers vaccinated, so they couldn’t spread it to patients?

I think to compare what’s going on today with what was going on then, it’s an unfair comparison. We now have vaccines. We also are better at treating the disease, something that we were not very good at in the early days. And the early days, it was very much about stopping the spread because we didn’t know how to treat people that had COVID. We’re in a different point now. People have had different opportunities to protect themselves. But in those early days, the key was, especially when our hospitals were overwhelmed, the key was to make sure you try to protect these populations from COVID.

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  • Russ McNamara
    Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.