What’s gone wrong in Michigan’s handling of coronavirus (COVID-19) in nursing homes

Defenders investigate how virus devastated nursing home communities

Nursing homes hit hardest by pandemic, Defenders work to find out what went wrong

DETROIT – Nursing homes have been hit hardest by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in Michigan and around the country. The Local 4 Defenders are investigating what went wrong.

In Michigan, nearly 20% of deaths from COVID-19 were in long-term care facilities -- the population’s most vulnerable people.

READ: Michigan Gov. Whitmer admits flaws in controversial COVID-19 nursing home policy

“The biggest failure in the U.S. has been not helping people in nursing homes,” said Arthur Caplan, the head of the Medical Ethics Division at New York University.

Caplan is a leader in the field of bioethics and has been following the pandemic closely. He didn’t have high praise for how the nursing home situation was handled.

“It’s grim,” Caplan said. “Well, it got even grimmer in COVID-19 because while we were all worried about who’s got the protective gear, who’s got the training, nobody went into the nursing homes and gave them anything.”

As of June 22, Michigan had 7,137 confirmed nursing home patient cases, 3,107 confirmed staff member cases and 1,979 resident COVID-19 deaths. There were also 20 staff members who died from COVID-19.

More than 5,000 residents have recovered.

Caplan said he’s been personally affected by the issue.

MORE: Michigan lawmakers demand Whitmer stop placing COVID-19 patients in nursing homes

“In Massachusetts, my own mom died,” he said. “She was 96. She lived a long life, but she was vibrant. She was engaged. That loss could have been prevented, I think. She got infected because somebody brought the virus in. They didn’t have enough isolation of the people in the nursing home, and when she got sick, she didn’t know what to do.”

Many people never got to say goodbye to their loved ones.

“She herself died in a room cut off from everybody -- no visitors,” Caplan said. “My sister was trying to tap at the window in her room to signal goodbye to her. It was pretty sad.”

He said nursing homes just aren’t designed in a way to provide adequate safety during an outbreak.

“Think about how rare it is to get a private room,” Caplan said. “That proved a lot of trouble in COVID-19. It’s going to prove a lot of trouble, by the way, in flue season.”

So how can we fix it?

“I still think we could inspect them more frequently,” Caplan said. “I think basic problems like vermin infestation, unhygienic practices and lousy training -- that you could fix and it wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all nursing home staff and residents to be tested for the coronavirus. Those who are worried about a loved one living in a nursing home can call the Michigan Long Term Care Ombudsman at 1-866-485-9393.

About the Authors:

Karen Drew is the anchor of Local 4 News First at 4, weekdays at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. She is also an award-winning investigative reporter.

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.