LANSING, Mich. – In a hearing on Thursday about Michigan’s COVID policies and nursing homes, lawmakers said they’ve been given the runaround from the state Department of Health and Human Services on critical data, before witnesses testified in hopes of relaxing visitation policies.
The hearing was initially meant to probe whether the state’s nursing home policy designated them as “hubs” for COVID patients. Similar policies were used in four other states -- including in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration was found to have been undercounting certain types of COVID deaths among nursing home patients, effectively lowering the number of deaths attributed to virus spread in nursing homes.
House Oversight Committee Chair Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) said he sent an email and later a formal letter to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) asking for clarity on discrepancies between the department’s tracking numbers and numbers from the CDC. State numbers show that a higher number of deaths: just over 5,500 residents in long-term care facilities have reportedly died from the virus.
Johnson criticized MDHHS’ response, saying that the department said the numbers were accurate but declined to share specific numbers with his office.
“I’m just a simple guy, but if you have the best data out there, wouldn’t you share it with people?” Johnson said.
MDHHS officials chose not to testify on Thursday, but in a letter, Director Elizabeth Hertel told committee members that the state has “consistently implemented the most accurate reporting protocols with the goal of maintaining quality death data.”
“MDHHS worked with legislative staff to ensure that the metrics and data surrounding nursing homes that were of interest to the Legislature were publicly available,” Hertel wrote. “It is my belief that Michigan has done an exemplary job of collecting, tracking, and validating data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and it cannot be overstated the commitment by our staff and partners in ensuring that the data is correct.”
A spokesperson for Johnson said the answers from Hertel were not “sufficient.”
Michigan’s policy has long been a source of contention for Republicans. It allowed nursing homes to opt into a plan in which they were paid to accept stable COVID patients as long as they had a separate COVID wing and protections set up. The protocols were also the subject of a four-state inquiry from the Department of Justice under former President Donald Trump. The investigation was lambasted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as partisan because of its timing just before the Republican National Convention.
Michigan’s nursing home COVID death numbers are above the national average, and new numbers from the New York Times showed those deaths make up nearly a third of all COVID deaths in Michigan. There has been no evidence, however, that Michigan is undercounting or underreporting long-term care COVID deaths. The plan was also backed by medical experts at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, the CDC and AARP, among others over the course of the pandemic.
Beyond the statistics, witnesses called for a change to the visitation policies as those in long-term care get vaccinated. One woman, alongside her son, broke down while talking about her husband’s nearly year-long isolation.
“As many times as I’ve told him, I’m sure he doesn’t understand why we’re not in there,” she told committee members. “No matter how many times I stand at a window and say, ‘Greg, hello! I love you,’ when I go for my window visits, it’s impossibly hard.”
Whitmer said earlier this week that MDHHS could lift some pandemic restrictions on nursing homes away from the state’s current five-tiered risk-limiting protocol some time next week.