There is a “possibility” the state of Michigan has been “undercounting” coronavirus-related nursing home deaths, according to lawyers at the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation.
The Mackinac Center announced last week that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) agreed to a settlement with the foundation’s client, Detriot journalist Charlie LeDuff, after the department failed to provide LeDuff with public records he requested in January under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) related to nursing home deaths.
“This data is an essential part of accurately understanding the effects of this pandemic and the public policy implemented in response,” Steve Delie, an attorney and the Mackinac Center’s FOIA expert, said in a May 21 statement. “It also leaves open the possibility that the state is undercounting the number of deaths of those in nursing homes.”
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The Mackinac Center filed an FOIA lawsuit against the MDHHS on LeDuff’s behalf in March, and the department eventually agreed to hand over the documents.
“We stood up to Goliath and won,” LeDuff said in a statement. “While I’m pleased that some of the records were released, the state’s overall response is alarming and disappointing. Still, this is a win for the people of Michigan, and I’m glad this lawsuit was able to shed some light.”
The foundation said the documents that the MDHHS provided show the ages of nursing home residents who died during the pandemic and the dates of their deaths, but, “due to inadequate tracking,” the MDHHS could not provide the data on the number of state residents who contracted COVID-19 at long-term care facilities.
Michigan’s “Vital Records” reporting system requires the MDHHS to determine whether deceased nursing home residents died of COVID-19. LeDuff’s own reporting, however, suggests the Department did not follow its own rules.
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LeDuff’s investigation for the podcast, No BS Newshour (NBN) and reporting for the local digital news site, Deadline Detroit, found that 44% (648 out of 1,468) of COVID-19 deaths could be traced back to nursing homes based on a “limited” review of vital records from last summer. MDHHS has also apparently stopped its vital records searching because it is too “time-consuming,” LeDuff reported.
Bob Wheaton, a spokesperson for the MDHHS, told Fox News that the 648 number represents a “manual review of the death certificates reported to the state health department for COVID-19.”
“The death certificate contains a check box that the provider reporting the death would check if the individual was a resident of a nursing home or congregate-care facility,” he said, adding that “names and addresses for deaths that occurred in the hospital were matched with the addresses of long-term-care facilities to identify people who had died in the hospital but were residents of a long term care facility.”
Wheaton told LeDuff that the review is not something MDHHS does regularly “due to how time-consuming it is and the amount of resources we need to devote to doing this.”
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More than 5,600 nursing home residents died of COVID-19 out of Michigan’s total 19,000 COVID-19 deaths based on publicly available data on long-term care facilities. Nearly 7,000 other COVID-19 deaths are classified at “vital records reviews,” but the state has stopped determining which of those deaths are connected to Michigan nursing homes, according to LeDuff.
Wheaton noted that there are overlaps between the state’s manual review from the summer and reports from nursing homes. The spokesperson did not confirm to Fox News whether the MDHHS stopped searching the state’s vital records to determine whether COVID-19 deaths could be linked to nursing homes.
The health department said it worked with LeDuff to produce information that wouldn’t identify anyone, although he said he wasn’t seeking names.
The department is “strongly committed to protecting residents of long-term care facilities from COVID-19 and to sharing data with the public related to the pandemic,” Wheaton told the Associated Press.
Republicans have condemned Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer for allowing nursing home residents recovering from the virus to return to their nursing homes or gain admittance, alleging the move put other residents at risk.
Whitmer created 21 hubs in existing nursing homes that were intended to have room for isolation and specialty equipment for elderly groups discharged from the hospital, The Detroit News reported.
Whitmer’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Fox News.
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New York also came under fire for underreporting nursing home residents’ nursing home deaths.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced calls for his resignation after his top advisors influenced state health officials to remove data from a public report that showed coronavirus-related nursing-home deaths in the state had exceeded numbers previously acknowledged by the administration, The Wall Street Journal reported in March.
The state’s reported tally of 6,432 nursing-home resident deaths was significantly lower than the actual nursing-home death toll, sources with knowledge of the state report’s preparation told the newspaper.
State officials now place the nursing-home and long-term-care facility death toll in New York at more than 15,000 residents, the Journal reported. The number represents deaths since March 2020 of residents confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus or presumed to have contracted it, the report said.
Fox News’ Dom Calicchio, Caitlin McFall and the Associated Press contributed to this report.