FILE - long term care

Elderly man in nursing home, looking outside window.

(The Center Square) – A new audit found Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration undercounted COVID-19 nursing home deaths by 42%, or 2,386.

At issue is how many nursing deaths occurred in Michigan and whether Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies exacerbated nursing home deaths by housing infected patients with those most vulnerable to die from COVID-19. COVID-19 disproportionately kills the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions. In Michigan, 84% of the state’s total COVID-19 victims were people aged 60 and older.

The Auditor General’s report found the total number of COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities at 8,061, compared to the state’s previous self-reported tally of 5,675.

Nearly half of the disputed 2,386 deaths stem from federal reporting requirements mandating large long-term care facilities such as skilled nursing facilities, adult foster homes, and homes for the aged must report COVID-19 deaths. Smaller facilities – typically with fewer than 13 beds – were not required to report COVID-19 deaths.

Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, questioned why Whitmer’s orders applied to all nursing homes, but then didn’t count all deaths at all facilities.

“All of these facilities were subject to that executive order by Gov. Whitmer to place COVID positive patients into nursing homes,” Johnson told The Center Square in a phone interview. “When we asked for the information, the Whitmer administration conveniently gives us this self-reported number.”

The other roughly 1,000 "new" deaths were found via the auditor reverifying death certificates and someone's last known address, Johnson said. Although many of these people's last address was at a nursing home, it's unclear where they died because their facility didn't self-report that person as a COVID death. It's likely many of these people contracted COVID at a nursing home and were moved to a hospital, where they died. 

“There’s no reason why we should only count some of them, and not all of them,” Johnson said. “Every one of those lives mattered.”

Johnson compared Michigan Department of Health and Human Services accepting COVID nursing home death numbers without verification to “letting the fox guard the henhouse."

“For the department to just say, ‘well, we’ll just accept whatever they tell us’ – well that’s pretty weak,” Johnson said. “You should know that they aren’t going to be incentivized to give us every number out there, and so we should treat their numbers with a healthy amount of skepticism.”

In New York, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo purposefully undercounted COVID nursing deaths. So far, there’s no evidence of that here, Johnson said.

“If it’s not just negligence, which I think is bad enough on its own, but if there is actually a concerted effort within the administration not to count nursing home deaths – I think that’s near criminal," Johnson said. 

In May, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff sued the state's health department, alleging it undercounted COVID-19 nursing home deaths and other long-term care facilities.

In a previous interview with The Center Square, LeDuff compared the situation to New York, where former Gov. Andrew Cuomo suppressed the real number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths.

“New York kept count and lied about it. Michigan started looking into it, found a number they didn’t like, and they stopped counting,” LeDuff said. “Which is worse?"

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) disputed 1,511 deaths in the auditor total and questioned the reliability of the Michigan Disease Surveillance System field. Auditor General Doug Ringler contended the address field is reliable.

MDHHS spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin told The Center Square in an email that the audit used definitions different than federal reporting requirements that Michigan harnessed.

“We are concerned the report will be misinterpreted to question the work and integrity of long-term care facilities, local health departments, coroners and other frontline workers who we rely on to report data,” Sutfin wrote.

In July, the federal government declined to investigate Whitmer’s nursing home policies. The initial inquiry started under the Trump administration. In March, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, refused Republicans’ request to investigate the same policy – calling it a “political attack.”

Staff Reporter

Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.