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Feds demand answers from Gov. Whitmer on Michigan nursing home deaths

LANSING – The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday it is seeking data from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and three other Democratic governors who "issued orders which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents."

Much of the data is already publicly available, but the department is evaluating whether to investigate Michigan nursing homes for possible violations of a federal law protecting the rights of "institutionalized persons," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband told Whitmer in a letter. 

At least 2,083 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 in Michigan, accounting for nearly 1 in 3 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus here since March. 

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Whitmer issued a joint statement with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who received a similar demand from U.S. attorneys, that called the request a  “transparent politicization of the Department of Justice in the middle of the Republican National Convention.” 

“At least 14 states — including Kentucky, Utah, and Arizona — have issued similar nursing home guidance all based on federal guidelines – and yet the four states listed in the DOJ’s request have a Democratic governor,” the statement read.

Dreiband, nominated by Republican President Donald Trump, sent similar letters to Govs. Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania. 

Like Michigan and New York, those states were hit early and hard by COVID-19 and implemented policies designed to prevent hospital overcrowding by returning “medically stable” seniors to the nursing homes they lived in. But critics contend the policies may have exposed vulnerable residents to the virus.

Whitmer's April 15 order required nursing homes to readmit seniors who had been treated for the virus, but only if the facilities had set up dedicated isolation units and had appropriate personal protection equipment, which was in short supply across the country in March and April. 

COVID-19 has recently surged in Republican-led southern states including Florida and Texas, which now report more total nursing home deaths than Michigan but also have larger populations. As of Aug. 9, Michigan ranked 12th among all states for nursing home deaths per 1,000 residents, according to federal data

Whitmer's nursing home policies have sparked controversy, a partisan congressional inquiry and bipartisan action in the state Legislature, which in June approved a measure that would have created COVID-only facilities to house infected nursing home residents. 

Whitmer vetoed the bill, calling it a "a political game that would relocate vulnerable seniors without any requirement for consent, doctor’s approval, or notification to patients and their families."

The Department of Justice letter includes a request for data on the number of persons who were admitted to nursing homes from a hospital or other medical facility "after testing positive for COVID-19 during the period the guidance or orders were in effect."

That information is available through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. As Bridge has reported, by July 5 Michigan nursing homes reported they had collectively admitted or readmitted patients previously diagnosed with COVID-19 more than 2,750 times.

Most of the other Michigan data Dreiband requested — including nursing home deaths and case counts — is also on the state health department's website. He also asked for any state-issued guidance, directives, advisories or executive orders on nursing home policy, as well as the number of nursing home guests and visitors who contracted COVID. (Whitmer closed nursing homes to all visitors on March 13, two days after the state confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19.)

Dreiband told Whitmer the department has not yet "reached any conclusions" about Michigan nursing homes and whether to launch an investigation. 

“Protecting the rights of some of society’s most vulnerable members, including elderly nursing home residents, is one of our country’s most important obligations,” he said in a statement. “We must ensure they are adequately cared for with dignity and respect and not unnecessarily put at risk.”

After weeks of delays, Michigan began publishing public data in June on deaths and cases for both residents and staff of the state’s 400-plus nursing homes. At one point, health officials said releasing the data would cause “undue stress” on homes. 

Unlike other states, Michigan still does not release data on COVID-19 deaths and cases in long-term care facilities such as adult foster care, homes for the aged and unlicensed assisted-living centers. Experts have said cases in those facilities  may exceed nursing homes.

Whitmer’s administration also has yet to release data on COVID-19 outbreaks at 14 schools statewide.

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