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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan Gov. Whitmer: I’m trying to be transparent about coronavirus data

Limited data on coronavirus and long waits for an avalanche of people filing unemployment claims are largely due to outdated and underfunded systems, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Tuesday. 

Bridge Magazine reported Monday that Michigan is tied for last among states in the amount of certain information it makes public about coronavirus patients, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which collects data from state health departments.

Unlike many states, Michigan doesn’t report data on hospitalizations, recoveries, intensive care patients, patients on ventilators or the number of cases in nursing homes. 

That’s not because there’s anything “we want to hide,” Khaldun said. 

“We absolutely want to be as open and transparent as possible when it comes to data,” she said. But “one thing I've learned from this is that our public health reporting and data systems are just outdated and not able to really respond as quickly and nimbly as we want them to.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said Michigan needs to do a better job releasing data on those who have recovered. 

“We get the number of unfortunate and tragic deaths that occur day to day, but there’s lots of other data — success stories, legions of people who have been tested and found that they were positive and have recovered or have been sent home from the hospital.” 

It’s a “shame” the public does not have access to that data already, Shirkey said. “The people of Michigan need that information, and they need it daily.”

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon issued an order on March 23 requiring hospitals statewide to report daily data on bed capacity, personal protection equipment, lab testing capacity, ventilators, patient numbers and more.

“We’ve been struggling to get complete compliance across the state” in reporting that information, Whitmer said Tuesday. 

On Monday, 58 percent of hospitals statewide were reporting data on personal protection gear, while 85 percent were reporting beds. 

That low compliance makes it hard for hospital systems to make decisions on how to treat the pandemic, southeast Michigan hospital CEOs have said. On Tuesday, PPE reporting was up to 74 percent, while bed reporting remained at 85 percent.

“We’re building this as we’re in the midst of the crisis,” Whitmer said. “Unfortunately, we have a very decentralized public health system — which is a good thing, because it’s at the local level and there are strengths to that — but there are certainly challenges when it comes to having a central place where all the info is shared and communicated.”\

The state “been very clear what the expectations are” and “put a lot more effort” into getting hospitals to comply, Whitmer said.  “I think you’ll see better compliance going forward.”

The state coordinates 45 county and district health departments that receive state funding but operate independently. 

That makes Michigan’s public health system more decentralized than states like Massachusetts where the state “runs everything,” said Meghan Swain, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. 

“I hope decentralized is not considered a negative kind of connotation,” she said. “We work very closely with the state, certainly and especially in times of crisis.”

Local health departments feed data into the Michigan Disease Surveillance System, and medical providers like hospitals are also expected to contribute to state databases, Swain said.

“Data is near and dear to the hearts of anyone who works in and around public health,” she said, adding that local health departments have done an “exceptional job” sharing information with the state during the pandemic. 

“We know that the state is utilizing the data that we’re inputting,” Swain said.

Ruthanne Sudderth, spokesperson for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said she agrees with Khaldun’s assessment. 

“The platforms in place weren’t really built to handle a global pandemic,” she said. “We are continuing to help our hospitals report as much data as possible on a daily basis as the needs and asks within the system evolve.”

Whitmer and Khaldun have said the state may start publishing data about patient recoveries this week. 

Similarly, the state’s unemployment online filing system has crashed in recent weeks as a crush of people applying for aid overwhelmed the system. There have been widespread complaints of long waits as people struggle to get through to the site or to support on the phone. 

The state Unemployment Insurance Agency has “been completely inundated with a 4,000 percent increase in people trying to access the site that has been underfunded and undersupported over many years,” Whitmer said. “It is a very clear necessity that we need more help in answering phones and processing claims.”

State Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio said the volume of people filing claims is “unprecedented.” 

During the Great Recession, the highest volume of claims the agency saw in one week was 77,000, Donofrio said. During the first week of the coronavirus pandemic in Michigan saw more than 129,000 claims and the second saw more than 311,000. 

The third week’s numbers will be released Thursday, but “it exceeds any other week we’ve seen by a significant proportion,” he said.

State lawmakers appropriated $136 million to the Unemployment Insurance Agency in the most recent state budget. Funding has decreased every year since 2015, when it was closer to $140 million.

Rep. Shane Hernandez, R-Port Huron, chair of the state House Appropriations Committee, told Bridge Tuesday that the current budget reflects Whitmer’s recommended level of funding from her first year as governor and that she proposed another decrease of funding for the upcoming fiscal year — Whitmer proposed funding the agency at $133.6 million, but added an additional $4.3 million to fund an appeals commission within the agency. 

It’s “frustrating to hear” Whitmer say the system is underfunded when “there was no recommendation to increase it by any amount,” he said, noting that there’s little flexibility with the money because it’s mostly federal and restricted funds.

“Why wasn’t there an increase recommended for her first budget and why didn’t we have that discussion?” Hernandez said. 

Access to unemployment is “probably one of the biggest issues we’re facing outside of the immediate health crisis right now … There needs to be additional focus on this,” he said.

The agency has hired 150 more people to answer phones to help people tied up with the online system, and they’re planning to hire more, Donofrio said.

“We’re committed of course for everyone who is eligible for unemployment benefits ...  to get every dollar that they’re eligible for,” he said. “So we appreciate the patience people are showing as we process this massive amount of claims.”

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