Michiganders deserve an accurate count of nursing home deaths

This task simply can’t be someone else’s job.

We were a bit befuddled in April when officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told a Record-Eagle reporter the statewide health agency hadn’t collected data on COVID-19 infections and deaths in small long-term care facilities. Those regulators pointed our journalist toward local health departments and said the 46 dispersed agencies that each serve a small portion of Michigan were responsible for keeping tabs on small adult foster care operations.

At the time, the deflection left us scratching our heads.

Such a cavernous gap in data state officials used both for policymaking and public information seems like an important caveat to disclose.

After all, more than 30 percent of COVID-19 deaths (that we know of) in Michigan occurred because of the virus’ spread inside long-term care facilities — places where close quarters living arrangements and a concentration of medically vulnerable people allowed the virus to spread like wildfire.

Instead, state officials simply deflected Record-Eagle inquiries toward overworked and overstressed local health departments. It feels like the kind of move someone would make if they wanted to shake a reporter’s resolve to follow through with thorough reporting on a topic.

Instead, after polling a couple of health departments and realizing she may have uncovered a serious gap in state regulators’ data collection on COVID-19 in nursing homes, that journalist dug deeper. She sent Freedom of Information Act requests to nearly four dozen health departments spread across Michigan.

Responses returned in that dragnet search for records and data exposed our worst suspicions: the vigorous public health monitoring and data collection of the past year in response to COVID-19 effectively omitted nearly 3,500 facilities that care for vulnerable adults.

And thanks to both curiosity and diligence on the part of at least one health officer who received Record-Eagle records requests, we know people who died of COVID-19 in those facilities weren’t monitored by either local or state health officials.

Thanks to Taylor Olsabeck of the Barry-Eaton District Heath Department, we also know a full accounting of deaths in those small AFC homes is possible. Olsabeck, in response to our request, compared general data collected after COVID-19 deaths and a list of small care facilities in the district. She found 15 COVID-19 deaths occurred in those homes, deaths that don’t appear in MDHHS tracking of the disease’s spread in nursing homes.

Why does this hole in state regulators’ monitoring matter at a moment when the pandemic appears to be tapering toward an end?

Well, we would argue understanding the full toll of COVID-19 in our state is one reason. Another might be the possibility that complete data will help public health policymakers protect vulnerable people better the next time we’re confronted by a pandemic disease.

More than anything, a full, accurate accounting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing facilities will help Michiganders demand accountability from our state’s decision-making class.

And maybe that’s why those public health policymakers appear utterly uninterested in plugging the hole in their data. Maybe they simply want to avoid the kind of scrutiny that would accompany the discovery of hundreds or thousands of uncounted nursing home deaths.

Regardless of why, it’s clear MDHHS officials have spent the past year setting sweeping public health policies based on information they know is incomplete. Now, they have a responsibility to provide the public they serve with a clear and complete accounting of the pandemic’s toll on our state.

Complete data doesn’t lie, but incomplete data is a lie.


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