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Not counting nursing home deaths unacceptable

Numbers matter, especially when policymakers’ decisions have life or death consequences.

That’s precisely why we waited in anticipation of the release of a Michigan Auditor General’s report that determined state public health officials undercounted the number of people who died in nursing homes during the first year of the pandemic.

That report, months in the making, determined state public health officials didn’t include 2,386 COVID-19 deaths in the state’s fleet of smaller long-term care facilities in their ongoing assessment of the virus’ impact.

We’re frustrated the report followed more than half a year after a Record-Eagle reporter – through an enormous amount of public records footwork – pinpointed the data deficiency. It’s frustrating because our reporting alerted officials at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to a blind spot in their numbers, a void that likely veiled both deaths and illnesses from public accountings of the pandemic’s human toll in our state.

It’s frustrating because outsiders like us noticed the gap, raised alarm, and the people overseeing the count took no discernible action to fix the flaw or collect the information.

Instead they claimed local health departments were tracking those small care operations. We checked, they weren’t.

By the spring of 2021, when Reporter Mardi Link pinpointed the problem, most of us (journalists especially) had become pretty skeptical of much of the data our governments collected and distributed.

Not because of anything particularly nefarious, but because those who spent much time asking questions about the numbers knew both state and national public health information collection processes had some gaping blind spots.

At that time, we already knew the first year of the pandemic had exacted a brutal toll on medically vulnerable Michiganders who live in long-term care facilities.

Throughout the first nine months of the pandemic, between 30 and 50 percent of weekly reported deaths occurred at nursing facilities.

But they weren’t just uncounted, they were largely ignored.

It seemed like common sense – to us at least – that state numbers should include all nursing homes, not just the big ones. That excluding homes licensed for fewer than 13 beds would overlook thousands of potential illnesses and deaths from COVID-19, creating a substantial oversight gap that would disproportionately cast a data blind spot over rural areas.

Unfortunately, a preemptive letter sent from the director of MDHHS to the state auditor on the eve of the report’s release shows the agency’s attitude toward collecting accurate information on COVID in those small facilities hasn’t changed.

No, instead of collecting and disseminating its own data, MDHHS appears more interested proffering reasons it shouldn’t heed the auditor’s findings. They’re offerings that seem fixated on justifying an incomplete count, instead of seeking trustworthy numbers. Responses that lead us to wonder why MDHHS wouldn’t do the work of fixing its information deficiency itself after we pointed it out?

Such resistance seems both arbitrary and capricious at a moment when we face a fast-spreading new strain of the virus and even fully vaccinated nursing home residents once again face substantial risk if they’re exposed and infected.

Michiganders deserve trustworthy data that provides a complete picture of the pandemic’s impact on our most vulnerable.

Likewise, we simply shouldn’t accept life or death decisions informed by untrustworthy or incomplete numbers.

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