Commentary: Michigan Knew its Nursing Home Covid Toll Was Wrong

January 19, 2022, 10:21 PM

By Charlie LeDuff and and Steve Delie

(Photo: DepositPhotos) 

When it's all said and done, the most important job of the state of Michigan during the Covid pandemic was to protect the institutionalized elderly and infirm. It was obvious even in the earliest days that these populations face the most risk by far.

We now know the government failed.

A long-awaited independent report by the Office of the Auditor General is in. The findings show that thousands more people died in the nursing homes and other state monitored facilities than the Whitmer Administration admits. 

In a bizarre rebuttal, Whitmer's foot soldiers have engaged in a full-scale attack on the nonpartisan auditor's statistical compilation. They call his numbers political, while they have no coherent numbers of their own.

Stranger still, health officials themselves tried to tabulate the true scale of death on three different occasions by using the same method as the auditor general. That is, by cross-checking death certificates with the addresses of all nursing homes and other long-term care homes that Whitmer and her bureaucrats claimed to be tracking.

Update: Michigan auditor general: Nursing-home
Covid deaths not deliberately underreported

The state death numbers are wrong. And officials knew they were wrong all along, according to internal emails we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. 

Still, that didn't stop Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from decreeing that infected elderly be let back into the nursing home in which they lived, potentially exposing the vulnerable to exposure and death. That didn't stop her from closing schools, prohibiting shopping for seeds and shuttering small businesses. All, obstensibly, to protect the elderly.

Figures were way off

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The numbers are staggering. Thousands of long-term care residents are dead from Covid: 8,061, through July 2, 2021, to be exact. That's 2,386 more than the state admits. Remember, these numbers represent human beings.

What it all amounts to is this: Michigan officials overplayed their hand when it came to the Covid health threat to the general public, while understating the devastation ripping through long-term care (LTC) facilities.

Even former Gov. Andrew Cuomo realized what was happening in New York's congregate care centers. He ended the practice of returning infected people back into his state's LTC homes in May 2020.

Not only did Whitmer ignore the warnings from New York, less than a week later she doubled down on the practice with her executive order 2020-84. She cited science and data as her guiding star. But her data was incomplete, at best.

Here is the smoking gun. Health officials tried to chart the true death toll in Michigan's nursing homes. One attempt came in August of 2020, shortly after Cuomo's false Covid numbers started to come to light.

On Aug. 11, the Associated Press reported that Cuomo may have been hiding the true count of nursing home deaths by fobbing them off as hospital deaths.

Three days later, a blizzard of emails were passed between Whitmer health officials and state epidemiologists asking if an update on the true nursing home death toll might be tabulated.

“This is of great interest to the Gov office,” a health department official wrote to a state epidemiologist. “May I get an eta of when this (data) could be refined?”

Those findings never were reported openly. Nor was the public ever made aware that there were problems with the data in the first place; data that was used to make society altering decisions about personal conduct and movement.

Health Director Elizabeth Hertel

It took us a year to wedge the truth from beneath the bureaucratic rock. Now state Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel tries to dodge culpability by confusing the issue with CDC guidelines, the unreliability of her department's own software and hair-splitting about who the department was responsible for tracking.

More astounding, Hertel claims the numbers reported to the public are accurate because those are the numbers that the nursing homes, adult foster care facilities and homes for the aged were reporting to them, as required by the state of Michigan.

State gave up

The problem is, according to the auditor general's report, those numbers were dreadfully low-balled and the state gave up on trying to audit their truthfulness.

Robert Gordon (Photo: Twitter)

Before Hertel, the chief of the health bureaucracy was Robert Gordon, who was fired last year by Whitmer. The political term used was: “she asked for his resignation.”

Whitmer then quietly paid Gordon $155,000 to keep his mouth shut. The political euphemism used was: “offered a severance package with a nondisclosure clause.” Whatever you call it, Gordon was paid with taxpayer money.

What's Gordon doing for work now? Incredibly, he's awaiting confirmation as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Apparently, failing to fully inform the public with accurate data during a pandemic and being shown the door does not disqualify one from becoming a high-ranking federal bureaucrat. We shall see.

For her part, Whitmer has yet to say anything about the auditor general's report. The Michigan House Oversight Committee has scheduled a hearing for Thursday morning.

The governor should emerge from the shadows, testify before the committee, tell what she knows, and promise to fix things. Whitmer should do that and she should set the record straight. The true death toll includes thousands of people more.

Deadline Detroit columnist Charlie LeDuff is a Pulitzer-winning journalist and host of "No BS Hour." Steve Delie is the director of transparency and open government at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative research and educational institute in Midland.

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