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Auditor General: It’s not fair to say COVID-19 deaths in Michigan long-term facilities were underreported

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Russ McNamara
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Legislative Republicans are accusing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services of intentionally minimizing the number of COVID-19 deaths in Michigan’s long-term care facilities.

There’s no evidence that’s true — and there’s no indication in an Auditor General’s report that a Whitmer executive order to have some nursing homes take in COVID-positive patients led to more deaths.

For the long-term care facility related deaths or linked deaths, we knew the department wasn’t tracking all of the ones that we reflected in our letter so we didn’t feel the word underreport was fair.” —Doug Ringler, Michigan Auditor General

The report released this week used a broader definition of long-term care, including adult foster care and assisted living facilities that aren’t required to report deaths to the state.

The auditors’ report found nearly 2,400 more COVID-19 deaths tied to long-term care facilities than the 5,675 reported by the state as of July, including 1,335 linked to facilities that must report such deaths. GOP lawmakers cited the figures while again questioning the Democratic governor’s orders, which her administration has said were not enforced, requiring nursing homes to admit or readmit recovering coronavirus patients early in the pandemic.

Speaking before a joint House and Senate Oversight committee hearing Thursday, Auditor General Doug Ringler says his office knew there would be a discrepancy in deaths because the state and his office use different methodology.

“For the long-term care facility related deaths or linked deaths, we knew the department wasn’t tracking all of the ones that we reflected in our letter so we didn’t feel the word underreport was fair,” Ringler says.

The Auditor General’s report did attribute more deaths to long-term care facilities using a broader definition but the total number of people as reported by the state — who died from COVID-19 — did not change.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel disputes claims by Republicans that the department had something to hide.

“The suggestion that a facility or the department intentionally misrepresented or miscounted numbers when the differences between the standards that we follow and the definitions that the OAG use in the report are clear when the other limitations I described today are clear is deeply disappointing,” Hertel says.

Hertel says she has faith that facilities accurately self-report deaths to the state because they could lose their license otherwise.

“Without somebody coming down and doing a standardized audit of facilities, I’m concerned that the numbers that you’re depending on can’t be depended on by us,” said Sen. Ed McBroom, a Vulcan Republican who chairs the Senate Oversight Committee.

Nursing homes ordered to offer on-site booster shots

Also on Thursday, Hertel ordered nursing homes to offer on-site booster shots to residents who are not up to date on the COVID-19 vaccine. The facilities must comply within 30 days.

Nearly 75% of eligible nursing home residents have gotten a booster dose. Whitmer in December set a goal of getting 95% of eligible nursing home residents a booster by the end of January.

The average percentages of fully vaccinated residents and staff among reporting Michigan nursing homes are about 85% and 70% — the 13th- and fifth-lowest averages in the U.S., according to the federal government.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.