Michigan auditors report 2,400 more long-term care deaths

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LANSING — Michigan auditors found nearly 2,400 additional COVID-19 deaths linked to long-term care facilities over an 18-month period, at places that report coronavirus deaths to the state and homes that do not.

The figure was disclosed in a review obtained by The Associated Press on Friday before its public release by the auditor general Monday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has disputed the methodology and conclusions in the report.

Auditors reported 8,061 confirmed or positive COVID deaths tied to nursing homes, homes for the aged and adult foster-care facilities as of early July. The difference between that number and what the state health department reported — 5,675 — is nearly 30%.

The auditor general, at the request of a Republican lawmaker, included in its review thousands of smaller adult foster-care facilities and also homes for the aged that do not have to report coronavirus deaths to the state health department — adding 923 deaths.

The office tallied an additional 1,335 deaths linked to facilities that are required to report. The facility type for another 128 deaths was undetermined because the facilities share the same name or address.

State Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel wrote a letter to Auditor General Doug Ringler this week raising “serious concerns.” Her objections include the comparison of self-reported data from facilities to death certificate data from a disease surveillance system that she said is not designed for death investigations and the addition of deaths from facilities that do not have to report.

She cited inaccurate addresses associated with cases, trouble matching addresses, and how a nursing home may share an address with a hospice or assisted living facility.

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said the review confirmed Michigan “accurately reported the numbers provided by nursing homes and long-term care facilities.”

In a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Steve Johnson, Ringler said the health department disagreed with 1,511 deaths in the tally because it questioned the reliability of the address field in the disease reporting system. He said it is reliable, and auditors corroborated at least 85% of the 1,511 addresses using other information.

GOP legislators have criticized the Democratic governor for allowing hospitalized virus patients no longer needing acute care, but still in quarantine, to return to designated units in nursing homes as some hospitals faced surging cases early in the pandemic.

Whitmer said the policy complied with federal guidance, though critics have questioned if it contributed to the virus spreading to vulnerable people. State health officials and the long-term care industry have said outside community spread, including from infected workers, is the strongest predictor of cases inside the facilities.

A year ago in New York, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration was forced to acknowledge a major undercount of nursing home residents who died because it tallied just those who died on facility grounds, not later in the hospital. Michigan includes both in its count.

Long-term care facilities have reported the deaths of 6,216 infected residents and 93 staff members during the pandemic. They account for 22% of Michigan’s more than 28,400 confirmed deaths.

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