LANSING — Michigan’s health director on Thursday ordered nursing homes to offer on-site booster shots to residents who are not up to date on the COVID-19 vaccine in a state that lags behind others in vaccinating people in long-term care facilities.
The facilities must comply within 30 days.
Nearly 75% of eligible nursing home residents have received a booster dose. Gov. Gretchen 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 number of vaccinated health care employees in nursing homes soon could rise because of a federal mandate — upheld by the Supreme Court — requiring vaccinations for most U.S. health care workers.
The deadlines for the first and second shots are Jan. 27 and Feb. 28.
Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said vaccinations are even more important because the rapidly spreading omicron variant can more readily evade people’s immunity from vaccines and past infections.
“We want to make sure our most vulnerable Michiganders are protected from the virus,” she said.
The order does not require nursing home residents to be vaccinated.
It came the same day that Republican-led legislative committees held a joint hearing to review state auditors’ recent report that 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 criticizing the Democratic governor’s orders, which her administration said were not enforced, requiring nursing homes to admit or readmit recovering coronavirus patients early in the pandemic. Democrats accused Republicans of making partisan attacks.
Hertel, as she did previously, disputed the accuracy of the review — saying she has faith 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.
Hertel questioned auditors’ use of a disease surveillance system to tally deaths, saying addresses are unreliable.
“We need … further information on most of these cases in order to verify the contention that the auditor general is making with their numbers,” she said.
But auditors defended their work and agreed when legislators asked if they could share verifying information with the health department. They said they corroborated addresses by also cross-checking them against Medicaid enrollment and payment systems confirming people who died lived in the facilities.
“It did link to a long-term care facility,” said Auditor General Doug Ringler, whose review noted some limitations with the data analysis.
Auditors did not say the health department underreported deaths, he said, because his office’s review also included thousands of smaller adult foster-care facilities and homes for the aged that were not required to report to the state. That added 923 deaths. The facility type for another 128 deaths was undetermined because the facilities share the same name or address.
As of July, auditors identified 8,061 total long-term care deaths since the start of the pandemic.