LeDuff: Report on Undercount of Elderly Covid Deaths in Michigan Spells Political Trouble for Whitmer

January 13, 2022, 10:50 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

Health Director Elizabeth Hertel

A soon-to-be released Auditor General report will reveal that the Covid death count in Michigan's long-term-care facilities is 42 percent higher than the state is reporting. That puts the Whitmer administration on par with the scandal-plagued Cuomo administration.

To get ahead of what is sure to be a huge political controversy, Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) took the unusual step of briefing a group of hand-picked reporters this week to dispute a report that hasn't even been released.

In the latest absurdity in these absurd times, health officials quoted from their response letter to the state auditor general draft report to these reporters, as if it were a freshly unearthed bone of exculpatory evidence that would acquit them of charges of incompetence or worse.

What it really is is a pathetic attempt at misdirection by an incompetent and ethically bankrupt administration too arrogant to admit it failed its fundamental task of protecting those most vulnerable to Covid.

Much remains uncertain, given the report won’t be released until Monday. That hasn’t stopped state Health Director Elizabeth Hertel from attempting to lessen its impact, which by all accounts, will be damning.

Welcome to Cuomoville

Hertel has challenged the abilities of state Auditor General Doug Ringler, telling anyone who doesn’t know any better that many of the deaths in his report do not fit the “legal definitions” used by her department or the CDC.

But even with these lame attempts to deflect criticism, the Health Department has been forced to admit that at least three of every 10 Covid deaths at long-term-care facilities were never properly counted. If true, this would amount to a 42-percent increase in the number of deaths over what MDHHS is claiming. Welcome to Cuomoville.

Director Hertel argues that she did not require smaller facilities to report deaths to the state government. That statement alone shows the scope of the Department’s failure. It begs the question: Why did MDHHS choose not to track these facilities that are licensed by the state? Aren't their residents as elderly and vulnerable as the others?

When the Whitmer administration issued her executive orders requiring the admission of Covid patients to nursing homes, she continually cited to science and data as justifying her decisions. Failing to track deaths at facilities housing our woefully vulnerable elderly simply because they were not legally required to report hardly suggests the most scientific or data driven approach.

Concern about impact

Worse, Hertel's statement tacitly admits that half of the facilities that MDHHS did track undercounted deaths. Which would mean that even in these facilities MDHHS was doing a terrible job.

The director’s letter to the auditor general has been quoted as stating: “I fear that your letter will be misinterpreted to question the work and integrity of long-term care facilities local health departments, coroners and other frontline workers who we rely on to report data.”

Those fears are well-founded, but not because the auditor general applied capricious and flawed methodology. Rather, it’s because the auditor general discovered that MDHHS wasn’t keeping an accurate count. And whether that amounts to a lack of integrity by reporting facilities, or an incompetent tracking program, the numbers don’t lie.

What’s particularly galling is the fact that MDHHS knew that they were missing information. Back in June, a joint investigation by the Mackinac Center, a conservative research institute, and the "No BS Newshour" found that MDHHS had conducted a limited review of vital records, and found that 44 percent of them could be tied to long-term-care facilities. Keep in mind, this review happened before the state even started reported death rates in adult foster care and homes for the aged. It chose not to perform that review regularly because it was too “time-consuming,” the department claimed.

Director Hertel can’t claim ignorance, either. In fact, she testified at the same hearing my lawyer did, and heard our findings presented directly to Representative Steve Johnson of the House Oversight Committee. And what did she say? She argued that smaller facilities, those licensed to house less than 13 residents, couldn’t be tracked due to “privacy concerns”.

Beyond legal nuances . . .

What are her excuses now? Deflection by definition. Flaccid arguments about reporting requirements. But while she argues the finer points of legal nuances, she ignores the question that people actually care about.

How many of our institutionalized elderly died?

That’s what the average person cares about. That’s what the auditor general was asked to find out. Given the panicked hand-wringing over the past day or so, it appears that’s what the auditor found.

And it all adds up to a mountain of trouble for Whitmer.

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