Duggan rips Michigan's reporting system for COVID-19 deaths

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan on Wednesday called the state's reporting system for COVID-19 deaths unreliable as the city logged another 45 fatalities from the virus, about a dozen of which are reflective of "older cases that we finally caught up on."

The mayor, during a Wednesday afternoon news briefing, said delayed reporting is among the factors that resulted in a higher death count for Detroit over the last two days compared with what it saw daily over the weekend. 

"This whole reporting system in this state is just not reliable," he said. "Saturdays and Sundays stuff doesn't get reported, it tends to come in later. Part of it is that we are seeing folks that have been on ventilators for two or three weeks who are having bad outcomes.

"The two of those things together is causing the uptick we've seen in the last couple days."

As of Wednesday, 469 people in Detroit — including eight city employees — have died of the virus. There have been 7,141 confirmed cases in the city since the first was reported here about a month ago. 

Cortney Jackson, a supervising boiler inspector for Detroit and a 24-year employee of the city died Tuesday due to COVID-19

Among the newest victims of the disease was Cortney Jackson, a beloved city building department supervising boiler inspector, Duggan said. Jackson, a 24-year employee, died Tuesday. He was 64. 

"He was one of the most popular people in the department," Duggan said. "Mr. Jackson was a father of three, was somebody you could count on all the time and was well-known among his coworkers at the annual picnic in showing off his chess prowess, where he would take on all comers. Our hearts go out to Mr. Jackson and his family."

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a Wednesday email to The Detroit News that the office has noted reported case counts might reflect a reduction in the amount of laboratory testing performed over the weekend. 

State officials in a Sunday news release stressed they could not say whether a decline in the number of reported cases and deaths on Sunday over what was reported Saturday represented a "true decline." Those changes, it said, could reflect a reduction in lab testing during that period. 

Although data to compare is limited, Sutfin wrote, previous testing reports have shown consistent Sunday decreases in tests. 

"We are continuing to monitor Vital Records death data for any indication of COVID-19 infections being a contributing factor to deaths," she wrote. "It involves comparing a line list of 'COVID-associated' death certificates with confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Michigan Disease Surveillance System (MDSS). The result of that comparison has identified some deaths that had not been identified or indicated by a local health department in the MDSS either because a case investigation wasn’t yet completed or because the death occurred after local health completed its case investigation."

Once cases are identified, the records and state website counts are updated. 

"As far as reliability, the data the state is able to output is dependent on accuracy and completeness of the data that is inputted into the MDSS," Sutfin said. 

Duggan said Wednesday the group of patients with the highest fatality rate are those who have been on ventilators in hospitals for a prolonged period of time.

But the number of individuals on ventilators in hospitals is down significantly, he said, and only 16 patients so far are housed at an overflow site at the TCF Center downtown, a site that's equipped to take in up to 1,000. 

"If we keep our social distancing, we're going to be out of this sooner rather than later," he said. "We're now on a rate where the deaths are doubling every 10 or 12 days. If we keep doing what we're doing, that's going to drop significantly further pretty quickly."

The mayor and his top financial officer on Wednesday reiterated details of the cuts Duggan laid out during a virtual town hall to combat a $348 million shortfall over the next 16 months from losses spurred by the pandemic. 

The deficit will be addressed with city surpluses, by laying off part-time workers and implementing pay reductions for some of the city's 8,000 employees.

The changes all go into effect on Monday. City Council must sign off on the budget changes being proposed for the next fiscal year, he said. 

Blight removal is among the city service areas that will be impacted by the reductions to curb costs. The mayor said that he and council will have to find a solution or there won't be demolitions in the city for at least a year. 

Last year, council rejected a plan from Duggan to put a $250 million bond proposal to fund demolition work before voters. The measure was designed to keep the pace of teardowns going after federally allocated dollars for the effort were drawn down.

Detroit's Chief Financial Officer Dave Massaron stressed Wednesday that the cost-saving measures shouldn't impact the city's ability to fund its long-term obligations, including payments for retiree pensions.

Mayor Mike Duggan holds a press conference on April 15, 2020.

The city's workforce changes don't apply to the Detroit Land Bank, Water and Sewerage Department and the city's public lighting and libraries as well as the city council, clerk and auditor and inspector general offices. 

Detroit was one of the first cities in the nation to get rapid testing kits and machines for COVID-19. The city has said its dedicated 50% of those tests for testing nursing home staff and residents and Detroit's homeless population.

Duggan characterized the situation in nursing homes as a "crisis," saying of 420 tests done, about 35% were positive for COVID-19. As of Tuesday, the city reported 26 nursing home-related deaths from the virus. Another 2,000 will be tested in the next week or so.

"Once the tests are complete and nursing homes are given a list of who is positive and who is negative we are going to be absolutely certain that patients are properly separated," he said.

"I'm going to start dealing with some of these nursing home directors myself if we don't see significant commitment in keeping these patients well."