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Macomb prosecutor Lucido wants panel to review nursing home COVID-19 deaths

Mount Clemens — Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido called Thursday for the county medical examiner's office to create a committee for reviewing nursing home deaths related to COVID-19 and announced an online form for families to file with law enforcement to investigate fatalities. 

Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido

Lucido said the medical examiner's office already has a team to review child fatalities and that his office has received requests via phone, email and in person from "hundreds of people" who wanted deaths of family members investigated.

The new prosecutor also said two formal complaints were filed with police this week, one in Shelby Township and one in Warren; the Warren complaint concerns the April 2020 death of a woman who had been transferred from a nursing home to a hospital.

 Shelby Township deputy police chief Mark Coil, who was at the news conference, declined to answer questions about their complaint. Warren police Commissioner William Dwyer confirmed his office had received that complaint and forwarded it to Lucido's office.

Anthony Messina, 55, of Mount Clemens, said he filed the report on the April 2020 death of his sister, Mary Angela Messina, with Warren police on Tuesday. She was 68 years old and her death certificate lists her cause of death as COVID-19 pneumonia.

"I have been struggling with why she died for a year," Messina said. "Someone told me what the prosecutor was proposing and figured this might be my chance to get some answers."

"She went into a care facility in 2014 after having a stroke," he said. "They were trying to rehabilitate her and it became her home. I thought her health was pretty good until she had to go into the hospital a couple times for urinary infections.

Mary Angela Messina

"Two month after she was discharged from the hospital and sent back to the care facility, she had to be hospitalized again," he said. "She had a high temperature and was having trouble breathing. The hospital said she seemed to be responding and didn't see any reason for her to be on a ventilator.

"Three days later, she was dead."

Messina believes "someone needs to be held accountable."

"I think it goes back to Governor (Gretchen) Whitmer and her permitting people to be sent back to situations where there may have been exposed to the virus," he said. "That's not right. They should have been put in a neutral area."

Messina said he does not know if there were COVID-19 cases at either facility. He doesn't recall either having adopted safety protocols or requiring visitors to have their temperatures checked or to wear masks.

"All I know is the only time I heard she tested positive for it was a few days before her death."

Lucido said he feels he "has an obligation to review any complaints for possible prosecution."

"We want to help people resolve questions they may have and help provide closure for some of them," he said. The online form for reporting concerns is available on the prosecutor's website.

Lucido, a Republican who has been critical of Whitmer's handling of COVID-19-related issues, denied political motivations for his action.

"I'm not going after anyone," he said. "I'm simply trying to find out whatever we can about these deaths."

The initiative by Lucido, who was elected in November, comes amid controversy over the Democratic Whitmer administration's policy regarding the handling of nursing home residents with COVID-19.

The policy required a nursing home with a census below 80% to create a unit dedicated to COVID-19 patients, with adequate personal protection equipment for staff. If a long-term care facility had above 80% census, stable COVID-19 affected residents were supposed to be sent, based on available bed space, first to a regional hub, then to a hospital or lastly to an alternate care facility, such as the TCF Center.

Any long-term care facility with a dedicated unit and appropriate PPE had to admit non-acute COVID patients released from a hospital as if they were a normal resident.

Alternate care facilities such as the TCF Center were not used during the pandemic because health officials said they didn’t have the proper staffing or setup to take long-term care facility patients. Stable COVID-19 patients were steered away from hospitals because of capacity concerns.

Critics of the policy raised concerns that the plan would quicken the spread of the virus within vulnerable populations as many nursing homes didn’t have the PPE or staffing necessary to fully isolate COVID-positive patients but would feel an obligation under the policy to accept patients anyway.

As early as March 13, 2020, the Health Care Association of Michigan recommended to Whitmer that empty facilities should be used as quarantine centers to “avoid widespread infection.”

While in the Senate, Lucido was a vocal opponent of the governor’s nursing home policy and, in May, asked Attorney General Dana Nessel and then-U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider to investigate the policy.

Schneider responded in May that he would have staff review Lucido’s concerns. An assistant attorney general within Nessel’s office said he did not believe Lucido’s concerns provided “a proper basis to open a criminal investigation.”

Nessel’s office on Tuesday said it was reviewing a request to investigate the nursing home policies and data collection from Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake.

Lucido in June introduced a bill that would prohibit nursing homes from caring for people who test positive unless the individuals had recovered or the facilities had demonstrated they can provide the necessary care.

The bill was vetoed by the governor, who argued the legislation was based on "the false premise that isolation units created within existing facilities are somehow insufficient to protect seniors."

She signed a similar law in October, shortly after adjusting state policy to prohibit nursing homes from caring for COVID patients unless they had appropriate personal protective equipment, space and staffing. Absent those requirements, the stable COVID patients must be discharged to COVID-only units or buildings established under new government standards and called “care and recovery centers.”

Whitmer’s policies on nursing homes were a swift response to the developing situation in Michigan and carefully tracked federal guidance on the matter, said Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for the governor. The governor’s administration also prioritized testing and vaccines for nursing home residents and staff, Leddy said.

“Both the former head of AARP, as well as an independent UM study, praised our work to save lives in nursing homes,” Leddy said in a statement. “Mr. Lucido’s comments are shameful political attacks based in neither fact nor reality.”

The Michigan Democratic Party slammed Lucido’s “partisan games,” noting he missed a December vote on COVID relief funding, some of which would help nursing home populations, and voted against a separate amendment in June that would have given more money to skilled nursing facilities.

“Lucido’s recent attacks against the governor are nothing more than pathetic, hypocritical smears from a partisan politician who even his own party investigated and punished for his pattern of deeply inappropriate sexual harassment,” said party chairwoman Lavora Barnes.

The Service Employees International Union Healthcare Michigan also put out a statement Thursday calling on Lucido to stop abusing his office.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the dedicated members of SEIU Healthcare Michigan have been on the frontlines working to protect seniors and our most vulnerable in nursing home facilities across Michigan, and we have seen firsthand how Governor Whitmer’s policies have saved lives,” union president Andrea Acevedo said in a statement.