Weeks into pandemic, key Michigan hospital data proved elusive

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A U.S. congressman says it was "a mess" until recently. The governor described it as a "challenge." And the chief executive of Michigan's largest hospital system said it could lead to "avoidable risks for patients."

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic that's infected more than 20,000 people in Michigan, the state's limited data tracking on what's happening inside all of Michigan's hospitals has been criticized by high-ranking federal and local hospital officials.

Michigan is publicly tracking the availability of personal protective equipment and hospital beds across the state. But some hospitals haven't been providing data in a timely fashion.

They argue the state needs more timely information on available hospital beds, health care supplies and testing for COVID-19 to understand and handle the surge in patients. Although Michigan's monitoring data has improved in recent days, the critiques come nearly a month after the state confirmed its first two cases of the virus.

In a Tuesday interview with WILS-AM, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Michigan's decentralized health care system, which is dominated by local providers, makes timely tracking of statewide numbers a "challenge."

But she touted the work Michigan has done with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get supplies sent to the state.

"FEMA has said Michigan is one of the best states to work with because we have our act together, because we're more organized, because we know what we need and where our assets lie," Whitmer said. "There's two sides of the story here."

But U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden, said the shortage of specific information about what's happening in Michigan has been "unfortunate and damaging." The state "failed" until recently to establish a system to accurately report what's occurring inside hospitals, such as the number of specific supplies on hand, he said.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township

"I need hard data on where things are at and projections," said Mitchell, so he can help lobby federal officials for Michigan's needed supplies and equipment.

The congressman cited a phone call that took place Saturday featuring Michigan's hospital leaders, the state's two U.S. senators and members of President Donald Trump's administration who have a say in distributing health care supplies.

While Mitchell wasn't on the call, he said he received a summary of what happened. Mitchell said things "got tense" and an admiral relayed that he didn’t have "data that he needed" from Michigan. 

Federal officials needed more specific information on personal protective equipment, ventilators and testing supplies in Michigan instead of state officials "simply asking for more," the congressman said.

Others on the Saturday call didn't agree with the assessment that things got tense. But Mitchell said the state has been providing better data to the federal government in recent days.

Asked about Mitchell's comments, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the state is working closely with hospitals and others "to continuously reassess and communicate outstanding needs to the federal administration."

"We appreciate the congressman's attention to this issue and are committed to working with everyone to get what we need to keep patients and providers safe and healthy," Brown said.

'Absence of adequate data'

A day after the Saturday phone call, John Fox, CEO of Beaumont Health, the state's largest hospital system, publicly pushed for more accurate reporting of how many COVID-19 patients are in each hospital in the state and how many patients are awaiting test results.

"We also remain concerned that the absence of adequate data and a state-enabled patient load-balancing system could result in additional and avoidable risks for patients," Fox said.

Beaumont Hospital from the 13 Mile Road entrance.

Mitchell said the problems are "deeper" than Fox's comments, describing the situation as a "mess" until recently.

The state tried to get a handle on the situation more than two weeks ago. Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, issued an order March 23 seeking regular information from hospitals on bed capacity, the number of ventilators available, staffing shortages and personal protective equipment inventories.

As of Wednesday, Michigan's public tracking of bed capacity by health care region had an 89% response rate, according to the state's website. The tracking of personal protective equipment included complete information from 77% of providers, according to the website.

The site doesn't list which hospitals aren't releasing full information because the numbers are broken down by region instead of specific facility.

Asked Tuesday about the lack of full information, Whitmer told reporters that they'll be seeing "a lot more information being reported." For some health care providers, it's been a "struggle" to comply with the reporting requirements, the governor said.

"I think you'll see greater compliance," Whitmer added.

While there were data challenges and delays early in the process for some hospitals, those appear to have been largely resolved, said Bob Riney, chief operating officer of the Detroit-based, five-hospital Henry Ford Health System.

“I don’t believe it was intentional,” Riney said in a call with reporters Monday. “It was just the awkwardness of getting it in the right format.”

The availability and timeliness of that data will become increasingly important should patient numbers continue to rise and the health system is forced to transfer patients, Riney said. Henry Ford Health already has transferred some patients to other hospitals at times of capacity, he said. 

The numbers statewide will also be valuable in identifying regions with low caseloads where health care workers might be willing to travel to Detroit to volunteer, Riney said.  

“Keeping that patient as close to home is certainly preferable,” he said.

Calls 'clear up confusion'

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, has been in regular contact with FEMA officials, including a call between Whitmer and FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor, a Peters aide said. Recent calls helped "to clear up some confusion and helped direct much-needed equipment shipments to Michigan," the aide added.

During the Tuesday White House briefing, Vice President Mike Pence said the federal government had distributed 1.6 million N95 masks, 19,361 face shields, 695,082 surgical masks and 24.9 million gloves to Metro Detroit in the past five days.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, has been "working nonstop to make sure Michigan hospitals and health care providers have the resources they need to take care of families," said Robyn Bryan, a Stabenow spokeswoman.

Phone calls both on Friday and Saturday "were part of that effort to light a fire under the administration to make sure our hospitals get what they need," Bryan added.

The Saturday call was "one of many discussions hospitals have had over the past few weeks with our elected officials to simply communicate needs from the front lines," said Ruthanne Sudderth, spokeswoman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

"Hospitals have been asked to report data to multiple entities at the state and federal levels and are making every effort to provide comprehensive, timely information to decision-makers while at the same time trying to save thousands of lives and protect their staff."