Michigan Senate: Move COVID-19 patients out of nursing homes

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would steer elderly individuals with COVID-19 away from nursing homes in a direct challenge to a plan implemented by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration.

In a  24-13 vote, the Republican-controlled Senate approved prohibiting nursing homes from caring for people who test positive for COVID-19 unless the individuals have recovered or the facilities have demonstrated they can properly provide the "necessary" care. The change, which would require the Democratic governor's signature to become law, would take effect Sept. 15.

Whitmer's administration has focused its plan for serving older Michiganians with the virus on isolated areas of nursing homes or regional hubs — 21 nursing homes that are supposed to have the equipment and capacity to care for those with COVID-19 in separate areas from residents without the virus.

The hubs can receive stable COVID-19 patients being discharged from hospitals and residents from other facilities.

But critics of the policy, including Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, fear the plan, which was implemented in April, could spur the spread of COVID-19 within vulnerable populations.

Lucido, who sponsored the nursing home bill voted on Wednesday, said Whitmer's policy had "disastrous" results. During a speech on the Senate floor, he referenced the administration paying regional hubs $5,000 per bed in the program and $200 per day for occupied beds.

"They incentivized bringing COVID patients into nursing homes," Lucido said. "They sweetened the deal."

Members of the Whitmer administration have said they are doing everything in their power to protect residents of nursing homes. Separate facilities, like a field hospital or a vacant nursing home, couldn't be used because of staffing, licensing and equipment problems, they say. The nursing home residents with COVID-19 weren't directed to hospitals because of concerns for dwindling hospital capacity.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, opposed Lucido's bill. He argued that it would force nursing homes to transfer residents "the moment someone tests positive" without input from families or doctors.

"I cannot vote for a bill that violates an individual’s basic civil rights," Hertel said.

Whitmer's nursing home policy has been a lightning rod. As of June 15, the state had tracked 1,947 COVID-19 deaths among patients in nursing facilities and 20 deaths among staff. Those deaths equaled about 34% of the state's total coronavirus death toll at that point.

In a March 13 email, made public through the Freedom of Information Act, Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, suggested the Whitmer administration use empty facilities as quarantine centers to "avoid widespread infection."

The administration didn't follow the suggestion because of the time necessary to establish appropriate licensing and staffing contracts and to ensure proper equipment availability within such facilities, said Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

James Griffin, 81, who passed away in May after contracting COVID-19 after a stay in a Michigan nursing home.

But Bill Griffin of Grand Blanc believes the state should have figured out a way to use separate facilities, like the now-closed field hospital at TCF Center in downtown Detroit, to try to keep individuals with COVID-19 out of nursing homes.

Griffin's brother, James Griffin of Saginaw, who was 81, was sent to a nursing home in March after having health problems. James Griffin's condition eventually deteriorated and on April 5 he ended up at a hospital, where doctors said he had contracted COVID-19 at the nursing home.

James Griffin, whom his brother described as a great guy and an engineer who could figure out anything, died on May 6. He spent time on a ventilator and battled the virus for weeks.

Sending individuals with COVID-19 to nursing homes is a "death sentence," said Bill Griffin, who wrote Whitmer a letter asking her to establish separate facilities to serve elderly individuals with the virus in case of a second wave.

"The evidence was there from the very beginning that nursing homes were the site where we were going to have the most deaths," Bill Griffin said this week.

State Sen Peter Lucido, R-36th District,  is sworn in.

Under Lucido's bills, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would have to study the outcomes and performance of the regional hubs and provide reports to the Michigan Legislature.

And by Aug. 15, the department would also develop a plan to ensure there are "dedicated facilities available for use for only coronavirus-positive patients" across the state.

Only two of the 16 Democratic senators voted for Lucido's proposal, which goes to the GOP-controlled House for further consideration. Whitmer would have to sign the proposal for it to become law.

Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, was among the no votes. Bayer said her mother, who has dementia, tested positive for COVID-19 and was transferred out of her residence in a senior complex. The situation made her mother's condition worse, Bayer said.

"We don't have to do it this way," Bayer said. "I do agree that we need to fix some things. Why don't we take the time to do it correctly? We don't have to hurt the people who are there."

Whitmer's administration issued an executive order last week that requires COVID-19 testing for all nursing home residents and staff.