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Half of workplace deaths investigated in Michigan linked to COVID-19

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

More than half of the 37 workplace-related deaths investigated by Michigan's regulators so far this year are linked to COVID-19.

Among the 19 individuals whose deaths are being investigated are an Ann Arbor bus driver and custodian, Lapeer and Adrian corrections officer, a Flint supply chain clerk, a Sturgis laborer as well as health care workers in Detroit, Battle Creek, Flint, Dearborn, Saginaw and Ann Arbor, according to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Six COVID-19 fatalities have been closed with no citations issued, according to state regulators. 

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It's not clear whether those six deaths are part of the 19 listed as occurring between March and July, according to state regulators. The state has not clarified.

The deaths were reported to the state agency by employers or discovered by the agency from media reports as potentially work-related, said Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Camara Lewis. 

Ten of the COVID-19 fatalities being investigated occurred among health care workers.

Workplaces found to be responsible for the deaths would be held responsible under the agency's general duty clause, even if liability protections were in place at the time of infection under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's state of emergency. 

The general duty clause "requires all places of employment to furnish to each employee, employment and a place of employment that is free from recognized hazards that are causing, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to the employee," Lewis said. 

The same clause has been used to cite 35 businesses for violations for failing to provide adequate protections against COVID-19, slamming the businesses with fines that totaled $33,400 in August, $51,400 in September and $30,900 in October.

Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley and others have questioned the validity of the citations, arguing the general duty violations were based on non-compliance with Whitmer's executive orders, which were overturned Oct. 2 by the Michigan Supreme Court. 

The court split 4-3 in a ruling that found that a separate law Whitmer was using to issue executive orders, the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, was unconstitutional because it was an unlawful delegation of legislative powers.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association said it could not comment on any ongoing investigations undertaken by state regulators. 

"In general, COVID-19 created an unprecedented challenge for healthcare facilities to a degree few people could have predicted," hospital association spokesman John Karasinski said. "At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, testing was very limited, infectious disease prevention guidance was fluid and personal protective equipment (PPE) inventories were stressed due to a failure of the global PPE supply chain.

It is not clear whether the liability protection legislation Whitmer signed this week will have any effect on the cases MIOSHA is investigating. The agency did not answer questions regarding whether they would apply.

The liability legislation would shield businesses from some legal claims over COVID-19 exposure if they were following federal, state and local regulations to prevent exposure among clients and staff. A separate bill would protect health care providers or facilities from liability for injury or death if they were providing services in support of the pandemic response from March 29 through July 14. 

The state is investigating the following 19 deaths in which names aren't released for privacy reasons:

  • A 64-year-old woman responsible for checking patients in and out of an Ann Arbor health care facility left work with COVID-19 symptoms March 19. She died March 29 due to COVID-19. 
  • A 51-year-old Ann Arbor bus driver experienced virus symptoms while transporting passengers March 16. He called in sick the next day, was admitted to the hospital March 22 and died March 28, the same day he tested positive for COVID-19. 
  • A 77-year-old Ann Arbor custodian was asymptomatic when he finished his last day of work March 16. He tested positive for the virus March 27, was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator that day and died May 3. 
  • A 54-year-old Lapeer corrections program coordinator left work May 26 with COVID-19 symptoms and the department learned she had passed June 5. 
  • A 55-year-old Adrian corrections officers told his employer he wasn't feeling well May 1, tested positive May 4 and was later hospitalized. The man's employer told MIOSHA on July 3 that the man had died. 
  • A 54-year-old Dearborn nurse quarantined at home after developing symptoms and testing positive for the virus. When the hospital performed a wellness check April 1, they found the woman dead on her couch. 
  • The spouse of a 52-year-old Flint ICU nurse told her employer March 23 that the woman had had a cough and fever for a day. The woman was told to stay home and was later admitted to a hospital. She died April 4 from complications related to COVID-19.
  • A 64-year-old supply chain clerk called his employer March 30 to report he'd had COVID-19 symptoms since March 27. The man was admitted to the hospital and died April 10 due to the virus. 
  • A 35-year-old patient care associate who worked with COVID-19 patients at a Detroit health care facility developed COVID-19 symptoms in early April. She was admitted to the hospital and died April 12. 
  • A 49-year-old surgical technician at two Detroit hospitals developed COVID-19  symptoms April 9 and was admitted to the hospital. She died April 12. 
  • A 69-year-old hemo dialysis technician who worked with a COVID-19 patient in Detroit developed COVID-19 symptoms April 2 and tested positive April 3. He died April 13 after being treated at home. 
  • A 63-year-old patient care associated developed symptoms associated with the virus April 9 after caring for a patient with COVID-19 in Detroit. She was hospitalized April 13 and died April 18. 
  • A 48-year-old environmental services associate working in the emergency department of a Battle Creek hospital tested positive for the virus April 14 and was admitted to the hospital. The employee died April 30.
  • A 44-year-old clinical social worker who worked with COVID-19 patients in Detroit was hospitalized March 23. He died May 3. 
  • A 47-year-old Detroit credentialing specialist who shared an office with two others who tested positive for the virus became sick April 2. She was later hospitalized and diagnosed with the virus. She died May 6. 
  • A 67-year-old farm laborer was one of three Sturgis employees who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive. He was admitted to the hospital May 13 and died  May 19. 
  • A 57-year-old certified nursing assistant was hospitalized and tested positive for the virus March 24 after working with nursing home residents in Detroit. She died April 6. 
  • A 65-year-old certified nursing assistant went to the hospital after a seizure March 22. She tested positive and died April 10. She had worked with residents in a Detroit facility.
  • A 57-year-old registered respiratory therapist worked with a suspected COVID-19 patient in Saginaw April 12 and developed symptoms April 14.  She tested positive April 15, went to the hospital April 16 and was placed on a ventilator April 23. Her employers was alerted to her death June 4. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com