Auditors' letter on Michigan COVID deaths missed key detail, state says

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan auditors say they've flagged 822 additional COVID-19 deaths that weren't included in the tally tracked by the Department of Health and Human Services, but the agency says about 45% of them actually occurred outside the state.

The back and forth is the latest development in Republican lawmakers' months-long push to investigate Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's policies for combating the pandemic in nursing homes.

In July, the Auditor General's office announced it would review the accuracy of Michigan's data on COVID-related deaths at long-term care facilities. As part of the probe, an Oct. 13 letter surfaced last week from Auditor General Doug Ringler to House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland.

Ringler said his office had found 822 additional COVID-19 deaths statewide through July 3 — it's unclear how many, if any, were tied to nursing homes. The flagged deaths amounted to 4% of the total COVID-19 deaths over the period.

"The people of Michigan deserve to know the true cost of Gov. Whitmer’s disastrous policy of placing COVID-positive patients into nursing homes," Johnson said in a statement about the letter. "The Oversight Committee is intent on getting accurate data from an unbiased non-partisan source such as the Auditor General."

But health department spokesman Bob Wheaton said Ringler's letter didn't mention an "important fact" that 367 of the 822 additional deaths were Michigan residents who died outside the state. Death certificates for Michigan residents who die elsewhere are eventually reported by the state of occurrence, but the quality and timing of that information varies, Wheaton said.

"MDHHS continuously works to improve its processes in a rapidly changing environment to count every single Michigan death from COVID-19," he said. "MDHHS welcomes any recommendations that help to improve ongoing analysis of its data."

Ringler's letter said the 822-death difference in tracking was because of misspellings, timing differences in when the deaths were tallied and process changes.

The Auditor General's office had done its own analysis of death certificate data to determine its COVID-19 death tally, according to the letter.

Republican lawmakers have been pressing for more information about the Whitmer administration's handling of nursing homes for months. The data could be key in the ongoing debate over whether her emergency policies were successful in comparison with other states.

In June, Michigan health Director Elizabeth Hertel told lawmakers she believes the state's tracking of COVID-19 deaths linked to nursing homes was accurate.

As of Friday, the state had reported 21,862 COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. About 27% of them have been long-term care facility residents or staff, according to the health department.

The Auditor General’s final report on deaths in nursing homes is expected to be completed by late November or early December, Johnson said last week.