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Whitmer won't cooperate with GOP inquiry on virus in nursing homes

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has declined a request by congressional Republicans to turn over records and brief committee staffers on the state's handling of the novel coronavirus in Michigan's nursing homes. 

Whitmer indicated to Republicans on a U.S. House coronavirus committee that she wouldn't cooperate with their inquiry, saying the panel's investigatory authority does not lie with individual members and the committee's jurisdiction cannot be "stretched" to include the health and safety of a state and its residents. 

"I hope that as members of a federal body tasked with oversight of the federal executive branch during this unprecedented public health crisis you refrain from encroaching on the sovereign power of a state government to deal with state matters," Whitmer wrote in a letter dated Friday.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

The Republicans, who are in the minority, lack the power to compel testimony or documents from the Democratic governor without the rest of the committee. 

Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the panel's top Republican, on Monday blasted Whitmer for refusing to cooperate and blamed Democrats on the panel for not demanding answers. 

"We will continue to call on our Democrat colleagues to join us in getting to the bottom of this and look for other ways to obtain the information being withheld," Scalise said in a statement. "Her stonewalling will not deter us from getting the answers these families deserve.” 

Scalise last week wrote to Whitmer and four other Democratic governors about their states' handling of virus cases in nursing homes. 

Whitmer's administration has been criticized by state Republicans and at least one Democratic lawmaker over decisions to permit the housing of COVID-positive residents in the same facilities as vulnerable individuals without the virus.

Whitmer and her health advisers have stressed that no nursing home was forced to take a COVID patient that the facility didn't believe it could safely care for in isolation. 

House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana

At least 1,979 nursing home residents in Michigan had died of COVID-19 through Sunday, representing a third of confirmed virus deaths in the state. Health officials have reported 7,137 known cases of COVID-19 among nursing facility residents and 3,100 cases among staff.

An initial executive order from Whitmer in April said nursing homes with a census below 80% had to create a unit dedicated to the care of COVID-19-affected residents, and that facilities "must accept the return" of a resident who had been hospitalized if it could meet the medical needs of the resident, the order said.

The purpose at the time was to take pressure off of overwhelmed hospitals while caring for individuals in an appropriate setting.

Melissa Samuel, president of an association representing Michigan nursing homes, has said that subsequent guidance and orders from the state gave facilities "flexibility" to decide whether to take an individual with COVID-19 based on whether they had the staff, equipment and isolation space necessary to care for virus patients. 

Whitmer's administration declined an early suggestion by Samuel — who is president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan — that empty facilities be used as quarantine centers to "avoid widespread infection."

Committee Republicans, led by Scalise, wrote in their June 15 letter that Whitmer's nursing home policies likely contributed to "thousands of elderly deaths in Michigan."

The GOP lawmakers asked Whitmer to disclose the number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 positive patients returned to a nursing home or other long-term care facility since March 25.

They called on the governor to "protect those most vulnerable — the elderly — and rescind your mandate on nursing homes," though Whitmer's initial order was rescinded weeks ago. 

They requested a voluminous number of documents, including all information and communications between the governor's office and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services regarding COVID mitigation in long-term care facilities, as well as records and communications between the state health agency and all Michigan nursing home administrators.

The lawmakers also want to review data on Michigan nursing home deaths and cases since Jan. 1 — much of which the state has begun publishing online

Whitmer's letter to the GOP lawmakers noted her administration's response included the creation of regional hubs for COVID nursing home patients with specialized staffing and infection control, as well as facility inspections, technical assistance to isolate and prevent the spread of infection and "prioritized" personal protective equipment for staff. 

She also highlighted a new executive order requiring nursing facilities to test all residents and staff. 

"We are currently working with the Michigan National Guard to ensure every nursing home can test its residents and staff at no cost to the facility," Whitmer wrote.

"As part of the testing program, new or returning residents must be tested prior to admission, and all residents and staff in a facility must be tested weekly, until 14 days after the last positive COVID-19 test result."

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.