AG's office: Further review of COVID nursing home death tallies in Michigan 'unwarranted'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Further investigation into how the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services tracked COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities is "unwarranted at this time," Attorney General Dana Nessel's office said Friday.

In a seven-page memo, the Democratic attorney general's Health, Education and Family Services Division analyzed the high-profile Jan. 12 findings of the Office of the Auditor General. That office counted 2,386 more long-term care COVID-19 deaths in Michigan than Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration tallied. 

The attorney general division found the differing numbers were "simply distinct methods of trying to reach the same number, albeit of a different set of facilities," according to its memo.

"Thus, comparing the counts is largely meaningless," the memo said. "Moreover, neither count was generated through malice or ill intent. And, most importantly, neither MDHHS nor OAG suggests that any law has been broken.

"For these reasons, based on a preliminary review and MDHHS’s ongoing efforts, further investigation by the department is unwarranted at this time."

Suggestions the state health department intentionally underreported and misrepresented the number of COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities were not supported by the auditor general's report, the attorney general memo said.

It's unclear what prompted the memo, which was dated Monday. In a statement that accompanied it, Nessel's office said it had received "questions related" to the report.

Nursing home death numbers have been at the center of an intense political debate over Whitmer's handling of the pandemic. It's a disagreement that's expected to continue into the November election.

The Democratic governor's health department focused on caring for elderly individuals with COVID-19 inside isolated areas of current nursing homes, while Republicans repeatedly called for separate facilities to combat the spread of the virus. 

In March 2021, Nessel said an investigation into Whitmer's nursing home policies during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't warranted, drawing criticism from GOP lawmakers.

Republicans have argued the auditor general's report was evidence Whitmer mishandled nursing homes. But Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, has blasted the conclusions of the review, saying it used improper and unfair methods to do its research.

At the request of House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, the auditor general's report examined long-term care facility deaths through July 2. It described the difference between the state health department's count and the auditor general office's finding as 29.6%.

By examining death certificates and public health data, the auditor general's office tallied 8,061 COVID-19 deaths tied to long-term care facilities. The state health department, using self-reported numbers from facilities, counted 5,675, so the report's finding was up 42% from the previous total.

The attorney general's office noted auditor general's report included additional deaths at long-term care facilities that were not required to self-report COVID-19 deaths to the state health department, including adult foster care facilities licensed for 12 or fewer beds

The office also highlighted concerns that the auditor general relied on the Michigan Disease Surveillance System, which is used for tracking infections and doing contact tracing, to link facilities to COVID-19 deaths. The system is not reliable for tracking deaths and isn't meant for that purpose, Hertel has said.