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Opinion: Whitmer's nursing home policy risks lives

Greg McNeilly

At least 1,947 Michigan nursing home patients have died of COVID-19 since the middle of March. That’s 650 each month — more than 20 per day. 

Those numbers aren’t anecdotes, and they’re not just statistics — though they’re still likely an “undercount.”  They’re not yesterday’s news or a sidebar story in Michigan’s war against COVID-19.  

They’re the faces of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s astoundingly anti-science response to the pandemic. They’re our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, friends. 

Families are left asking heartbreaking questions. How many Michigan parents and grandparents died because Whitmer intentionally imported the deadly virus to nursing homes and assisted living facilities? How many more died because she was unwilling to admit her mistake? How many more will die still?

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives her morning coronavirus pandemic address via livestream on Monday, April 13, 2020.

Early in the health crisis, the governor issued an executive order establishing a “hub” system that has for months actively sent patients with COVID-19 into nursing homes and assisted living facilities — the same facilities that Michigan seniors call home. It’s a policy she’s continually extended, even as the death count climbs.

Given her fondness of the phrase as rhetorical justification for her actions, it’s critical to understand just how strongly Whitmer’s nursing home policy flew in the face of “the science.”  

Global evidence and scientific consensus predating the March arrival of COVID-19 in Michigan found conclusively that the virus was particularly deadly for the elderly and infirm. Most states acted accordingly, working to protect seniors from even accidental exposure to the disease.  

A few — New York, New Jersey, Michigan — went a different route. Instead of moving heaven and earth to keep the virus out of nursing homes, they shepherded it in.  What’s more, they imported COVID-19 while heralded field hospitals in Detroit and Novi sat nearly empty.

In New York, the Democratic governor realized his mistake and reversed course. In Michigan, despite pleas from families and elected officials in her party, Whitmer didn't change.

Science and data? The science said to keep the virus out. The governor invited it in.

We still aren’t fully sure what the data says.  After refusing for months to release nursing home data to worried family members and the public, the governor recently provided updated (though still incomplete) numbers for nursing homes.  We still don’t have any real accounting of those who’ve died in assisted-living facilities.

Nationally, 43% of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, despite housing just 0.6% of the population. In Michigan, that would mean roughly 2,500 dead — not 1,947. We won’t know precisely how many died until Whitmer relents and becomes more transparent.

The part of this heart-wrenching story that’s hardest to understand is why the governor still refuses to change course. Remember, as the death count rose, the governor knew what was happening. Consider this response from Whitmer at a late-May press conference following a question about requests to change her order:

“Obviously we, like states across the country … have been learning an incredible amount about COVID-19, it being a novel virus. The amount that we’ve learned just in the last eight weeks is dramatically different from what we knew as we were watching the cases exponentially rise. The clear indication is that older people are more susceptible and at congregate care facilities, that is exacerbated.”

Forget for a second her demonstrably false assertion that scientists and experts didn’t know seniors were at a particularly high risk of dying from the virus “eight weeks ago.” Whitmer admitted she knew it at that moment. And then she refused — again — to change her order, sending COVID-19 to those facilities. She’s actively refused every day since.

Scientists and public policy analysts will argue for years whether or not any of Whitmer’s stay-home and lockdown orders actually saved a life. There’s no question, though, that one of her other executive orders put more lives at risk.  

Greg McNeilly is chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund.