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Opinion: Whitmer must answer for state’s failure to protect nursing home residents from COVID-19

Peter Lucido

Around 35% of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Michigan were patients from nursing homes. The impact on this most vulnerable population of elderly residents hit southeast Michigan hard — 72% of the COVID-19 related deaths that occurred in nursing homes were residents in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne county nursing facilities. 

This loss of life did not have to happen. From the earliest days of the pandemic, we learned about the virus’ effects on the elderly and how it had ravaged a nursing home in Washington state. Even before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to put COVID-19 patients in nursing home facilities, objections and warnings were being made, not the least of which from the Health Care Association of Michigan, which represents hundreds of nursing homes and rehabilitation communities in the state.

More than 35% of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Michigan were patients from nursing homes, Lucido writes.

The objections were clear and based on the hard truth that putting COVID-19-positive people in nursing homes was a recipe for disaster. The governor ignored the recommendations of nursing home professionals and issued the executive order anyway. What followed was as devastating as it was predictable.

Today, more than 2,000 nursing home residents and nearly 20 employees are dead. The number could be higher — likely is higher — but we don’t know for sure because the state has done a horrendous job of tracking and reporting the information, which is just another failure on the administration’s pile of failures.

The Senate Oversight Committee, of which I am a member, has taken testimony from state officials, including Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, during a series of hearings in recent weeks, trying to get to the bottom of how this was allowed to happen. Each hearing we were left with more questions than when we started.

State Sen. Peter Lucido

We still don’t know why the order to put COVID-19-positive patients in nursing homes was given. We don’t know if MDHHS verified the readiness of homes to accept such patients. Why were homes with such poor Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ratings chosen, especially to serve as regional hubs? Did the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs evaluate the homes prior to the order to ensure staff was properly qualified to handle the virus? Why did the administration sweeten the deal and offer financial incentives and legal immunity to homes with substandard ratings?

Why, after what was being learned about the virus and the elderly, after other state governors rescinded similar nursing home orders, why, even after a rising death toll, did Whitmer double down? Instead of simply recognizing a bad decision and ending it, her administration dug in and got defensive. Instead of reversing course to prevent further spread of the virus in nursing homes and save lives, they issued more executive orders and established another government-run task force.

We need this to stop. Now. That’s why the Senate recently passed, with bipartisan support, my bill to prevent people who have COVID-19 from being admitted or retained in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

The bill would prohibit people with COVID-19 who are ineligible for hospital admission from being admitted or retained in a nursing home, unless the facility has a state-approved designated area and program to provide appropriate care necessary to the patient. It would require MDHHS to develop and submit a plan to lawmakers describing its process to ensure there are dedicated facilities to provide care for COVID-19-positive patients in each of the eight health care regions.

I am optimistic my colleagues in the House of Representatives will approve this bill quickly, and hopeful the governor would admit to being wrong and sign the bill when it reaches her desk. But I’m not holding my breath.

The families of the nursing home dead are devastated and emotionally wrecked. They demand answers and desire accountability. The buck stops with Whitmer, and she must answer for her administration’s failure to protect those families’ loved ones from COVID-19.

State Sen. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, represents Michigan's 8th District.