Editorial: Michigan must release nursing home virus data

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer contends her policy-making during the COVID-19 crisis is science and data driven. But the governor has not released statistics on how the virus has impacted the most vulnerable population — nursing home residents.

The state Republican Party has ragged Whitmer relentlessly for not sharing the statistics on the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities among those living in elderly care facilities. 

And while its criticism is obviously politically driven, the GOP makes a vital point — without reliable information, how can the governor be certain her policies are not doing harm?

At a press conference Wednesday, Whitmer said the state is working on getting the statistics, the same answer she’s given for weeks. 

Nationwide, a report from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, as presented in Forbes, reveals that in the 39 states that currently report such information, 43% of all COVID-19 deaths have taken place in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

At least 15 states have enacted laws or governors’ orders that explicitly or apparently provide nursing homes and long-term care facilities some protection from lawsuits arising from the crisis.

If that holds true in Michigan as well, it should have a significant impact on policies to bring down the rate of COVID-19 deaths here.

But the executive orders Whitmer issued under her emergency powers may have exacerbated the danger to that population.

The governor’s first set of orders demanded that nursing homes under 80% capacity take in COVID-19 patients who need extended care, and isolate them in their own units.

Other governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, put in place similar policies. In most of the states that put COVID-19 patients in homes with non-infected residents, the death rate skyrocketed.

Advocates for the elderly contend admitting infected persons into nursing homes heightened the risk for an already highest risk population. 

Whitmer modified her order earlier this month to better isolate infected patients from the general nursing home population, and better train and equip the staff of facilities caring for COVID-19 residents.

But, Michigan still is not reporting data from nursing homes and extended-care facilities. So there's no chance for independent scrutiny of how well the policy change is working to reduce deaths.

If it turns out that Michigan tracks the nation with nearly half of all deaths from elder-care facilities, it would fuel a much-needed debate of whether the broad shutdown orders issued by Whitmer are necessary. 

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis claims to have examined deaths among nursing home patients nationwide before forming his emergency orders for the state. He says the research prompted him to focus much of his efforts on the elder care facilities, closing them off from new admissions and getting training and personal protection equipment to staffers.

He took a much lighter hand with the rest of the state.

And while DeSantis’ claims are under challenge, the fact remains that Florida, a far larger state than Michigan with an older population, has had  2,259 COVID-19 deaths compared to 5,266 in Michigan.

It would be valuable to explore whether the differing approaches regarding nursing home residents are the reason.

But before such information-based conclusions can be made, Whitmer must compile and release the data. That should happen ASAP.