Editorial: Whitmer must answer for nursing home policy

The Detroit News

Evidence that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was warned early on that her COVID-19 nursing home policy would put residents at risk lends support for much more transparency from the governor.  

The Detroit News reports that in the opening days of the pandemic's appearance in Michigan, the head of a statewide elder care association wrote a letter urging the governor to house those infected with COVID-19 in separate facilities away from the general  nursing home population.

The letter from Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, was sent on March 13, three days after the first case was reported here. Samuel urged the governor to move infected patients into unused facilities.

Evidence that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was warned early on her that COVID-19 nursing home policy would put residents at risk adds support for an independent investigation of that decision.

The advice was not followed. Instead, Whitmer issued an executive order that required facilities at less than 80% capacity to take in COVID-19 patients.

While she stipulated that the infected residents should be housed in separate wings and attended by staff adequately protected from the virus, inspections have found many nursing homes did not meet that standard.

The state has reported at least 1,947 deaths among individuals who lived in elder care facilities and 20 deaths among staff. The tally accounts for at least one-third of the virus deaths in Michigan. That reported number tracks with the national average, but a number of nursing homes in Michigan have not yet reported their statistics. 

Whitmer has stuck with her policy despite ongoing evidence that the virus was ravaging nursing homes, and even after other states, including New York, abandoned similar orders. It continues to this day despite evidence it may have put thousands of lives at risk. 

The administration contends there was not enough time to staff, equip and license separate facilities, and that the temporary hospital built at the TCF Center and only lightly used was not suitable to care for patients from nursing homes.

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

Whitmer this week refused to participate in a GOP-led U.S. House probe into nursing home deaths nationwide. Such congressional hearings often become kangaroo courts, and can be more about pressing partisan agendas than solving problems. But the governor still owes her Michigan constituents answers to key questions. 

Why didn't she react when reports of escalating nursing home deaths first began coming in? Did the administration pause at any point to assess the impact of its policy? What science and data was used to inform the executive order? Does she have solid reasons for not following the lead of other states in changing her orders? 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said the Legislature is "intensely seeking" answers.

Last week the Legislature passed a resolution condemning the practice of comingling COVID-19 positive patients with healthy residents, and this week the Senate will vote on a bill that forbids the practice. 

Sen. Pete Lucido, R-Shelby Township, called in mid-May on the Justice Department and Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate the possibility of negligence in issuing the executive order. Lucido said he has heard from U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider that he is considering the request, but there's been no word from from Nessel.

Whitmer should not be exempt from scrutiny of her decision making under the state of emergency. The extraordinary powers granted a governor makes full transparency of how she exercises that authority even more vital than in normal times. 

Nearly 2,000 people have died over the past three months in Michigan nursing homes. Citizens deserve to know whether some of those deaths might have been avoided had the governor responded better to evidence of the unfolding devastation.