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Michigan health chief: Nursing home death toll is accurate

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Michigan’s top health official said Thursday that nursing homes are accurately reporting the number of coronavirus-related deaths, amid questions over whether the tally is low.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, told lawmakers that the facilities have no “reason or incentive to try to hide” deaths. The Republican-led House Oversight Committee held the hearing after Detroit-area journalist Charlie LeDuff and the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, which had sued for records, questioned if there is an undercount after noting that the state in the early months of the pandemic traced 648 of 1,468 COVID-19 deaths identified through vital records reviews to nursing homes.

Hertel called “untrue” the contention that deaths found by looking at death certificates may not be reflected in data submitted by nursing homes.

“If it is identified in the death certificate as a nursing home death, it would have been reported by the nursing homes as a nursing home death as well. You can’t add them together. ... You’re double counting,” she said, while acknowledging data limitations that make it difficult to cross-check what facilities report against vital records.

Michigan says 5,663 long-term care residents and 77 staff have died, accounting for 30% of roughly 19,200 confirmed COVID-19 deaths. The state requires long-term care facilities — nursing homes, homes for the aged and larger adult foster care facilities — to report deaths and infections.

Hertel, who focused primarily on nursing home data, said 38 of Michigan’s 311 adult foster care facilities licensed to serve 13 or more residents are not reporting data as required.

“So if they’re not reporting, wouldn’t our number be too low?” asked Rep. Steven Johnson, a Wayland Republican who chairs the panel.

Hertel said they may not be reporting deaths or “maybe they haven’t experienced any deaths.”

Thousands of adult foster care facilities licensed to serve fewer than 13 residents are not mandated to report coronavirus information. At times, GOP legislators and Hertel differed over how to define what is considered a nursing home.

Republicans plan to investigate the death toll further. Johnson said he will ask the state auditor general to review the data “to see if they can find us a more accurate picture.”

The GOP has long criticized Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for allowing hospitalized coronavirus patients no longer needing acute care, but still in quarantine, to return to their nursing home as some hospitals faced surging cases. There is no direct evidence the policy led to infections. Whitmer has said it complied with federal guidance.