Do we have another COVID nursing home death scandal brewing? In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing intense criticism and calls to resign for cooking the books in the state's COVID nursing home death toll. He’s also facing scores of allegations of sexual misconduct from former aides and staffers. Top Democrats from the Empire State are calling for him to resign. So far, he’s refused to do so. The gears of impeachment are starting to turn in Albany, but there could be a COVID death toll scandal occurring in Michigan. Reporter Charlie LeDuff wanted to know the number of COVID deaths from nursing homes, but the state refused to release the data. So, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation decided to file a lawsuit to unseal those records (via Mackinac):
On Jan. 27, 2021, Charlie LeDuff sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for a list of all the deaths from COVID-19 from December to February, including the date of death and when the state recorded the death. He also asked for demographic information, such as the age, race and place where the death occurred, such as at a nursing home. MDHHS responded roughly an hour later and directed LeDuff to publicly posted data, but these data do not include the specific information he requested. The department denied responsibility for fulfilling his FOIA request in light of this publicly available data.
On Feb. 23, LeDuff called MDHHS to clarify his request. He left a voicemail and MDHHS responded via email. The department now claimed, for the first time, that the information he sought was exempt from FOIA, arguing that releasing the requested information would allow the deceased to be individually identified. LeDuff responded and clarified that he is not seeking the identities of the deceased but simply the number of COVID deaths from December to February, along with age, date of death, date when the death was recorded by the state and whether the death occurred in a nursing home. MDHHS again responded that this data is exempt from FOIA, but cited a different statue this time for rationalizing its nondisclosure.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued the department on behalf of LeDuff. The MCLF argues that the specific data sought is not enough to identify any individual, and even then, the department could simply withhold these details while still fulfilling the rest of the FOIA request. That is what Michigan's public transparency laws require. This is important information as it might help policymakers and the public support decisions about how best to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Do we have the Cuomo of the Midwest? National Review seems to think so and for good reason. Gretchen Whitmer pretty much toed the same line as Cuomo when it came to COVID, taking power-grabbing for a spin and also packed nursing homes like sardines with COVID-infected patients:
In Michigan, the more than 5,500 deaths in long-term-care facilities account for a third of COVID deaths in the state — as far as we know, given lack of transparency from both Whitmer and the state Health Department.
Whitmer refused to back down for months from her initial executive order instructing nursing homes and other similar facilities to take on hospital patients with COVID-19. The governor was warned early on by the head of the state’s elder-care association not to do this, but she did so anyway. And she continued the misguided policy, despite several bipartisan attempts from the Michigan legislature to alter the mandate.
It wasn’t until late September that she changed course — and not until November that she signed legislation making it official.
Cuomo initially had a similar nursing-home policy to Whitmer’s, but notably altered his order in May 2020 after intense pushback. At least he was willing to acknowledge his error. Michigan’s governor refused to back down.
LeDuff spoke on the matter, noting that the state treated the elderly infected with COVID like “bags of laundry” (via Fox News):
Investigative journalist Charlie LeDuff sounded off Thursday following his filing of a lawsuit against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, telling "The Story" that the state still refuses to provide relevant data on coronavirus-related nursing home deaths.
LeDuff told host Martha MacCallum that while embattled New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stopped co-mingling coronavirus-positive patients in Empire State nursing homes after some time, the Great Lakes State is allegedly "still doing it."
"[Whitmer] has to come clean. She did exactly what Cuomo did except for the fact that we're still co-mingling," he said. "That's one of the hubs there," he added, pointing to a senior living facility behind him.
At that particular facility, LeDuff claimed, ambulances were seen "ping-ponging people" in and out of the home during the height of the pandemic.
"[They were] handling them like bags of laundry -- and we don't have a true accounting of how many people died because like Cuomo, we got a hospital count and we have a nursing home count, we now know. I'm not taking anybody's word. I'm here for the people."
Republicans in the state legislature have threatened to subpoena records from the state’s department of health. Maybe they should follow through on that.