News & Politics

Whitmer's Nursing Home Policy Shows 'Reckless Disregard of Human Life'

Michigan Office of the Governor via AP

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) mandated that nursing homes take in COVID-19 patients, even though the elderly are at most risk for the virus. A Democratic state lawmaker is condemning that policy as “idiotic” as Michigan fails to report the true number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes.

“Why the State of Michigan has chosen this path is beyond me. It seems like the most idiotic thing that we could come up with,” State Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) said in an interview with local DWTV News. Through tears, she told the Senate Oversight Committee that her mother contracted COVID-19 at a nursing home last week. She questioned whether Whitmer’s policies put the elderly at risk.

“I’m so appreciative of what the governor has done to try to keep us all safe… but when it comes to the decisions around our nursing facilities, I think we have an epic fail,” Love said. “To have them integrate [COVID-19 patients] into those communities, I think puts our senior citizens at harm.”

“Reckless disregard of human life,” State Sen. Pete Lucido (R-Mount Clemens) told DWTV. “It’s negligent to allow it to continue, but it’s intentional now at this point.”

Whitmer issued the nursing home executive order on April 15. The original order mandated that nursing homes at less than 80 percent capacity create dedicated units for “COVID-19 affected residents” and ordered them to take in new patients so long as they had “appropriate” personal protection equipment (PPE) for employees.

Two weeks ago, Love and other Democratic lawmakers submitted proposed revisions to Whitmer, and on Tuesday Love thanked the governor for adopting some of those ideas in a new executive order signed last week. Whitmer’s new order requires nursing homes to “make all reasonable efforts to create a unit dedicated to the care and isolation of COVID-19-affected residents” but no longer makes the COVID-19 unit necessary. The order also specifies that nursing homes should not accept the return of a hospitalized coronavirus-positive resident if they do not have a dedicated COVID-19 unit.

While the true number of coronavirus deaths linked to Michigan nursing homes remains unclear, the state announced that 1,372 deaths came from Detroit-area nursing homes alone, a number that represents 33 percent of Michigan’s coronavirus deaths. Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, also released data showing that at least 1,216 nursing home residents had died from coronavirus complications as of Friday, a number he admitted was an undercount but which accounted for 23 percent of the state’s total COVID-19 deaths.

Studies have suggested the coronavirus death rate is below 1 percent, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released death rates along those lines. Yet the low death rate of 0.4 percent among the symptomatic is heavily skewed toward the elderly. Here’s the age breakdown:

  • 0-49 years old: .05%
  • 50-64 years old: .2%
  • 65+ years old: 1.3%
  • Overall ages: .4%

The elderly and those with pre-existing health problems are most likely to die from the virus. CDC data shows that most coronavirus transmission comes from close contact with an infected person over a period of time — either sheltering at home with someone or living in close quarters like in nursing homes or jails.

That makes nursing home policies like Whitmer’s utterly inexcusable. Her policy seems a slightly less horrific version of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.). While there were at least three hospital centers available to take overflow — the Javitz Center hospital, the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort, and Samaritan’s Purse’s field hospital — Cuomo’s administration required nursing homes to admit coronavirus patients. Even after Cuomo changed the policy to allow nursing homes to reject COVID-positive patients, he still defended the policy, saying, “older people, vulnerable people are going to die.”

Whitmer should seriously reconsider her order, but the damage may have already been done.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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