Republicans Seize on Nursing-Home Deaths to Weaken Democrats

Republicans are weaponizing Covid-19’s nursing home deaths.

In recent months, GOP lawmakers have heaped criticism on Democratic governors Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gavin Newsom of California for early missteps in handling the pandemic. Michigan Republicans, hostile to Governor Gretchen Whitmer throughout the crisis, are now asking the state’s attorney general to investigate how she coped with that challenge.

Republicans say that people died unnecessarily thanks to Whitmer’s order that nursing homes readmit residents with Covid-19 if they had capacity and quarantine capabilities. The reality is that Michigan’s fatality rate was lower than the national average, and many of those on the pandemic’s front line dispute the assertions.

Having lost the presidency and unable to overturn the results with false claims of cheating, Republicans in Michigan and elsewhere are attempting to deploy Covid as Democrats did under Donald Trump: to undermine the president and his party.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans have called for an investigation into Democratic Governor Tom Wolf. And under Trump, the Justice Department sent letters seeking data on nursing-home deaths from California, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — all states with Democratic governors. The Justice Department has yet to act further.

With Whitmer running for re-election next year, Michigan Republicans see her nursing-home policies as a vulnerable spot. Eight GOP state senators signed a letter asking the attorney general, a Democrat, to investigate her performance.

“They took nonresidents with Covid to nursing homes and filled them up with sick Covid patients,” Senator Dale Zorn said, echoing the charge that has been leveled against Cuomo. “That’s how residents at nursing homes caught Covid.”

Few have accused Whitmer of wrongdoing — in contrast to Cuomo in New York, where members of his own party have called for an investigation into allegations that he undercounted and concealed nursing-home deaths. Instead, Michigan Republicans have said Whitmer’s decisions spread the virus.

They have questioned the accuracy of data, seizing on testimony by Robert Gordon, former director of the Department of Health and Human Services. He said last year that mining good numbers from nursing homes “is a challenge” and that he couldn’t entirely trust the death toll.

Complicating matters for Whitmer is the fact that Gordon quit in January without explanation and took a severance package that included an agreement not to discuss the reason for his departure, according to the Detroit News.

Health Care Associates of Michigan, a trade group representing nursing homes, and the Service Employees International Union, which bargains for workers, say Whitmer made reasonable decisions and that deaths were unavoidable. Marianne Udow-Phillips, founding executive director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Health Research Transformation, studied the nursing-home policies and reached the same conclusion.

“I hear these allegations and ask, ‘Where is the evidence?’” Udow-Phillips said. “There is no evidence. We found the governor’s strategy to be reasonable and appropriate, especially at that time.”

Udow-Phillips points to the same statistic the Republicans are using: the nursing-home death rate. In Michigan, 33% of the more than 16,000 Covid deaths were in nursing homes. Nationwide, that percentage was almost 39%, she said.

In Ohio, where 41% of deaths were nursing-home residents, Republican Governor Mike DeWine hasn’t faced a similar level of scrutiny, even though he also let residents with Covid into nursing homes, provided they could be quarantined.

As in many states, Michigan nursing homes were starved of equipment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put them behind hospitals for scarce masks and personal protective equipment, said Melissa Samuel, chief executive officer of Health Care Association of Michigan, the industry’s trade group.

“It was very clear from the beginning that PPE and the ability to test were very challenging,” Samuel said in an interview. “The virus was most unmerciful to the population we care for.”

That created a nightmare on the front line, said Don Hill, an SEIU-represented nurse who works at Warren Woods Health and Rehabilitation outside Detroit. Few facilities had the most effective masks, N95s, until summer, he said.

“If you had a surgical mask, you were doing pretty well, but N95 masks were rare,” said Hill, who caught the virus in April and infected his wife, who died on a ventilator. “We lost a lot of people with Covid.”

Whitmer mandated weekly testing for nursing-home staff, but results took as long as seven days. Employees made about $13 an hour without paid time off, so many kept working even with mild symptoms, said Carolyn Cole, a nursing assistant at Four Seasons Nursing home in suburban Detroit.

With cases piling up, Whitmer on April 15 issued a slew of directives: One ordered nursing homes using 80% or less of their capacity to create a dedicated Covid 19 unit and provide PPE “as available.” Another prohibited nursing homes from rejecting new Covid-positive patients or residents returning from the hospital. Samuel’s association pushed back, and Whitmer amended her order with tighter protocols to contain the spread.

Despite the changes, that order ignited a fight. Then-state Senator Pete Lucido introduced a bill in early June that would’ve banned admission of Covid-positive patients to nursing homes and required the state to set up separate facilities for them.

“Who’s better to decide — the nursing homes that have to care for patients, or the governor who thinks she knew what she was doing?” Lucido said in a recent interview. “It’s called gross neglect, at a minimum.”

Republicans want to know why Whitmer didn’t send Covid-positive residents to a convention center in Detroit, said Zorn.

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services looked closely at the idea, said a spokesperson for the department. MDHHS concluded that the field hospitals erected in the convention centers were not set up with X-rays, CT scanners, ventilators and other equipment and didn’t have staff skilled to handle nursing-home residents.

“The senators’ allegations are shameful political attacks based in neither fact nor reality. Our top priority from the start has been protecting Michiganders, especially seniors and our most vulnerable,” Whitmer spokesman Robert Leddy said in a statement. “Remember, the entire reason the virus spiraled out of control across the country is because the Trump Administration never got its arms around the pandemic.”

The governor vetoed Lucido’s bill. But Jeff Irwin, a Democratic senator, said the GOP included provisions — like moving patients without consulting a person’s doctor or family — that forced her to kill the measure. He said they wanted to use the veto against her: “It turned into a political cudgel to try to beat the governor.”

Health experts say that the biggest contributor to Covid at nursing homes is the prevalence of the virus in he community outside. Republicans sued Whitmer to thwart her strict mitigation measures, including shutdowns of restaurants, bars and gyms.

Other Republicans, such as Bronna Kahle, chair of the House Health Policy Committee, are trying to find common ground. She recently introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at helping families safely visit loved ones in nursing homes to dispel isolation and loneliness.

“Action can be taken more swiftly by working together and not by taking political shots at each other,” Kahle said in an interview. “Last year is behind us. This is about moving forward and making sure they have their visits, and families aren’t broken.”

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