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Federal agency reports on COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes, but there are discrepancies

person in wheelchair being consoled
Gundula Vogel

Update: June 5, 2020 11:25 p.m.

Data released Thursday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services about COVID-19 in U.S. nursing homes appears to be partially inaccurate. Michigan Radio’s data analyst Brad Gowland reviewed the federal agency’s numbers and found that for 32 skilled nursing facilities in Michigan, the total number of COVID-19 resident deaths was greater than the total number of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases among residents.

In total, CMS has identified 2,297 resident deaths in Michigan, but the faulty data could point to a lower count. There are also discrepancies between the CMS data and data posted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. One nursing facility in Macomb County registers more than 40 cumulative COVID cases on the MDHHS website, but well over 100 confirmed cases in the federal database. Currently, MDHHS is only publishing cumulative cases for each facility, but a spokesperson said the website may include cumulative deaths as soon as next week.

Original post: June 4, 2020 

COVID-19 has been the cause of nearly 2,300 deaths in skilled nursing facilities across Michigan, according to data released Thursday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 

With 88% of facilities reporting in the US, the federal agency has registered more than 4,500 confirmed COVID cases in Michigan, and more than 95,000 nationwide. On Monday, when CMS released preliminary data, administrator Seema Verma said that as facilities acclimate to the reporting process, those figures will likely change.

As it now stands, compared against the state health department’s data, deaths in Michigan’s skilled nursing facilities account for 41% of the state's Thursday total, which was 5,595. 


Alison Hirschel, managing attorney at the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative, says people who have loved ones in nursing homes will welcome CMS’s move to increase its transparency. 


“We are enormously grateful that CMS is requiring nursing homes to provide this information and making it available to the public,” she said. “Families are thirsty for information. Since they can’t go into the homes themselves, they want to know everything they can about what’s happening inside the nursing home.”


The CMS data includes over forty categories. For both residents and staff, it shows confirmed cases, suspected cases, and deaths; it counts the number of occupied beds in each facility, and notes whether residents have access to COVID testing; it also tracks the availability of personal protective equipment, and indicates which facilities are experiencing staff shortages. 


Two weeks ago, MDHHS enhanced its reporting requirements for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities so that they would better align with the new CMS standards. But as of Thursday, MDHHS was only publishing the number of cumulative confirmed cases at each nursing facility. A spokesperson for the department said that once the newly reported data has been validated, more facility-specific information will appear on the website, including cumulative deaths and, possibly, a note about testing availability. 


Hirschel hopes that when MDHHS does publish the new data, it presents it in a digestible format. Though she considers CMS’s data release a “terrific” development, she worries some people may find it inaccessible. 


“I do think it is a little bit hard to navigate and a little bit overwhelming,” she said. “I’m hoping that the state can provide the information people really care about in a way that is a little less daunting.”


Right now, she says, the portion of the CMS website that’s easiest to use is the map, where a visitor can zoom in to a facility and see information about cases and deaths among residents. But some of the other data is only available in raw format. 


A CMS spokesperson said the new data would be available through a link on Nursing Home Compare, a website that families can use to compare facilities side-by-side. It’s unclear if the data will be integrated into the website’s typical search results. 

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Will Callan, a reporter for Michigan Radio, hails from the Bay Area, where he lived in Oakland and San Francisco and reported for local newspapers and magazines. He enjoys a long swim in chilly water (preferably followed by a sauna) and getting to know new cities. That's one reason he's excited to be in Ann Arbor, which he can already tell has just the right combo of urban grit and natural beauty to make him feel at home.
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