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Expected report: Michigan undercounted COVID-19 long-term care facility deaths by nearly 30%

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

UPDATE: This story has been updated to provide comment from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which did not respond to inquiries on Thursday when the story was published.

Health department Director Elizabeth Hertel said in an interview Friday that the auditor general’s report – obtained by the Michigan Public Radio Network in advance of its publication – is “misleading at best” and “completely false in general.”

The report found almost 2,400 more COVID-19 deaths were linked to long-term care facilities than the state's official count of those deaths – a difference of almost 30%.

But Hertel said the auditor general’s analysis used an overly broad definition of “long-term care facilities,” a data system that doesn’t accurately track COVID deaths, and reporting standards that do not match guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control.

State officials familiar with an upcoming report from the Auditor General say it claims Michigan likely undercounted COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities by almost 30%.

Leadership within the state Department of Health and Human Services was already pushing back against the report from the state Auditor General, even before its official release, disputing the way the audit counted deaths.

House Oversight Committee chair Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) said he’d like to hold a hearing on the report sometime next week, after its official release.

“The initial review of the report is incredibly troubling and something that we want to make sure the people of Michigan are able to look at it and to understand what happened here,” Johnson said.

In an email to state Auditor General Doug Ringler, health and human services department Director Elizabeth Hertel outlined several elements of the audit that she disputes.

Hertel said the audit lumped in figures from facilities that were not required to report COVID-19 deaths with those that were required to report the deaths, “creating the impression of a larger undercount by long-term care facilities than is warranted.”

According to the health department memo, almost half of the difference between the state’s reported deaths and those the audit found came from facilities not subject to reporting requirements. Another concern Hertel’s memo voiced was that the audit does not rely on the Centers for Disease Control’s standard for reportable COVID-19 deaths at a long-term care facility.

“While your letter cites the World Health Organization’s definition of a COVID-19 death, it is unclear how you are defining the relevant subset of long-term care COVID-19 deaths,” Hertel’s email to Ringler read.

But Johnson said he’s not buying those concerns.

“The department right now is trying to confuse the people of Michigan because they know they made a big mistake, and they don’t want to be held accountable. That’s what they’re doing right here. They’re trying to just spread a bunch of misinformation out there,” he said.

The full report is expected Monday.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story referred to the report as an audit. It is not an official audit but a report from the Auditor General.

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