More than three months after the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer finally has begun steering meaningful public health and administrative resources toward those most vulnerable to the pandemic disease.
Whitmer’s Friday order — one that creates a task force to monitor and manage the disease’s spread into Michigan’s nursing homes and other congregate care facilities — feels agonizingly tardy.
It’s a commendable move, one we, and many others, spent considerable breath calling for during the past few months. But we fear it’s far too little, way too late.
Record-Eagle reporters and others across Michigan and the country have for months exposed serious shortcomings in the public health system’s response to COVID-19’s spread into nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
We understand that Michigan’s entire public health hierarchy was caught off guard by the pandemic, and has spent months playing whack-a-mole against waves of systemic flaws. First inadequate testing, then supply chain problems, then poor communication, then data collection hiccups, overwhelmed labs, contact tracing issues, the list is long and jarring. And it’s similar in almost every state.
Hindsight now provides us a substantial advantage, but it also highlights the flimsiness of our state’s effort to protect residents in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
It’s not like we didn’t know people in care homes are particularly vulnerable. And the potential for the disease to sweep through such a close-quarters environment isn’t a revelation — the first major cluster of deaths in the U.S. occurred in a nursing home in Washington state two weeks before the first COVID-19 case was announced in Michigan.
Since then officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services seem to have stumbled, fumbled and bumbled their way through responses to infections in long-term care facilities. Heck, at one point, someone at MDHHS cooked up an idea to create a “hub” system that intentionally placed recovering COVID patients in empty wings of nursing homes jam-packed with people who are particularly likely to be killed by the disease.
Think about that, our state public health experts paid a premium to place people infected with a wildly communicable disease in close proximity to the people most likely to be killed if they become infected.
In the midst of those fumbles, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon admitted his department didn’t have a handle on how many nursing home residents have been infected. The tracking and data collection was so bad, MDHHS took its data dashboard offline for a time to try to fix problems.
At about the same time, records showed one-third of COVID-related deaths in the state were nursing home and long-term care residents.
In the weeks since, state officials have made important strides toward detecting and treating outbreaks in such facilities — going so far as employing the Michigan National Guard to help test swaths of workers and residents.
The increased testing, including new mandates for regular facility-wide monitoring, is an important step, albeit one Gordon almost immediately watered down by announcing MDHHS wouldn’t take enforcement action against facilities that fail to meet mandated deadlines for implementation.
Results began to return last week from the first testing push in our region, and they show us what common sense has told us all along: COVID-19 is in places we don’t want it, and it’s hurting people we should protect.
It’s clear we don’t yet have a comprehensive picture of where the infection has spread, and the blind flailing that has permeated our response to COVID-19 in care facilities thus far continues.
What we don’t know, continues to imperil our most vulnerable neighbors.