LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lifted requirements that nursing homes establish special coronavirus units and admit from the hospital patients recovering from COVID-19, giving the facilities more flexibility to decide if they can safely isolate people.

The new order, issued late Wednesday, came after the Democratic governor had faced questions from lawmakers in both parties who expressed concerns that non-infected residents were being put at risk.

At least 784 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 complications, 15% of Michigan's 5,129 deaths, though state health officials say the number is likely higher.

The previous orders mandated that nursing homes with at least 20% of their beds empty create a unit dedicated to the care of residents who test positive for the virus, have symptoms or are potentially infected. If a home had such a unit, it had to admit anyone it normally would have regardless of whether the individual had recently been discharged from a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Nursing homes without a unit were to transfer them to regional “hub” homes with higher levels of care.

The latest order instead requires nursing homes to make “reasonable efforts” to form a coronavirus unit but also says they should not if they cannot implement effective and reliable infection-control procedures. It also does not require a home to accept a resident returning from the hospital.

“It just provides a lot more flexibility,” said Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, a trade group for 350 nursing facilities. “If they're able to safely establish units, if they have the appropriate levels of (personal protective equipment) — all of those protocols in place — that's the way that we should approach this given the particularly vulnerable population we care for.”

Whitmer said the order, which continues through June 17, enhances protections for residents and employees of long-term care facilities.

At a legislative hearing last week, Senate Republicans questioned if residents without COVID-19 were being adequately protected. House Democrats also criticized the approach and recommended changes, according to Gongwer News Service.

Sen. Peter Lucido, a Republican from Macomb County's Shelby Township, has called for investigations of the previous orders.

“Nothing about the decision to put COVID-19 patients in nursing homes has made sense,” he said.

There is no evidence that people recovering from the disease have infected healthier people inside homes.

Samuel said if the virus is significantly present in a community's general population, it is challenging to keep it out of congregate settings because asymptomatic people can spread the virus.

“That can be in residents or it can be more likely in the staff,” she said. “It's our sense that's probably how COVID has gotten into some of these buildings. These workers do come and go. Even though there are screening protocols in place, we don't have universal testing yet. It's something that the state of Michigan is working on. We're working on it with them.”

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