On Thursday, Michigan lawmakers heard testimony on policies put in place at nursing homes as COVID-19 began to spread through the state.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, 4,100 lives have been lost within skilled nursing facilities in the state. Soon after the first COVID-19 cases were identified in the state, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued orders putting restrictions and guidelines in place for nursing homes.
Her administration also contracted with 21 nursing homes to serve as 'hubs' for COVID-19 positive patients. The policy drew criticism from Republican lawmakers, who said it led to further spread and put other patients at risk.
A study released back in September by The Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT) found that the strategy "performed well" overall, with 'hubs' having lower percentage of deaths.
House Oversight Committee Chair Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, said during the Thursday morning hearing that the committee had asked Michigan's Department of Health and Human Services to testify about nursing home death data. He said MDHHS declined to do so.
Instead, testimony came from the ceo of a company that runs nursing facilities, the loved ones of people who remain in nursing homes, those who lost their loved ones and former Republican senator Peter Lucido, who is now the Macomb County Prosecutor.
Lucido had sponsored a bill that received bipartisan support and would have placed COVID-19 positive patients in separate facilities, rather than the nursing home 'hubs.' The governor vetoed the measure saying in part that it lacked logistics on how those facilities would be run.
Testimony on Thursday primarily surrounded issues with visitor restrictions.
Under current restrictions, outdoor visitation and indoor visitation can happen under certain criteria, including no COVID-19 cases within the facility in the 14 days prior to the visit. All visitors must take a test before entering, as well.
"As we can only imagine, we know that the psychosocial and the mental health challenges of the pandemic, are really hitting every age group, I think we'll find in hindsight, that it has been absolutely devastating for our elders," said Dave Gehm, CEO and president of Wellspring Lutheran Services, which is based in Flint.
COVID-19 vaccinations have been completed at Michigan skilled nursing facilities that were enrolled in the federal pharmacy partnership with CVS and Walgreens.
Whitmer recently indicated could be rolled back in the coming days.
Rep. Johnson said future hearings would in part depend on the rollback of restrictions.
"We've heard very heartbreaking stories of people's parents dying alone," Johnson said. "Those stories when you hear those to me make it abundantly clear that we have to change what we're doing. We have to realize it's not just COVID that's killing but it's loneliness that's killing people in these long term care facilities, as well."
Rep. David LaGrand, D-Grand Rapids, said the hearing spurred important conversations about how to improve the state's response.
"I think one of the really good things that we talked about was how to, and I frankly intend to pursue legislation on this — is empowering caregivers outside of facilities, in other words, loved ones to have some kind of status as caregivers, which would enable them to follow the same rules that paid staff have to follow."
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