Attorney General Nessel declines Runestad request to open investigation on COVID-related deaths in nursing homes

Nursing home COVID cases a concern
Published: Mar. 15, 2021 at 4:08 PM EDT
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - On Monday, Senator Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, sent a statement to the press calling on Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to investigate Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of COVID-19 nursing home policy.

“I called on the attorney general to carry out an honest investigation into Michigan’s nursing home policies weeks ago. I’ve learned from the attorney general’s office that they intend to announce a decision by Wednesday,” Runestad said in the statement. “Attorney General Nessel knows the right thing to do — and that is to get answers for every family who lost a loved one to COVID-19 in a nursing home.”

A response came back very quickly from Attorney General Nessel’s office, clarifying that an investigation would not be coming.

“Though I will not hesitate to act when justified, I also will not abuse the investigatory powers of this Department to launch a political attack on any state official, regardless of party or beliefs,” said Nessel in her response.

Nessel also highlighted the American Bar Association’s “Standards for Criminal Justice: Prosecutorial Investigations” in her response.

“Law enforcement officials have an ethical duty to ‘resist political pressure intended to influence the conduct, focus, duration or outcome of a criminal investigation,’ and to ‘limit the political impact’ of an investigation ‘without regard to the official’s personal political beliefs or affiliations,’” said Nessel.

Republican lawmakers have been calling for an investigation claiming Governor Whitmer is responsible for many of the thousands of COVID deaths in nursing homes. But, the Whitmer administration is defending itself.

The state Republican party says they feel the same way as their lawmaker colleagues. They want to know how many people were harmed by the Whitmer administration’s policy. They also feel there hasn’t been enough information or accurate data reporting.

Executive order 2020-50 Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued last April read in part long-term care facilities must not prohibit admission or readmission of a resident based on COVID-19 testing requirements or results in a manner that is inconsistent with relevant guidance issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Some Republicans feel that was the wrong move and deserves a federal investigation.

“We need to see the data. We want to know who was sent to these nursing homes, and we want to know how these individuals died. There’s a lot of unanswered questions. And it’s such a serious issue. You know, we don’t want to just, you know, guess what happened,” said Michigan Republican Party member Ted Goodman.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail says there is an explanation for why COVID hit this group so hard and it has a lot to do with how they’re set up and little do with how staff and state leaders directed nursing homes to act.

“You look at the United States when we had our first cases here and the very first major outbreak was a long-term care facility in Seattle. Remember, so that was our first like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s here, I mean it was lots of cases,’” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Michigan was one of four states whose governor issued orders to admit COVID-19 patients into nursing homes. COVID-19 has devastated long-term care facilities; killing 5,551 patients in Michigan alone.

“You know, the first six months of the pandemic, as hard as they were... just didn’t have that many deaths and then we went through that huge surge in October, November,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.

Of the states with more than 15,000 reported deaths from COVID-19, more than a third have been people in long-term care facilities.

They made up 40-45 percent of Ingham County’s total deaths.

“Living, you know quarters...anytime you’re in a congregate setting so nursing homes, we frequently have flu outbreaks, coronavirus outbreaks. We have them in schools settings like that tend to be a little bit more outbreak prone, in the first place, and then you put COVID in and that’s not going to change as hard as they tried to keep cases out,” said Vail.

Vail says that not only did living in indoor close quarters play a factor, but also age.

“We know that our 70-year-olds and our 80-year-olds in general across our communities are hit harder. That age group is the age group that tends to be in long-term care facilities, skilled nursing facilities,” she said.

Some families have criticized Governor Whitmer’s policy of allowing COVID-positive residents to return to their care facilities.

Vail struggles to find the link between the administration’s policy and the number of deaths.

“I don’t, you know, at a certain point in time, once you know everything was fairly in control, it was fairly clear that most cases got started in long term care facilities from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic staff who are on the outside and then coming in. It wasn’t really after the first hit there. It wasn’t really resident-to-resident so much,” said Vail.

She also says it can be tough to strike a balance for people who need to be in long-term care facilities for greater health attention.

“There’s only so much you can do. Hospitals who have people in their hospitals, and they are people that need to be in skilled nursing facilities or long-term care facilities, they can just keep them there. And people don’t have the supports to be at home so you know, it’s just one of those things that you have to figure out,” said Vail.

The governor’s office cites the AARP and a University of Michigan study that praised and defended the administration’s work to save lives in nursing homes.

A spokesperson tells me their top priority from the start has been protecting Michiganders-especially seniors.

An investigation of the governor by the attorney general is not unheard of, even within the current administration. Earlier, Attorney General Nessel pursued an investigation into allegations surrounding a state contract for COVID-19 contact tracing services highlighted in a prior written request made by Sen. Jim Runestad.

AG Nessel assigned multiple prosecutors and Special Agents to investigate the contact tracing contract. The investigation team interviewed 17 witnesses and reviewed thousands of documents, then released their findings in a 29-page report outlining the work and explaining how criminal charges were unfounded under Michigan law.

As of March 10, there have been more than 24,000 COVID cases among patients in long-term care facilities.

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