by Scott McClallen
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Wednesday evening signed Executive Order 2020-191, tweaking long-term care rules and applying some recommendations from the Michigan Nursing Homes COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force.
The order evolves from Whitmer’s old long-term care strategy of 21 Regional Hubs to a “second generation” of care called Care and Recovery Centers (CRC) dedicated to isolating COVID-19 residents.
CRCs are nursing homes designated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to isolate and care for COVID-19 residents, although facilities aren’t required to dedicate the entire facility for COVID-19 residents.
The original regional hubs were established quickly to meet an immediate need, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon told lawmakers in his Sept. 16 Joint Select Committee testimony.
Critics argue Whitmer should have made the dedicated facility change six months ago.
“This sudden change in policy highlights the missteps by the Whitmer administration in their attempt to keep our most vulnerable population safe,” Michigan Rising Action Executive Director Tori Sachs said in a statement.
For at least a month this summer, nursing homes were the largest source of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Whitmer also vetoed a bill in late July that would have designated isolated facilities for COVID-19 patients.
Salli Pung, the state long-term care ombudsman, said her office received nearly double the number of complaints from last year, with almost 1,300 complaints about visitation and isolation.
Wendy Jones, founder and CEO of Next Steps 4 Seniors LLC in Rochester Hills, told The Center Square they’re thankful for allowing communal dining for residents but noted their biggest concern is family interaction.
“[W]e are very concerned for our seniors losing the ‘will to live,’” Jones wrote in an email. “Life is about purpose and if you can’t be with your family you lose that purpose.”
Jones applauded the new change but said they prefer separate buildings for COVID-19 facilities rather than separate units in the same building.
If hospital patients can allow safe in-person visits, then nursing homes should be able to as well, especially as outdoor visits will dwindle with dropping temperature, Jones said.
“While we are all trying to save lives, our goal is to bring awareness from the seniors and families perspective,” Jones said.
“From day one, I have taken action to protect both seniors and staff in long-term care facilities from COVID-19. We know this virus is a killer that preys on our most vulnerable citizens,” Whitmer said in a statement.
MDHHS spokesman Bob Wheaton said research into federal data has shown that while a nursing home’s overall Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) star rating doesn’t correlate directly to its COVID-19 caseload or deaths, facilities with high-performing staffing star rating had fewer COVID-19 cases than low-performing facilities.
The new policy requires CRCs to have a three or higher rating in the CMS Nursing Facility Compare Five-Star Rating staffing category.
New designations will be based on facility performance data, and require an onsite review of the facility before approval.
The remaining hubs will be transitioned to CRCs or decommissioned.
Long-term care facilities without a dedicated COVID-19 unit must attempt to transfer the COVID-19 patient to a CRC, an alternate care facility, or an available swing bed at a hospital.
The order lifts the previous prohibition on communal dining and small group activities if they adhere to state and federal guidelines.
COVID-19 has killed 2,154 nursing home residents in MIchigan, many who were elderly and had preexisting conditions that compromised their immune systems – about one-third of the state’s total deaths attributed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.