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Conversation with Gov. Whitmer focuses on nursing homes

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Governor's office

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer focused largely on protection of older adults in nursing homes across Michigan during the coronavirus pandemic in an hour-long telephone town hall on June 29, hosted by AARP Michigan.

Whitmer noted she recently established a bipartisan Michigan Nursing Home COVID-19 Preparedness Task Force within the Department of Health and Human Services that will issue an action plan by late summer.

“The task force will be charged with analyzing relevant data and will recommend improvement of data quality,” she said. “They will release periodic reports on best practices, and provide technical assistance to nursing homes. They will develop an action plan by Aug. 31.”

Robert Gordon, Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services who was also on the call, noted that nursing facilities in the state were “hit very hard” by the pandemic early on due to a lack of testing and other supplies.

“We are now at a significantly better place,” he said. “We recently issued a requirement that all facilities engage in testing of residents and staff. We can get individuals who tested positive the treatment they need and are appropriately separated from those who are not COVID positive.

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“In addition, we are making sure nursing homes have the staffing that they need, that there are appropriate infection control practices in nursing facilities, and that overall we are doing what represents best practice to protect residents.”

Gordon said restrictions on family visitation of loved ones will continue.

“We would all love if we could lift those,” he said. “It’s a source of great pain and challenge. But the one thing that would be worse would be to cause outbreaks that we can’t control.”

Whitmer referred to a recent report by Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team showing that the aggressive measures Michigan took “have prevented the spread and significantly lowered the number of people who got COVID-19 and who had a fatality.

“Daily new cases at their peak would have been 2.7 times higher than what we actually saw in Michigan, which means without intervention we would have experienced tens of thousands more cases and certainly thousands more deaths,” the Governor said.

“We have to continue to stay vigilant and flexible so we lower the chance of a second wave. We have to keep our guard up and continue to implore people to wear masks.”

Among the questions posed by some of the thousands of people on the telephone town hall call:

My husband has been unemployed for 8 weeks (due to the pandemic) and hasn’t gotten a check yet. It’s very frustrating. What’s being done to fix this?

“I’m frustrated as well. We have an incredible challenge and one our systems were not built to meet, quite frankly,” Whitmer said. “We’ve had to as we’re flying the plane kind of build the plane. We’ve experienced unemployment numbers unlike anything our state has ever seen at a time when our unemployment agency has been under-invested in, including the technology.

“We also have been targeted for criminal activity by organizations that are trying to defraud states of the dollars that have come in from the federal government. So the things we had been trying to move quickly had to slow down because of that fraud on top of it.”

She said the agency has promised all cases will have final determination by July 1, adding that “$11 billion has gone into the hands of 93 percent of the people who have applied.”

How do we find out where is the closest place to get tested for the virus?

Gordon responded that state residents should visit, and click on the button at the top of the web page for finding a local testing place.

I know someone whose father is in a nursing home, he doesn’t have COVID, but her daughter can’t visit him. Why can’t nursing homes use available devices to connect nursing home residents to loved ones, face to face, voice to voice?

“It’s heartbreaking,” Whitmer said, “but I know that kind of connection is happening in a lot of our facilities. We will work on how do we encourage the facilities to use these tools that are widely available.”

Gordon said the administration has made clear that nursing facilities have to make virtual connection available, “but it’s hard in the real world, sometimes folks don’t have technology, don’t have access to it. We need to continue to work through it. We have supplied 1800 devices to facilities, but implementation is really hard.”

Why are stores posting that masks are required, but then not enforcing the requirement?

“We know that in order to get greater compliance the store owner is the one who really has to do the enforcing,” Whitmer said. “That means reminding people and turning people away from the store who are not wearing a mask. You could relay your concerns to the person that manages the store or owns the store.”

What percentage of people who test positive for coronavirus die?

“For those who test positive, the rate of death is 3-5 percent,” Gordon said. “But for everyone who tested positive, you have about 10 people who have the virus an didn’t get tested. It’s a very serious illness with a much higher fatality rate than the flu. Most people recover. But we don’t know yet the long-term effects on those who do recover.”

In closing remarks, Whitmer said: “The novel nature of this, we’ve learned a lot in the last three months, and we will know even more three months from now. We know areas that drop their guard back can have a second wave that is as bad as the first wave or even worse.”

Finally, Whitmer said AARP “has done incredibly hard work these past three months. I know the organization has played a crucial role in providing information and resources to help older adults protect themselves. We are also grateful to have Melissa Seifert (AARP Michigan Associate State Director of Governmental Affairs) representing the voice and expertise of AARP on the task force.”

Callers were asked in an unscientific survey about their use of telehealth services. The poll showed 40 percent had used the technology; 30 percent had not used it, but were open to trying; 22 percent did not have access to the technology; and 7 percent said they had no intention of using telehealth services.

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