Reps. Laurie Pohutsky and Ryan Berman discussing the state of nursing homes during the pandemic. Photos via MI House TV.
Reps. Laurie Pohutsky and Ryan Berman discussing the state of nursing homes during the pandemic. Photos via MI House TV.

Michigan’s most vulnerable residents are dying from the coronavirus at alarming rates. Here’s why Reps Laurie Pohutsky and Ryan Berman got into a heated debate about what to do about it.

LANSING, MI — One of the greatest struggles Michigan has faced in terms of containing the novel coronavirus pandemic has been how to approach the unique challenges posed by assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

As The ’Gander reported early in the pandemic, facilities designed to care for the elderly posed problems most other environments didn’t, particularly in terms of gathering a vulnerable population in one place and requiring them to closely interact with staff there to assist them. Michigan has struggled with charting a course that balances the need to care for the vulnerable and the need to protect existing populations from the virus.

State Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) said the confusion surrounding early executive action didn’t help. 

“The language made it appear as though [nursing homes] were being required to take COVID patients, that’s definitely not what was happening,” she told The ̕Gander.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order that permitted assisted living facilities to readmit residents if it had a properly staffed coronavirus ward, consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, the interpretation of her order was that nursing homes would be required to take on coronavirus patients.

“That was the CDC guidelines, that’s what we followed,” Gov. Whitmer told WXYZ. “We never required a single nursing home to take in a patient that was recovering from COVID-19, it’s just plain false.”

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Nursing homes haven’t been keeping up with CDC guidelines themselves, either. The Alpena News reports that 92 residents and employees at the city’s MediLodge facility have contracted the coronavirus, making up the lion’s share of Alpena County’s 111 coronavirus cases, and that the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) chastised the facility for failing to adhere to safety protocols. 

Finding a Way to Move Forward

Pohutsky serves as a member of a working group trying to address the problems that exist in ways that have already been implemented as policy, and seeks to codify those reforms as law. 

“The fact of the matter is, we have COVID-positive patients in these nursing homes,” Pohutsky told The ̕Gander. “So this work group got together, talked to nursing home residents, talked to nursing home staff, talked to field hospitals, and made some recommendations to the governor’s office. I was very, very pleased that those were reflected in later iterations of that executive order.”

She contrasted this with Michigan Republicans, who have taken a stance that seniors with coronavirus should not be at nursing homes, without answering where those seniors should be instead. Pohutsky explained that field hospitals have challenges dealing with patients facing conditions like dementia.

She argued with Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) over a resolution he introduced condemning Gov. Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic as it relates to nursing home populations. His resolutions did not propose alternatives. 

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During the hearing on Berman’s resolution, he asserted that nursing homes would be forced to accept coronavirus patients. Pohutsky corrected him, pointing to a newer, clarified order she worked with Gov. Whitmer on making it clear that was not the case. Berman got heated and interrupted Pohutsky. 

She asked him if he had spoken with medical staff at field hospitals as part of his resolution discussing what to do with elderly patients with COVID-19. His response was indirect. 

“We’re gravely concerned about the policies not looking back but moving forward,” he said. “This, again, is a dynamic situation and I appreciate all your help in allowing or facilitating change in these policies.”

Pohutsky admitted she, too, had issues with the way the original executive order was written but worked to clarify and improve the policy. She also mentioned that her mother, who works in assisted living, told her that policies weren’t reflected in what was actually happening in nursing homes. And Pohutsky’s work group had spoken to medical professionals in field hospitals about challenges dealing with patients with memory issues.

That was the context she brought with her to the tense exchange with Berman. 

“To be frank, it just seemed like he wasn’t aware of what the executive order itself did,” Pohutsky recounted. 

Berman’s office did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication. 

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Instead she advocates for things like providing personal protective equipment, ensuring that coronavirus isolation wards in nursing homes have their own separate staff, and making it easier to report violations of coronavirus containment policies. Some of which is part of the executive order Gov. Whitmer issued Monday.

Reporting violations in particular has become confusing and challenging for residents, staff, and families, Pohutsky said.

“A lot of this is because things got hectic, systems got overwhelmed during COVID, and I understand that,” Pohutsky explained. “But it became a little onerous to try and report an issue to LARA.”

Pohutsky also talked about places like Alpena’s MediLodge, places that reportedly were not complying with the guidance set forth by the CDC. Falling far short of best practices was systemic. Pohutsky’s work group found that regulations requiring separate dedicated staff for coronavirus isolation wards, many nursing homes weren’t complying. They lacked the staffing, she said.