Traverse City Record-Eagle. May 30, 2021.

Editorial: Michiganders deserve an accurate count of nursing home deaths

This task simply can’t be someone else’s job.

We were a bit befuddled in April when officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services told a Record-Eagle reporter the statewide health agency hadn’t collected data on COVID-19 infections and deaths in small long-term care facilities. Those regulators pointed our journalist toward local health departments and said the 46 dispersed agencies that each serve a small portion of Michigan were responsible for keeping tabs on small adult foster care operations.

At the time, the deflection left us scratching our heads.

Why wouldn’t state officials ensure they collected data from all nursing facilities, not just the larger ones? And why would they act like the tally of nursing home deaths and infections they publish provides an accurate picture if it doesn’t include 3,469 facilities licensed by the state to operate with 13 or fewer beds?

Such a cavernous gap in data state officials used both for policymaking and public information seems like an important caveat to disclose.

After all, more than 30 percent of COVID-19 deaths (that we know of) in Michigan occurred because of the virus’ spread inside long-term care facilities — places where close quarters living arrangements and a concentration of medically vulnerable people allowed the virus to spread like wildfire.

Instead, state officials simply deflected Record-Eagle inquiries toward overworked and overstressed local health departments. It feels like the kind of move someone would make if they wanted to shake a reporter’s resolve to follow through with thorough reporting on a topic.

Instead, after polling a couple of health departments and realizing she may have uncovered a serious gap in state regulators’ data collection on COVID-19 in nursing homes, that journalist dug deeper. She sent Freedom of Information Act requests to nearly four dozen health departments spread across Michigan.

Responses returned in that dragnet search for records and data exposed our worst suspicions: the vigorous public health monitoring and data collection of the past year in response to COVID-19 effectively omitted nearly 3,500 facilities that care for vulnerable adults.

And thanks to both curiosity and diligence on the part of at least one health officer who received Record-Eagle records requests, we know people who died of COVID-19 in those facilities weren’t monitored by either local or state health officials.

Thanks to Taylor Olsabeck of the Barry-Eaton District Heath Department, we also know a full accounting of deaths in those small AFC homes is possible. Olsabeck, in response to our request, compared general data collected after COVID-19 deaths and a list of small care facilities in the district. She found 15 COVID-19 deaths occurred in those homes, deaths that don’t appear in MDHHS tracking of the disease’s spread in nursing homes.

Why does this hole in state regulators’ monitoring matter at a moment when the pandemic appears to be tapering toward an end?

Well, we would argue understanding the full toll of COVID-19 in our state is one reason. Another might be the possibility that complete data will help public health policymakers protect vulnerable people better the next time we’re confronted by a pandemic disease.

More than anything, a full, accurate accounting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing facilities will help Michiganders demand accountability from our state’s decision-making class.

And maybe that’s why those public health policymakers appear utterly uninterested in plugging the hole in their data. Maybe they simply want to avoid the kind of scrutiny that would accompany the discovery of hundreds or thousands of uncounted nursing home deaths.

Regardless of why, it’s clear MDHHS officials have spent the past year setting sweeping public health policies based on information they know is incomplete. Now, they have a responsibility to provide the public they serve with a clear and complete accounting of the pandemic’s toll on our state.

Complete data doesn’t lie, but incomplete data is a lie.

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Detroit News. May 27, 2021.

Editorial: State boosts local booze; more help needed

Michigan made a major move this week to boost the burgeoning craft distillery industry with the adoption of bipartisan legislation that makes distribution of some products simpler and taxes lower. Now it should tackle the remaining barriers keeping the promising new segment from reaching its full potential.

The key piece of the four-bill package signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer deals with canned cocktails, the hot new segment of the liquor business that packages mixed drinks in an aluminum can.

Michigan distillers can now raise the alcohol content of the ready-to-drink cocktails to 13.5% from 10% in cans less than 24 ounces.

In addition, taxes on mixed spirits were cut to $0.30 per liter from $0.48 per liter.

Small distillers can also distribute up to 3,000 gallons of their product to retailers themselves, bypassing the Michigan Liquor Control Commission’s rigid distribution system. Liquor makers can now move their bottles through wine wholesalers, a cheaper option that will give them access to more outlets.

The cost savings and additional revenue the legislation should generate will be a boon to an industry that has grown to roughly 40 local distillers statewide from fewer than five over the past five years, says J.P. Jerome of Detroit City Distillery, and vice president of the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

“Where it’s really important is for those making spirits in Michigan on a small scale,” he says. “It should allow more people to get a foot in door. It will allow local brands to build themselves up.”

To really push it ahead, the state should take additional steps.

Chief among them is lowering the oppressive excise tax on distilled spirits. For a bottle of booze that sells for $30, the state claims about $10 in taxes. After distribution and other costs, the distiller is left with just $7.

That reduces profit margins on a low volume business, and makes prices less competitive.

Lowering the tax on small distillers who use Michigan agricultural products and employ Michigan workers might actually generate more revenue for the state.

Craft distillers in Michigan should also be allowed to sell their products online and ship direct to consumers, as wineries do.

The potential for this industry could equal that of craft breweries, which have sprung up in towns across Michigan, creating jobs and boosting tourism.

“We could have the same presence,” says Jerome.

Another push by the state could get them there.

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Alpena News. May 29, 2021.

Editorial: Let’s get back to work — and keep tipping big

Our economy appears poised to roar back from the shutdowns and slowdowns caused by the coronavirus and government restrictions meant to prevent the virus’ spread.

However, a very serious lack of workers to run that economy could hold us back.

From manufacturers to retailers to the hotel and restaurant industry, businesses up and down the economic ladder have struggled for weeks to recruit workers to fill the positions they need to meet the growing demand for their products or services as life slowly returns to normal (The News is no exception — we have multiple part-time positions open in our mailroom; apply at The News, 130 Park Place in downtown Alpena).

In response, employers have dug into their coffers to offer more pay, signing bonuses, recruitment bonuses, and other incentives to encourage folks to come back to work. Still, they struggle.

Some blame the government’s generosity during the pandemic, saying extended and enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and upcoming checks for child care discourage folks from seeking a paycheck.

Others say the turmoil of the pandemic turned workers away from the lowest-paying sectors of our economy. To some, waiting tables just no longer paid enough to make up for the usual abuse and weird hours of the job, which during the pandemic also included trying to police mask-wearing, collect contact tracing information, perform extra cleaning, and extra abuse from customers on edge.

Whatever the cause, it’s time our government policy shift to incentivize work over help for those without work. Some government officials want to pay people to go back on the job, a sort of government-sponsored signing bonus. Michigan will once again require those receiving unemployment benefits to search for a job, a mandate suspended during the pandemic.

We have to do our part, too. We need to keep tipping our servers well, and otherwise be extra supportive of waitstaff, retail clerks, and others.

We have to make it worthwhile for folks to get back on the job, because we need them to get things going again.

END