By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — State and federal lawmakers are demanding answers from Gov. Tony Evers’ administration about its alarming undercount of COVID-19 deaths at Wisconsin’s nursing homes.
Last week, reports surfaced that the Evers’ Department of Health Services failed to adequately count nearly 1,000 COVID deaths among long-term care residents, the most vulnerable population. DHS for months had reported 26 percent of nursing home residents died from the virus, but over the past couple of weeks the agency quietly raised the death rate to 45 percent.
The revised numbers followed questions about the Evers administration’s failure to fully vaccinate residents in Wisconsin’s assisted living facilities.
“Recent reports uncovering extensive data shortfalls by the Evers administration in clarifying long-term care COVID-19 deaths are troubling,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) in a joint press release with all five Wisconsin Republican House members. “The Evers administration’s failure to accurately classify these deaths may have impeded the State’s ability to target medical resources toward long-term care facilities and better inform Wisconsin’s vaccination program, possibly costing lives.”
Fitzgerald and his colleagues note that most states have been able to handle updating COVID-19 data in real-time, something Evers’ DHS has had all kinds of problems doing.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, recently apologized after he announced an estimated 165 coronavirus deaths went unreported. Many of those deaths occurred at nursing homes. Justice called for an investigation. The governor has been slammed nationally in media accounts for his state’s data problems.
“We’ve got to do better. We are disrespecting great West Virginians,” Justice said Friday.
There’s been no apology from Wisconsin’s Democratic governor for the 1,000 deaths that for so long went unreported, and no talk of an investigation — from the governor.
But there have been several calls from Republican lawmakers for real answers from the Evers administration.
“We need to understand why DHS is taking so long to provide accurate information and whether this lack of transparency is intentional or simply incompetence,” said state Sen. Pat Testin (R-Stevens Point), chairman of the Senate’s Health Committee.
Testin and state Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) have asked the Legislative Audit Committee to investigate.
Evers on Monday blamed local officials for the data problems.
“Our local folks got a lot of death certifications and death investigations that just had a street name on it, how do we know that’s a nursing home?” Evers said during a vaccination site visit Monday in Milwaukee. “It takes days to process a death, the paperwork….those things take time to resolve.” He said local health departments didn’t properly fill out addresses of individuals who died from COVID-19 compilations, according to CBS58.
U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Janesville) said the Evers administration’s handling and defensiveness sound a lot like another high profile case involving deaths of nursing home residents.
“While national attention has focused on (New York) Governor (Andrew) Cuomo’s failure to protect seniors in New York, deaths in Wisconsin long-term care facilities have been underreported… (T)he Evers administration has operated under inaccurate and misleading data for months,” the congressman said.