Evers defends health officials over delayed classification of 1,000 past nursing home COVID deaths

Gov. Tony Evers on Monday defended health officials who in the last two weeks attributed nearly 1,000 more COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities after those people had been marked for months as having died in an “unknown” housing setting.

Evers said the state’s COVID-19 response would not have changed if the deaths had been accurately classified quickly because state and local health officials knew from the start of the pandemic that all Wisconsin residents living in shared housing, like a nursing home, would have been at a higher risk of dying of COVID-19 and all outbreaks including two or more people were investigated promptly. 

“Our local folks got lots of death certificates and death investigations that just had a street name on it. How do we know that is a nursing home? We made sure we were on-site and helping those nursing homes from the get-go,” Evers told reporters at a new vaccine clinic on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

Evers is facing criticism from Republicans now that the state is now reporting 45% of the people who died from COVID-19 were in long-term care facilities when for months the state had linked only between 26% and 30% of fatalities to long-term care.

Until recently, the state was missing information in about half of all COVID-19 deaths and could not say whether those people were long-term care residents. They were listed as COVID-19 deaths with an “unknown” housing setting.

Now, many of them have been reclassified as long-term care residents, a category that covers nursing homes and assisted living centers.

“The failure to accurately classify these deaths obscured the truly dire situation in Wisconsin’s long-term care facilities,” Wisconsin Republican members of the U.S. House wrote in a letter to Evers on Monday. “Had this information been accurately reported in real time, medical personnel could have targeted the limited supply of medical resources available to them toward long-term care facilities.”

Evers’ administration said the change is part of the normal process of updating the state’s health data, including about COVID-19 deaths, and ensuring data quality. They said the state’s decentralized system — with data gathered at local health departments — makes data difficult to collect, and said that without an extra step they took, the 1,000 deaths might never have been correctly tied to long-term care facilities.

His administration did not answer questions until Monday about why it took months to update the data and how long ago the reclassified deaths occurred.

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Republican state lawmakers are calling for a review or audit of the process to track COVID-19 deaths in light of the reclassification, which was first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 

“If more people would have known that almost half the deaths were in nursing homes, we would have (done) a better job prioritizing nursing homes,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Friday.

Vos said knowing that data sooner may have prevented restrictive health orders affecting certain industries that had “to be propped up with borrowed money from our grandchildren.”  

“If the Republicans want to weaponize the Legislative Audit Bureau, no surprise there,” Evers said on Monday. “But at the end of the day, it did not impact our outreach or our work with those nursing homes.”

Evers attributed the reclassification to the time it takes health officials to resolve missing or unclear information while also responding to a pandemic. 

“You’re in the middle of a pandemic. You’re already working in those nursing homes. To me, it is important to have the right data, but if we had the right data, and we knew who was where, it wouldn’t have made any difference in our outreach because we were already there and working with those nursing homes,” Evers said. 

Sarah Volpenhein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.

Contact Molly Beck and Devi Shastri at molly.beck@jrn.com and dashastri@jrn.com.