‘Stood up to Goliath and won.’ Reporter gets access to Michigan’s COVID nursing home death data

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff reaches settlement with Whitmer administration in FOIA lawsuit.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff has reached a settlement with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to gain access to data on the number of COVID-19 nursing home deaths in the state.

The health department agreed to release some of the public records LeDuff requested. The department also acknowledges it can’t determine if some patients killed by COVID-19 contracted the virus at a nursing home or other long-term care facility.

LeDuff sued March 9 after submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for data on COVID-19 deaths but the MDHHS failed to produce the requested records. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation represented him.

“We stood up to Goliath and won,” LeDuff said in a statement. “While I'm pleased that some of the records were released, the state's overall response is alarming and disappointing. Still, this is a win for the people of Michigan, and I'm glad this lawsuit was able to shed some light.”

MDHHS has now provided records for the ages and death dates of the COVID-19 victims, but inadequate tracking meant the department couldn’t provide the dates when a specific vital record death was added to the state’s tally, or whether the deceased contracted COVID-19 at a long-term care facility.

“We are grateful for the opportunity to assist Mr. LeDuff in resolving this case, and we are glad that MDHHS chose to produce this data without further litigation,” Mackinac Center’s FOIA expert Steve Delie said. “Government transparency is essential, particularly during a pandemic, and we will continue to represent individuals like Mr. LeDuff to ensure the public has full and complete access to records.”

LeDuff plans to continue looking into the accuracy of the state’s COVID-19 death data.

Michigan Republicans have accused Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of botching COVID-19 nursing home policy by sending infected seniors into nursing homes, spreading the disease to the most vulnerable population. About 5,645 nursing home residents died and 77 staff members died of COVID-19.

“This data is an essential part of accurately understanding the effects of this pandemic and the public policy implemented in response,” Delie said. “It also leaves open the possibility that the state is undercounting the number of deaths of those in nursing homes.”