By Jessica Mathews & Jon King /

A report from a task force, which included a local lawmaker, says Michigan should modify a system in which nursing home residents infected with the coronavirus can be treated and isolated in those facilities.

Republican State Representative Hank Vaupel of Fowlerville was part of the 20-member group created by Governor Whitmer to prepare for a potential second surge of COVID-19 after deaths and cases spiked in the spring. Nursing home residents account for 2,088, or 31%, of the state’s 6,767 confirmed or probable deaths related to the virus. Of the 28 recommendations, nearly half involve ways to better the quality of life inside 442 homes that have had to stop communal dining and restrict visits and other activities during the outbreak.

To reduce the effects of isolation, the panel urged allowing outdoor and window visits, limited communal dining and optional “pod”-like arrangements in which residents could spend time together in small groups. Other recommendations from the report, which is posted below, include prioritizing nursing homes for personal protective equipment and testing supplies, lessening data-reporting requirements and designating labs that give priority to specimens from the homes. The task force said homes continue to face challenges finding qualified staff, especially in the pandemic. It recommended improving a state licensing website for people interested in becoming nursing assistants and making public service announcements about the shortage.

The group split on one recommendation, which involves the controversial issue of placing recovering individuals with COVID-19 in nursing homes. Whitmer, who has faced criticism for the policy, has let infected residents who are medically stable return to their facility if it has a dedicated coronavirus unit or go to a designated “hub” home — both of which have uninfected residents. The panel said hospitals should, “whenever possible,” not discharge patients with the COVID-19 virus to their nursing home if they have less than 72 hours in their overall isolation period. If that is not an option, then the hub program should be changed to ensure consideration is given to a home’s quality and inspection history before it becomes a “care and recovery center” with a wing, unit or building to care for infected residents.

Vaupel said he specifically fought for strengthening infection and patient admission protocols within long-term care facilities and that everyone, "knew well before COVID-19 made its way into Michigan that seniors were far more susceptible to serious complications, yet policies were implemented that sent the virus to those living in long-term care settings. The result has been tragic, which is why I went to work right away on finding effective solutions to protect our most vulnerable.”

Whitmer pledged to review the recommendations and work to strengthen policies to to protect nursing home residents, staff and their families. State Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said many recommendations from the task force and in a separate report released by the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan already are underway.

The task force was made up of industry officials, hospital representatives, lawmakers, top Whitmer administration officials, caregivers and others.

“Dedicated staff have worked hard during this pandemic to protect their residents from a virus that is most unmerciful to them. These recommendations will help them continue to do so,” said Melissa Samuel, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of Michigan, an industry group for nursing facilities.