Gov. Evers defends reclassification of COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities; GOP lawmakers call for an investigation

NOW: Gov. Evers defends reclassification of COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities; GOP lawmakers call for an investigation

MADISON, Wis (CBS 58) -- Governor Tony Evers is defending his administration after state health officials linked nearly 1,000 COVID-19 deaths to long-term care facilities, a process some Republican lawmakers say shouldn’t have taken months. 

Last week, state health officials reclassified hundreds of COVID-19 deaths from an “unknown” category to long-term care facilities, which resulted in the state reporting an uptick from 26% to 45% of all deaths occurring at these centers

One reason behind the delay in reporting is because at times, local health departments didn’t properly fill out the address of where someone passed away due to COVID-19 complications, Gov. Evers said during a vaccination site visit at UW-Milwaukee. 

“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. “It takes days to process a death, the paperwork….those things take time to resolve.”

Two Republican senators, Alberta Darling (R-River Falls) and Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), are asking the Legislative Audit Committee to launch an investigation to determine what caused a shortfall in reporting COVID-19 deaths. 

“Apparently no one at DHS has heard of Google Maps, it should not take a year to figure out where an individual lives. That's what’s concerning to me,” said Testin.

Evers dismissed Republican lawmakers' attempts to have the co-chairs of the audit committee look into how DHS reports its COVID-19 data. 

“If the Republicans want to weaponize the legislative audit bureau, no surprise there, but at the end of the day it did not impact our outreach and our work with those nursing homes,” Evers said. 

Sen. Darling fired back at those comments saying it was “disappointing, but not surprising to see Governor Evers claim transparency is a weapon.”

“An investigation is needed because DHS undercounted 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities for months. The public deserves to know how inaccurate reporting affected the Governor’s response,” Darling wrote in a statement provided to CBS 58. 

State health officials said changing COVID-19 data is part of their process. Evers also believes even if the state had the location of each death, it wouldn’t have changed his administration's actions when responding to outbreaks at these facilities, providing PPE and vaccines. 

“To me it’s important to have the right data, but if we had that and we knew exactly who was where, it wouldn’t have made any difference in our outreach,” said Evers. 

While the updated data provides a more accurate outlook at the extent of the pandemic in long-term care facilities, it’s still unknown exactly how many died in these centers. 

More than 1,700 COVID-19 deaths remain in the unknown category and DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said she doesn’t anticipate they’ll be able to determine what type of group housing those deaths happened in. 

Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation “Concerned” with COVID-19 Data Delays

Members of Wisconsin’s Congressional Delegation are also demanding answers from the Evers administration as to what caused a delay in reporting COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities. 

Republican congressmen Scott Fitzgerald (WI-05), Glenn Grothman (WI-06), Mike Gallagher (WI-08), Bryan Steil (WI-01) and Tom Tiffany (WI-07) signed onto a letter to Evers stating they are concerned Wisconsin’s reputation as a leader in vaccine distribution is now “diminished.”

“Failing to provide accurate data obfuscates the true scope of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin,” the letter states. “The failure to accurately classify these deaths obscured the truly dire situation in Wisconsin’s long-term care facilities.”

Read the full letter below:

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