Lansing — The leader of Michigan’s health department and Republican lawmakers engaged in a heated debate Wednesday over the state’s efforts to combat COVID-19 in nursing homes.

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, defended the strategies of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, which focused on caring for those with the virus in isolated areas of existing nursing homes. He labeled one of Republicans’ main criticisms — a claim that nursing homes were “forced” to take individuals with the virus — “false.”

“Michigan was very hard hit with COVID, at one point having the third most deaths per capita in the U.S.,” Gordon told Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic. “Because the state was hard hit, our nursing homes were hit hard as well.

“As we responded statewide — and as Governor Whitmer took decisive action using her emergency powers to protect the lives of Michiganders — the loss of life in Michigan abated.”

But Republican lawmakers pushed back, emphasizing a March 13 letter from the head of the Health Care Association of Michigan, a group that represents nursing homes, that suggested setting up entirely separate facilities as “quarantine centers” to better isolate those with the virus. The Detroit News reported the letter on June 19.

Republican lawmakers have urged Whitmer’s administration to set up separate facilities to better isolate individuals with COVID-19. The GOP-controlled Legislature even passed a bill on the matter, which Whitmer vetoed.

Nursing homes have been a main topic of debate as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued for six months. About 32% of Michigan’s 6,612 deaths linked to the virus have been nursing home residents, according to state data.

Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, said “it just seems incorrect” to place someone with COVID-19 in a nursing home where there are vulnerable individuals without the virus.

“It just seems counterintuitive to put people who are sick or recovering, but still sick, in a facility, even if there are curtains and doors and proper PPE (personal protective equipment),” O’Malley said. “The potential (for spread) just seems like it’s huge.”

Robert Gordon

Gordon responded that there are “many complexities” to establishing entirely separate facilities, including staffing and equipping the buildings and moving people from one place to another.

Two states, Florida and Massachusetts, that used the separate facility strategy are no longer using it, Gordon said. He showed a slide of federal data that indicated Michigan ranks 18th among the 50 states for COVID-19 nursing home deaths per 1,000 residents.

“It is profoundly imperfect, as all things are in life,” Gordon said of the state’s strategy. “But at the moment, it is a strategy that per this slide, is functioning reasonably well.”

At one point, Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, who chairs the committee, accused Gordon of “stonewalling” lawmakers. The committee requested emails from state officials about nursing homes but hadn’t received the documents, Hall said.

“We’ve been asking for many months for you and your department to turn over your communications related to nursing homes,” Hall said. “I’m interested. When you are going to turn them over or do we have to issue a subpoena?”

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall

“We’re talking about thousands upon thousands of emails,” Gordon said.

“Why are you stonewalling us?” Hall later asked.

“We’re not stonewalling you,” Gordon replied, adding, “We are providing the documents as quickly as we can.”

The Joint Select Committee, which features both House and Senate members, could issue a subpoena. After the meeting, Hall said he would talk with legislative leaders about how to proceed.

In June, The Detroit News requested the emails of one state official who oversees nursing home policies related to the facilities. The newspaper sought communications that occurred over two months. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it would take $3,157 to complete the request.

Democrats were unhappy Wednesday with the tone of the committee hearing. Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Saginaw, said Republicans were “badgering” Gordon and apologized to him.

Out of the 45 nursing homes in Michigan that have reported the most deaths linked to COVID-19, nearly half — 22 — had beencited by state inspectors in recent months for failing to follow infection control, isolation or staffing policies, The Detroit News found in a July review of hundreds of pages of state records.

cmauger@detroitnews.com