The CP Edit: For whom the deaths toll

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the first cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed in Michigan. It’s been a rough, life-altering 12 months since then. The global death toll has eclipsed 2.6 million. The U.S. death toll blew past 500,000 a few weeks ago. Here in Michigan, the loss of life is reportedly approaching 17,000. These are just the deaths: Many thousands more will continue to suffer from the long-term damage to their bodies caused by the coronavirus.

It’s hard to wrap our head around the sheer scale of these numbers. At its peak, the COVID-19 pandemic was killing more people each day than died in the 9-11 World Trade Center attack. The U.S. death tally is approaching the loss of life during the entire Civil War. It didn’t have to be this way. With an aggressive, science-driven response from the start, there is little doubt that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been spared. Perhaps we have learned at least one important lesson: The quality of our political leadership, nationally and locally, really does make a difference, especially in times of crisis.

The good news is that we can now see light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to the leadership of President Joe Biden, the vaccine supply is quickly ramping up. More than 60 million Americans have now received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine and states are beginning to loosen restrictions — some much too quickly in our estimation. Nonetheless, the movement toward reopening is welcome news for long-suffering small businesses that managed to survive a full year of lost revenue and those who have been displaced from their jobs.

We’ve been most fortunate to live in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her team have followed the science and stood tall against critics when it counted. Despite the unpopularity of her lockdown orders, and her methodical approach to reopening Michigan’s economy, Whitmer has led with pluck and persistence, putting the well-being of the state’s citizens ahead of the second-guessing, partisan bickering and legislative stonewalling that has characterized the Republican response to the pandemic.

While we are generally pleased with the job Whitmer has done, we’re not happy about her administration’s lack of transparency in documenting the Michigan deaths attributed to COVID. We’re not willing to assume that the state’s reported number — 17,000 deaths — is completely accurate because we can’t independently confirm it. This is because the state refuses to release to the media the names and death certificates of those who died, unless we are willing to request them individually by the decedent’s name, then cough up $30 for each death certificate. That would cost more than a half-million dollars.

A spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services asserts that death certificates are “not considered public records in the sense they are open to inspection by the public or that the information they contain is freely available to all.” Technically, she’s correct. According to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, whose office is charged with maintaining death records for the county, some vital records are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act, including death certificates. Officials could, however, create administrative rules that facilitate access to the information contained in death certificates — like names and causes of death. They have yet to do so.

As recently as last year, City Pulse was able to review death certificates at Clerk Byrum’s office, but that access has since been denied based on “updated legal guidance” from the State of Michigan. Shutting down access to these vital records apparently began with a statewide directive issued on Jan. 25 by State Registrar Jeff Duncan, who works in the Vital Statistics and Health Statistics division at MDHHS. It is unclear who or what led Duncan to implement the lockdown on COVID-related death certificates.

Amid an unprecedented public health crisis, where there is a clear and compelling public interest in verifying the accuracy of the death toll as reported by the state, why not just release the records or facilitate public access to them by media organizations across the state? Is someone afraid that the death certificates and the COVID-19 body count won’t match? If that’s not a concern, then why the lack of transparency? Refusing to provide the media with access to these vital records only feeds the COVID conspiracy narrative and empowers Whitmer’s critics in the Legislature to question whether she is being truthful with the people of Michigan.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that only 6% of deaths due to COVID-19 listed the malady as the sole cause of death on the death certificate. Helping the public understand how many people have died from COVID-19 and what underlying conditions may have contributed to their deaths would go a long way toward countering the conspiracy narrative and provide Michigan residents with a better understanding of the science and data behind Whitmer’s pandemic orders.

In the name of transparency and good government, we urge Whitmer to lift the lockdown on COVID-related death certificates.

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