State blocks public access to death records on COVID-19

Bureaucratic roadblocks impede verification of coronavirus data

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MONDAY, Feb. 22 — State officials are blocking access to death records in Michigan as the national death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic tops 500,000 people this week.

And as a result, media outlets — like City Pulse — have been left unable to formally review and create verified lists of Michiganders who have died from the coronavirus. 

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, summed up the state’s perspective in response to an email that sought an explanation:

“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.”

Some vital records, like death certificates, are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act, explained Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum. Officials could create administrative rules that enable access to the information contained in death certificates — like names and causes of death — but have yet to do so. As it stands, the state requires each certificate be requested by name along with a $30 fee to receive it.

As a result, City Pulse, among other outlets, have been left to rely on aggregated state reports without any death certificate records to verify the accuracy of the information.

Sutfin cited the Attorney General on Monday, noting officials did not have the ability to create an administrative rule to allow an inspection of death records. She said the state has previously allowed limited information to be released to the media, like databases, but it is stripped of any identifying information to prevent identifying those who died.

Under such requests, the agency is required to sign an agreement with the state of Michigan which includes how and what can be published and when the data must be destroyed. Those requests are approved by the State Registrar and officials at MDHHS.

Byrum allowed City Pulse to review death records to verify data from the Ingham County Health Department last year. But she said that was allowed under prior legal guidance, instead noting this month that “updated guidance no longer permits that practice.”

Communications staff at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office didn’t respond to follow-up questions this week, including on what (if any) role Whitmer’s office played in the clamp down on data. Mackinac Center for Public Policy's Lead on Open Government Steve Delie argued that the state was wrongly withholding information in the public interest.

"The data that is being withheld here is the same data that is underlying the state's decisions on COVID," he said. "Regardless of what side of the spectrum you might be on, access to that information is essential to understand government's decisions. It's disappointing to see the government is unwilling to share this information that will help the public understand the pandemic and the policy decisions made as a result of it."

Delie is not alone in questioning the state's refusal to release information. 

"This is disappointing," said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association. "This is, as one member has expressed, an information tax."

Byrum tracked a 13% increase in deaths last year. In total, 3,471 were reported in 2020 compared to 3,075 in 2019. She also noted it was the “highest increase in some time.”

Additional data — including the causes of death — was unavailable without providing the name of the deceased and paying a $30 fee for each individual death certificate. Ingham County last reported 15,245 coronavirus cases and 278 resulting deaths since March.

Barriers to vital records began with a statewide directive on Jan. 25 from State Registrar Jeff Duncan, who works in the Vital Statistics and Health Statistics division at MDHHS.

Reporters at the Traverse City Record Eagle have also sought similar data from state health officials, including the name, age and county of residence of those who died of COVID-19 in Michigan, said Executive Editor Nate Payne. State officials denied that request, instead offering a database of names, ages and counties of those who died.

When pushed on why the data couldn’t also include causes of death — to later be narrowed to COVID-19 deaths — state health officials told the Record Eagle it was being denied access because the paper intended to publish that information, Payne explained.

The Three Rivers Commercial News also sought (and was denied) death certificate details. Publisher Dirk Milliman said it was important to release the names to add a layer of specificity to the true toll of the pandemic, not unlike reports in the New York Times

Milliman also believes transparency and streamlined access to records would help in addressing conspiracy-minded residents to better understand the big picture of the death toll and provide a more straightforward picture of the data underlying state restrictions. 

Who has died from the virus, and what, if any, underlying conditions may have been involved has become a hot topic of conspiracy-minded Americans. Official CDC data shows that 6% of those who died from COVID-19 had only COVID-19 listed on their death certificate. Some studies accused the CDC of vastly inflating coronavirus deaths.

A full review of death certificates, at least in Ingham County, would enable a more comprehensive understanding of how many died only from the virus as well as how many faced other health complications, many of which could also be tied to COVID-19.

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