Last week, a lawyer reportedly serving as a special counsel to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer published a leaked letter that falsely indicated a shortage of ventilators and intensive-care beds at the Henry Ford Health System had forced staff to leave some Wuhan virus patients to die. While the hospital has since made clear that it has ventilators and beds at all of its Michigan locations, the incident suggests the governor’s office is either over its head in handling the pandemic, purposefully playing politics during the crisis, or both.
The rumor-mongering began sometime Thursday when Nicholas Bagley, a University of Michigan Law School professor, tweeted an excerpt of an internal document drafted by Henry Ford Health Systems.
“Patients who have ventilator or ICU care withdrawn will receive pain control and comfort measures,” Bagley wrote, above a picture of the letter. Soon after, Kasie Hunt, NBC News’ Capitol Hill correspondent, retweeted Bagley’s tweet to her 490,000 followers, telling them, “It is happening here, in America. Doctors here are having to decide. ‘Patients who have the best chance of getting better are our first priority.’”
Andy Slavitt, the former Obama administration acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or “Ex-Obama health care head,” as he describes himself on Twitter, pushed the story to his 370,000 followers, with some added flourish: “A major hospital in the Midwest has reached its limit on ventilators minutes ago. They are handing out forms saying that only those ‘with the best chance of survival’ will get care. Others will be getting pain medication.”
The story had gone viral. Then, shortly before midnight, Bagley deleted his tweet, telling followers he was “going to take this down until it can be independently verified.” Bagley added “the memo is circulating among doctors, but Henry Ford apparently can neither confirm nor deny it yet.”
Not long after Bagley deleted the leaked letter, the Henry Ford Health System responded on Twitter that “with a pandemic, we must be prepared for worst case,” adding that the hospital group had “crafted a policy to provide guidance for making difficult patient care decisions,” but with the “hope never to have to apply them.”
The Henry Ford Health System responded more fully to media outlets, explaining, as the Detroit News reported, that the “letter was in preparation for a ‘worst case scenario,’ but has not been enacted as policy.” Brenda Craig, a spokeswoman for the hospital system, also noted, according to the Detroit News, that they have “not reached capacity at any of its locations, nor has it reached the limit on ventilators at any of its hospitals.” Craig added that “the letter is part of a larger internal document that unfortunately was shared publicly.”
Then came the closing line in the Detroit News’ coverage of the incident: “Bagley, who has since removed the document from Twitter, occupies ‘a temporary position as special counsel in the Michigan governor’s office to aid in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic’ as of March 21, according to an automatic response from his UM email.” My request to his UM email after the Detroit News article published, however, did not generate this automatic response.
This detail changes the complexion of the incident. What could have easily been scored as just the latest example of fake news made viral by social media now raises myriad questions and concerns about Whitmer’s coronavirus response.
Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown confirmed that Bagley is currently serving as a special counsel to the governor. Brown also told me that “the letter, which had already been widely circulated and posted on social media, was shared with him in his personal capacity – not obtained through any work for the Governor’s Office.”
While that fact is reassuring, of equal concern is why Bagley posted the letter on Twitter. Did he truly believe the Henry Ford Health System had no ICU beds or ventilators available? Did he believe the policy detailed in the letter had already gone into effect? If so, why take to Twitter instead of immediately informing his colleagues in the governor’s office of the problem, given his reported position as special counsel to Whitmer is “to aid in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic?”
Bagley did not respond to multiple phone and emails messages seeking comment, but it seems unfathomable to think that Whitmer’s special counsel would read about the crisis and not immediately raise red flags with the Michigan coronavirus task force.
But if Bagley had informed his colleagues about the letter, that would be even more disconcerting, because it would mean they didn’t know whether the Henry Ford Health System—the second largest medical system in Michigan—had run out of ICU beds and ventilators.
Whitmer’s coronavirus team should know exactly how many hospitals have reached capacity and have run out of ventilators, and should be prepared to marshal the necessary resources or arrange for any needed transfer of patients to other hospitals. No member of the governor’s team should opt for pushing public panic instead of finding a solution.
On the other hand, if Bagley knew the Henry Ford Health System letter presented a worst-case-scenario plan and that the policy had not been implemented, why would he plant the narrative that the hospital system was out of ICU beds and ventilators and patients were being left to die? Was Bagley playing politics with the coronavirus, much as Whitmer has been over the last month by complaining about the lack of federal aid when she failed to file the federal emergency management forms required to obtain a declaration of a major disaster?
Either way, Bagley’s conduct created unnecessary panic, raises more concerns over Whitmer’s handling of the crisis, and suggests an unhealthy dose of politics is in play in the swing state of Michigan.