On Jan. 27, 2021, Charlie LeDuff sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for a list of all the deaths from COVID-19 from December to February, including the date of death and when the state recorded the death. He also asked for demographic information, such as the age, race and place where the death occurred, such as at a nursing home. MDHHS responded roughly an hour later and directed LeDuff to publicly posted data, but these data do not include the specific information he requested. The department denied responsibility for fulfilling his FOIA request in light of this publicly available data.
On Feb. 23, LeDuff called MDHHS to clarify his request. He left a voicemail and MDHHS responded via email. The department now claimed, for the first time, that the information he sought was exempt from FOIA, arguing that releasing the requested information would allow the deceased to be individually identified. LeDuff responded and clarified that he is not seeking the identities of the deceased but simply the number of COVID deaths from December to February, along with age, date of death, date when the death was recorded by the state and whether the death occurred in a nursing home. MDHHS again responded that this data is exempt from FOIA, but cited a different statue this time for rationalizing its nondisclosure.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued the department on behalf of LeDuff. The MCLF argued that the specific data sought is not enough to identify any individual, and even then, the department could simply withhold these details while still fulfilling the rest of the FOIA request. That is what Michigan's public transparency laws require.
On May 19, the department released a portion of the requested records, including the ages of the deceased and the dates of their deaths. Unfortunately, the department was unable to provide the dates a specific vital record death was added to the state’s tally, as well as whether the deceased contracted COVID-19 at a long-term care facility.