Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of March 14

MHA Covid-19 update

MHA Covid-19 updateAs Michigan begins the third year of living with COVID-19, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are trending downward and hopes are high that a new variant will not emerge to cause another surge of disease. The state reported there were 2,770 cases recorded for March 17 and 18 (including about 825 cases attributable to older lab results), 648 adults and children were hospitalized with confirmed and suspected cases, and 50 deaths caused by the disease were recorded over the two-day period. These numbers are fractions of what was seen in December and January, when Michigan hospitals were at or near inpatient capacity.

The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

MIOSHA Will Not Increase COVID-19 Inspections of Healthcare Facilities

Barton Pickelman, director of the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, has confirmed that MIOSHA will not be conducting additional, focused, COVID-19 compliance inspections of healthcare facilities in Michigan. Although a March 2 memo issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a 90-day COVID-19-focused inspection initiative for hospitals and skilled nursing care facilities, Pickelman noted that MIOSHA and other state plans are not required to adopt the federal OSHA initiative. Because MIOSHA has already conducted state emphasis programs for healthcare over the past two years, it is not adopting the federal inspection initiative.

Separate from the OSHA inspections, surveyors from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) will continue to check for compliance with requirements of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and state licensing agencies during regular survey visits or in response to specific complaints. LARA will confirm that facilities have written policies and protocols in place surrounding COVID-19 screening processes, are following their policies as written, and that these policies and protocols can allow either active or passive screening procedures, consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For more information, contact Laura Appel or Amy Barkholz at the MHA.

MHA Creates State/Federal COVID-19 Guidelines Tracker for Providers

To help hospitals and health systems keep track of COVID-19 guidelines, the MHA has developed a document outlining state and federal COVID-19 protocols for healthcare personnel, including vaccination, masking and COVID-19 testing guidelines from both the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services (MDHHS). The downloadable tool can be found on the MHA’s website on the COVID-19 webpage under Resources for Healthcare Professionals. Those with questions may contact Lucy Ciaramitaro at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of Jan. 10

MHA Covid-19 update

MHA Covid-19 updateThe state of Michigan held a press conference Jan. 11 to discuss the rapid rise in case numbers, hospitalizations (especially pediatric hospitalizations) and positivity rates. Speakers urged all residents who are eligible to be both vaccinated and boosted as quickly as possible. Representatives from Children’s Hospital of Michigan joined the event to discuss the concerning rise in childhood case rates and hospitalizations.

The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

SCOTUS Upholds CMS Vaccine Mandate, Enforcement Proceeds

The U.S. Supreme Court issued decisions Jan. 13 on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vaccine mandates. As expected, the court blocked the Biden administration from enforcing the vaccine or test mandate issued under OSHA, but upheld the ability of the CMS to enforce the healthcare worker vaccine mandate.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of state vaccine mandates in a variety of settings, as well as mandates by private employers. These challenges were different because they presented the question of whether Congress had authorized the executive branch to institute the requirements through the agencies of OSHA and the CMS/Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan was not one of the 26 states covered by the court injunction to the CMS mandate, and Michigan has no other state-issued prohibitions on enforcing federal or private vaccine mandates. Hence, the mandate and enforcement move forward. The currently posted deadline for completing the first required vaccine dose is Jan. 27, and the second dose is required by Feb. 28. Boosters are currently not part of the mandate.

The MHA responded to a number of media inquiries following the Supreme Court announcement, including from The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and MiBiz. The association reiterated its long-standing position that mandates of this kind should be left up to local healthcare decision-makers and that hospitals and the MHA have always urged every resident who is eligible to get vaccinated to protect themselves and others. The MHA also stressed that, while the small number of hospital workers who have already ended their employment due to an organization’s mandate did not necessarily worsen the existing staffing shortages, the timing of a nationwide mandate amid this omicron surge could not be worse, as the shortages are more serious than ever. The association assured reporters that hospitals will proceed with compliance and that the MHA and its members will continue to strenuously advocate for staffing assistance from federal and state partners.

Members with questions about deadlines, enforcement or other elements of the mandate are encouraged to review the posted CMS guidance to ensure their organizations are prepared to comply.

MIOSHA: Hospitals May Currently Use CDC Quarantine Guidance Without Penalty

The MHA has continued to work with state regulators on securing updated guidance for hospitals and health systems as it relates to worker quarantine periods. Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules have not yet been fully rescinded to allow for healthcare settings to confidently follow new, less restrictive Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) quarantine guidance.

However, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) has stated it was told OSHA is in the process of withdrawing the relevant rules and the state agency is preparing to update its rules to align with the revised federal rules. MIOSHA also indicated that, until updates are made at the federal and state levels, it will not issue citations specifically regarding quarantine and isolation requirements if an employer were following the Dec. 23, 2021, updated CDC guidance for healthcare personnel.

An existing OSHA provision recognizes the CDC’s ‘‘Strategies to Mitigate Healthcare Personnel Staffing Shortages.’’ This guidance allows elimination of quarantine for certain healthcare workers as a last resort if the workers’ absence would mean there are no longer enough staff to provide safe patient care, specific other amelioration strategies have already been tried, patients have been notified, and workers are using additional personal protective equipment at all times.

The MHA will continue to keep members apprised of developments on this issue. Members with questions may contact Laura Appel at the MHA.

Long-term Care Facility Capacity for COVID Care Increases

Michigan now has 50 Tier-2 COVID-19 Relief Facilities (CRFs) able to take COVID-19 patients from hospitals at discharge if their normal nursing facility isn’t able to accommodate them. This is an increase from just 27 CRFs late in 2021 and includes an Upper Peninsula facility in Hancock.

In addition, Michigan now has nine facilities designated as Care and Recovery Centers (CRC)s, including one in Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula.

The CRC and the CRF programs were established under Michigan Public Act 231 of 2020. These programs were designed to ensure Michigan’s nursing homes were prepared to provide care to individuals who have tested positive for coronavirus under transmission-based precautions within the guidelines and best practices from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michigan’s nursing homes must be reviewed by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to ensure they meet the minimum criteria outlined within the legislation and associated MDHHS policies. Members with questions may contact Paige Fults at the MHA.

Red Cross Declares First Ever National Blood Supply Crisis

The American Red Cross declared a national blood supply shortage and operational crisis Jan. 10. This is the first time such a crisis has been declared, and it could impact hospitals’ ability to provide certain types of care or transfusions in the coming days and weeks. This is a result of the current COVID-19 surge causing canceled donation appointments, Red Cross staffing shortages and more.

The Red Cross chief medical officer sent a notification directly to hospital transfusion leaders outlining these operational challenges and how to plan for expected shortages. The Red Cross also urged the public to donate blood as soon as possible.

The MHA will be amplifying to the public the need for blood donors through its social and traditional media channels.

Michigan Sees Surge in Unemployment Fraud

Michigan has seen a recent surge in unemployment fraud claims, according to the MHA Unemployment Compensation Program (MHA UCP). The increase in unemployment fraud is related to identity theft that occurs when the state Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) system is penetrated. Over the past several weeks, the MHA UCP has seen fraud in about 15 to 20% of all new claims for its clients.

The MHA UCP has worked closely with the UIA on this issue and has mitigated the impact for clients, who have not been assessed charges on these claims. To learn more about the services available through the MHA UCP, contact Neil MacVicar at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpageQuestions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

CEO Report — Incorporating a Federal Advocacy Strategy

MHA Rounds Report - Brian Peters, MHA CEO

“You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” – Harry S. Truman

MHA CEO, Brian PetersI have a dog — a beautiful German Shepherd that joined our family in the midst of the pandemic.  I know that many of you have a family dog too, and they are indeed wonderful friends. But as it turns out, the MHA family is also fortunate to have friends in Washington, DC, and never before has that been more important.

Hospitals and health systems play a key role in their local communities, both as healthcare providers and economic engines. While much of the funding, regulatory, and other public policy decision-making occurs at the local or state level, the truth is that federal politics has become increasingly important, as decisions made at the federal level can have profound impacts on the healthcare delivered in Michigan. The dramatic increase in enrollment for both Medicaid (a shared state/federal program) and Medicare (a strictly federal program) is just one of many reasons why.

Over the years, the MHA’s engagement at the federal level has increased dramatically, to the point where we have now established meaningful relationships with the entire Michigan congressional delegation and their staffers. These relationships were on display early in the pandemic when we were able to convene conference calls with our delegation — both Republicans and Democrats together on the line at the same time — to listen to our insights and requests and target much-needed assistance to our members who were dealing with a true crisis. We have done all the blocking and tackling that is instrumental to federal advocacy, including routine in-person visits to our delegation members’ DC offices, developing congressional district-specific data and talking points on key issues, coordinating closely with the government relations officers of our member health systems (including those with multistate operations), organizing fundraising events and much more.

We are fortunate to have a very close partner in this regard: the American Hospital Association.  I’m happy to share that more than 100 of our Michigan community hospitals are also AHA members, a penetration rate that puts Michigan in the very top tier nationally. As a result, our voice is heard clearly as many Michigan healthcare executives are actively involved in the policymaking process of the AHA, serving on various committee and task forces, including the AHA’s Regional Policy Boards. In this manner, we are able to identify needs unique to our region and provide direct input on public policy — and political strategy — to the AHA.  On that note, we are fortunate that Michigan’s own Wright Lassiter, president and CEO of Henry Ford Health System, is now the chair-elect of the AHA Board.

In addition, the MHA’s political action committee, Health PAC, also has a formal working partnership with the AHAPAC, allowing us to support our members of Congress in this important way.

Recent examples of this partnership in action include our advocacy to protect the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as well as the 340B Drug Pricing Program, and our efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Several weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court released its opinion in the California v. Texas case that challenged the constitutionality of the ACA. The opinion reversed the Fifth Circuit’s judgement in the matter and upheld the constitutionality of the ACA. The MHA was formally involved in the case, as we joined a number of other state hospital associations in filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court. We are very pleased with this outcome, which will help to preserve coverage for as many Michiganders as possible — a key MHA priority.

The MHA has also been involved in the federal legal strategy to support the 340B Drug Pricing Program, which is a federal program created by Congress to help provide relief from escalating drug prices to safety-net hospitals and other healthcare providers serving vulnerable patient populations. Over the past year, six drugmakers have stopped providing discount drug prices for pharmacies that contract with 340B providers. The MHA is working with the American Hospital Association Advocacy Alliance for the 340B Drug Program and the 340B Health coalition to protect this vital program. Last fall, the MHA organized a letter to the Michigan congressional delegation that was signed by representatives from 68 of the more than 80 Michigan 340B hospitals to share hospitals’ concern regarding drug manufacturers’ attempts to limit payment to contract pharmacies and other actions that are a significant detriment to 340B hospitals and the services they can provide to eligible patients because of the program. The MHA also joined other state hospital associations earlier this spring in submitting an amicus brief in support of the AHA’s petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari (a formal request to the court to take up the case) in its appeal of an appellate court decision unfavorable to hospitals on 340B.

Lastly, the MHA has been involved with various aspects of the COVID-19 response at the federal level, from advocating for provider relief funds to providing data and insights on the impact of the pandemic. In May, the MHA worked quickly to get a majority of Michigan’s U.S. House delegation to sign onto a letter urging Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra to extend the deadline for hospitals to use provider relief funds. This joint effort with the AHA and other groups ultimately led to the HHS announcing extended deadlines by which hospitals and other providers that received Provider Relief Fund (PRF) money may use their COVID-19 PRF payments. We also had several MHA members directly involved in submitting statements to Sen. Gary Peters on the impact of healthcare supply chain shortages during the pandemic, which were utilized by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that Sen. Peters chairs.

The MHA is currently working on a comment letter for the recently released federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standards (ETS). Although the AHA achieved several improvements in the final proposed ETS, a number of issues remain. Because Michigan uses a state plan for OSHA regulation, MIOSHA adopted these rules June 22. The MHA is aware that the federal ETS is under regular review and amendments are possible. Filing comments brings attention to those parts of the rule that require further action.

Laura Appel, MHA senior vice president of health policy and innovation, has done an outstanding job as our point person on federal advocacy for many years now. I can tell you from firsthand experience that she knows her way around the federal policymaking process as well as she knows her way around the maze of offices on Capitol Hill. In addition, MHA Executive Vice President Chris Mitchell is serving as the chairman of the SAGRO (State Association Government Relations Officers) group, representing all the state hospital association advocacy leaders. MHA Chief Medical Officer Gary Roth, DO, is also serving as chairman of the SHAPE (State Hospital Association Physician Executives) group, leading his peers across the country. And for the past year I have had the privilege of serving as the chairman of the AHA State Issues Forum, which is the group of state hospital association CEOs focused on the strategic issues that we all share. Collectively, these engagements are just another indication of the stature and leadership of our association on the national level.

As you can see, our dedication to advocating for our members — and the pursuit of our mission to advance the health of individuals and communities — extends from Lansing to Capitol Hill. I am proud of the strong foundation that we have established in this regard and, given the increased focus on hospitals and healthcare in the national conscience as a result of the pandemic, I am convinced that our work at the federal level will continue to be critical.

As always, I welcome your thoughts

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of June 21

MHA Covid-19 update

The COVID-19 vaccines appear to be effective in protecting against serious illness from the more contagious delta variant of the virus. However, the variant continues to infect many in regions throughout the world, with news reports of renewed lockdowns in Australia and New Zeeland and increasing numbers of cases in U.S. states including Missouri, California, Florida and Texas, where fewer residents are vaccinated. Meanwhile, Michigan’s vaccine dashboard shows more than 61% of residents ages 16 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with nearly 9 million doses administered.

The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

Emergency Orders Rescinded Effective June 22

Several emergency public health orders that have been in place for much of the last 15 months are rescinded as of 12:01 a.m. June 22. The orders rescinded and the dates on which they took effect are:

  1. Gatherings and Face Mask Order (June 1, 2021)
  2. Temporary Restrictions for Entry into Congregate Care and Juvenile Justice Facilities (Oct. 29, 2020)
  3. Mandatory Testing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Juvenile Justice Facility Staff (Sept. 18, 2020)
  4. Mandatory Testing for Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Hospitals and Centers Staff (Sept. 14, 2020)
  5. Exceptions to Temporary Restrictions on Entry into Congregate Care and Juvenile Justice Facilities (June 29, 2020)
  6. Exceptions to Temporary Restrictions on Entry into Certain Facilities (June 3, 2020)
  7. Safe Housing for Housing Unstable Individuals (May 12, 2020)
  8. Handling of Bodily Remains (May 4, 2020)
  9. Safe Housing for Michigan Homeless (April 28, 2020)

While the rescission of the facemask and hospital visitor restrictions would seemingly allow hospitals to stop screening visitors and make their own determinations about masking, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) announced new rules June 22 that essentially defer to the OSHA at the federal level. The OSHA rules currently in place still require healthcare facilities to screen visitors and require masks for employees. However, some exceptions are outlined by the OSHA for well-defined areas where employees are fully vaccinated; a flowchart on the OSHA website provides details. The OSHA also refers healthcare facilities to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that continue to urge mask requirements for visitors. The MHA is reviewing the OSHA complete set of rules.

Because the MIOSHA adopted the OSHA rules by reference, the OSHA effective and compliance dates apply. The OSHA COVID-19 Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) is effective June 21, 2021. The compliance date for the ETS is July 6, 2021, with a few exceptions. Compliance with paragraphs (i) Physical Barriers, (k) Ventilation, and (n) Training is required by July 21, 2021.

As an interim final rule, the new OSHA standard is open for comment. The MHA will submit comments on behalf of its members after a more thorough review of the rule, and members are encouraged to share content for the MHA comment letter with Laura Appel. The MHA will continue to advocate with the MIOSHA for consistency in state and federal rules for healthcare settings and keep members apprised of any developments on this issue. Members with questions may contact Adam Carlson at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Weeks of May 24 and 31

MHA Covid-19 update

MHA COVID-19 UpdateWith approximately 8.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the state, more than 59% of Michiganders ages 16 and over have received at least one dose. Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 890,000 cases of the disease had been confirmed as of June 3. The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

MIOSHA Releases New Emergency Rules for Employers, MDHHS Updates Masking Order

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer May 24 announced updates to the COVID-19 emergency rules from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) to guide employers as they allow employees to return to in-person work. She also announced an updated Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) COVID-19 Gatherings and Face Masks epidemic order, effective June 1.

The updated MIOSHA COVID-19 emergency rules took effect May 24 and are set to expire Oct. 14, in accordance with the MI Vacc to Normal plan and recent health guidelines and orders. Because Michigan has vaccinated more than 55% of adults, the MIOSHA removed the requirement that employers must create a “policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.” The agency has also rescinded the draft permanent COVID-19 rules and canceled the public hearing that was scheduled for May 26.

The MIOSHA has updated other aspects of the emergency rules to reflect the recent order from the MDHHS and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rules include:

  • Excessive requirements for personal protective equipment use in the healthcare setting have been removed, along with all industry-specific references.
  • Employers may allow fully vaccinated employees to not wear face coverings and social distance provided they have a policy deemed effective to ensure unvaccinated individuals continue to follow these requirements.
  • Employers should continue to have and implement a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan in accordance with the updated rules.
  • Of note for hospitals, the emergency rules state that “fully vaccinated persons must continue to wear face coverings when in the healthcare setting where patients may be present and when using airplane or public transportation if required by the latest CDC guidance.”
  • Employers must still screen all employees and contractors daily. However, the rules state that a record of health screenings must only be maintained for unvaccinated employees.
  • Employees must maintain six feet of separation only if unvaccinated.

The MHA has identified several areas of confusion with the new rule set and is seeking a frequently asked questions document from the MIOSHA for clarification. For example, although the rules require screening all employees regardless of vaccination status, they only require record-keeping for unvaccinated employees and contractors. The MHA will apprise members of any clarifications from the administration. Members with questions on the new rules may contact Adam Carlson at the MHA.

The updated MDHHS COVID-19 Gatherings and Face Masks epidemic order eliminates outdoor capacity limits entirely and increases capacity for indoor social gatherings to 50%. Under the new order, which will be in effect from June 1 through July 1, masks will continue to be required indoors for individuals who are not yet vaccinated. MHA members are reminded that the MDHHS order regarding hospital visitation policies remains in effect. That order requires health screenings for visitors entering healthcare facilities, among other things.

MDHHS Cautions Providers Regarding False COVID-19 Vaccine Cards

The MDHHS distributed an alert May 27 urging healthcare providers to watch for false vaccine cards/records. The department has received reports of individuals selling false COVID-19 vaccination record cards that may be presented at provider offices, local health departments and other vaccination locations. It has also received reports of blank copies of the CDC COVID-19 Immunization Record cards in circulation, which provides opportunities for entering false information.

These activities make it even more important that providers verify an individual’s immunization status in the Michigan Care Improvement Registry (MCIR) prior to vaccine administration. Accessing the MCIR record ensures the correct immunization status is available and allows providers to verify whether the person has received a dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Out-of-state COVID-19 vaccination record cards should be reviewed for completeness and to ensure that the doses are accurate before entering the information into the MCIR.

Some important points to keep in mind while reviewing the COVID-19 vaccination record card include:

  • Review the record in the MCIR to compare immunization data.
  • Look for completeness of COVID-19 vaccine information.
  • Review vaccinator information.
  • Look for any abnormalities such as alterations to the text or documentation on the card.
  • If the vaccination location is listed on the vaccine record card, verify with the facility that the vaccine was administered there. The facility may wish to follow up with its legal counsel if it is determined to be a false record.
  • If given the opportunity, attempt to learn where the person obtained the card. Any false information found should be reported to local law enforcement.
  • If given the opportunity, make a copy of the card. When the COVID-19 vaccination record is handed to a COVID-19 vaccine provider, it becomes part of the medical appointment and, thus, part of the appointment documentation, including the potential falsification of immunization documentation.

All COVID-19 vaccine providers and medical professionals must report any false medical information as soon as possible. An FBI Public Service Announcement was issued in March alerting the public that selling false COVID-19 vaccination record cards is illegal.

The MDHHS also has related resources available in the MCIR:

Pfizer Vaccine Now Available in 450-Dose Minimum Orders

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is now available in shipments of 450 doses, while the 1,170-dose shipment will continue to be available. Both options were expected to be available for Michigan COVID-19 vaccine providers to order through the MCIR by May 28.

Healthcare providers are encouraged to review the following information regarding the new 450-dose shipment quantities:

  • The new 450-dose packs include three trays of 25 vials each (75 vials total).
  • Vials will be shipped in the same thermal shipping container as the 1,170-dose orders and will include the same Controlant temperature monitor.
  • There will be no dry ice replenishment (shipped 24 hours after receipt) for the 450-dose pack.
  • The newly extended refrigerator storage temperatures should decrease the need for dry ice. Therefore, Pfizer asks that the thermal shipping containers and Controlant monitors be returned within 10 days. For storage and handling guidance, including the updated refrigerator storage timeframe, see the CDC’s Pfizer-BioNTech Storage & Handling Summary.
  • The Product Information Guide has been updated with this configuration, National Drug Code information, dimensions and more.

New ancillary kits have been created to support the 450-dose minimum order size. A complete list of the items in the kits is available on page 12 of the Product Information Guide.

Questions about these ordering guidelines and ancillary kits should be directed to the MDHHS immunizations team. Members with other vaccine questions may contact Ruthanne Sudderth at the MHA.

June 14 COVID-19 Summit to Review Mi-COVID19 Data Registry Findings

In continued partnership with the Michigan Hospital Medicine Safety Consortium, the MHA and the Michigan Chapter of the Society for Critical Care Medicine will host a virtual COVID-19 Summit following up on the Mi-COVID19 webinar series. The COVID-19 Summit will be held virtually from 9 to 11 a.m. June 14.

This summit will share key findings and crucial lessons learned from the Mi-COVID19 data registry and review the current state of COVID-19 in Michigan. The MHA will lead a session dedicated to public policy in pandemics. More information is available in the event’s agenda.

Anyone involved with caring for patients with COVID-19 is welcome to attend. Registration for the COVID-19 Summit is available at no cost to MHA members. Questions about the event should be directed to Josh Suire at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of May 17

MHA Covid-19 update

MHA COVID-19 UpdateAs of May 20, the Michigan Vacc to Normal Tracker indicated more than 57% of Michiganders ages 16 and over had been given at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

MHA Board of Trustees Holds Special Meeting on COVID-19

At a special meeting on COVID-19 issues held May 18, the MHA Board of Trustees received updates on and discussed COVID-19 case data and trends, vaccine progress, return-to-work policies, state budget matters and health equity commitments. Board members confirmed the need for the MHA to continue advocating for clear and consistent public health rules related to mask wearing and vaccine status, especially for healthcare facilities, and remain heavily engaged in the promotion of COVID-19 vaccines.

On the issue of return to work, the MHA is in communication with both the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) about the need for prompt guidance that considers health facilities as it relates to gathering sizes, mask wearing and more. The MIOSHA has stated it is working on updated emergency rules to reflect new federal mask-wearing guidance, but said until then, “MIOSHA will consider compliance with the MDHHS order as good faith to comply when responding to employee complaints or conducting investigations related to COVID-19.” The MHA will keep members informed of progress on the return-to-work rules.

The next MHA Board of Trustees meeting will occur June 23, the day prior to the 2021 MHA Annual Membership Meeting. Members with questions about the Annual Meeting may contact Erin Steward at the MHA.

State to Reopen Faster than Original “Vacc to Normal” Plan

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer May 20 announced modifications to the recently implemented Vacc to Normal campaign that ties reopening measures to the state’s vaccination rate, providing specific dates for increasing capacity limits. Starting June 1, capacity limits will be lifted completely for outdoor gatherings and indoor capacity limits will be increased to 50%. As of July 1, the state’s broad indoor masking requirement will expire. The announcements did not specifically address healthcare; the MHA continues to advocate strongly for healthcare settings involved in patient care to be given special consideration in the crafting of the MIOSHA rules. MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel is expected to sign the order May 24.

The MHA will notify members know as soon as the MIOSHA issues new guidance. Members with questions may contact Adam Carlson at the MHA.

Vaccine Orders Must Comply with Shipping Timelines; No Memorial Day Shipments

The MDHHS immunizations team recently reminded healthcare providers to observe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s stated shipping hours when ordering first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccine through the Michigan Care Improvement Registry (MCIR). Beginning May 24, the MDHHS will reject any orders with noncompliant shipping hours. Questions on this requirement may be addressed to the immunizations team.

The MDHHS announced there will be no vaccines shipped May 31 due to the Memorial Day holiday. Healthcare providers should take the following schedule into consideration for their vaccination planning efforts.

  • Pfizer Vaccine: No vaccine deliveries will occur Monday, May 31.
  • Moderna Vaccine: No vaccine deliveries will occur Monday, May 31, or Tuesday, June 1. (Ancillary kits may arrive June 1 for vaccine orders arriving Wednesday, June 2.)
  • Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Vaccine: No vaccine deliveries will occur Monday, May 31, or Tuesday, June 1. (Ancillary kits may arrive Tuesday, June 1, for vaccine orders arriving Wednesday, June 2.)

Providers needing to place vaccine orders for clinics scheduled during the holiday weekend must ensure the orders are entered into the MCIR, approved by the local health department and approved/processed by the MDHHS by Tuesday, May 25, for the Pfizer vaccine and by Wednesday, May 26, for the Moderna or J&J vaccines. Questions about these ordering requirements should be directed to the MDHHS immunizations team.

Members with additional vaccine questions may contact Ruthanne Sudderth at the MHA.

FDA Updates Certain COVID-19 Monoclonal Antibody Authorizations

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently updated its emergency use authorizations for two intravenous infusion therapies for outpatients at risk for progressing to severe COVID-19 disease. Included were updates on the patient selection criteria and safety summary for the monoclonal antibodies bamlanivimab and etesevimab administered together and the patient selection criteria for the monoclonal antibodies casirivimab with imdevimab (REGEN-CON) administered together.

For details on the changes, see the FDA fact sheets for bamlanivimab and etesevimab and REGEN-COV.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of May 10

MHA Covid-19 update

MHA COVID-19 UpdateAs the spring surge of COVID-19 cases continues to recede in Michigan, the state has surpassed the 55% mark in adults ages 16 and older receiving at least one dose of the vaccine to prevent the disease. In addition, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has launched its “Vacc to Normal” tracker that reports both state and federal data on vaccination rates, providing markers for reopening the state’s economy.

The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

Press Conference Urges Youth Vaccinations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) voted late May 12 to recommend use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 12 to 15. The MDHHS and the Protect Michigan Commission, with assistance from the MHA, held a press conference May 13 promoting this expansion of eligibility and urging parents to get their kids vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Because research has shown that children are more likely to get vaccinated if their parents are vaccinated, the MHA encourages members to begin their outreach on the vaccine eligibility of this age group with adults already vaccinated by their hospitals/health systems.

Pfizer’s studies have proved its vaccine is safe and effective for 12- to 15-year-olds, for whom it is 100% effective in preventing COVID-19. In addition, the CDC announced that COVID-19 vaccines may now be given in conjunction with other vaccines. It was previously recommended that two weeks pass between getting a COVID-19 vaccine and any other inoculation. With this change, providers are encouraged to offer other recommended immunizations when administering COVID-19 vaccine to young teens to help offset the decreased rate of childhood vaccinations during the pandemic.

The MDHHS is also urging all primary care physicians (PCPs), especially pediatricians, to enroll as COVID-19 vaccine program participants to ensure all families with a PCP can access the vaccine. Hospitals that wish to transfer vaccine to any primary care office settings must verify the office setting is enrolled and has a redistribution agreement in place to ensure the vaccine supply is tracked appropriately.

The state’s Vacc to Normal economic reopening plan will not include the numbers of vaccinated 12- to 15-year-olds toward easing public health measures and gathering capacity limits, as the plan ties vaccination rates of adults 16 and older to those events. The newly eligible age group, which comprises approximately 498,000 kids in Michigan, will be included in the regular data tracking on the state’s vaccine dashboard. On May 10, Michigan reached the milestone of 55% of adults having at least initiated vaccination, which will allow office workers to return to their places of employment May 24.

Vaccine Now to Be Ordered via Michigan Care Improvement Registry

The MDHHS has announced a change in the way COVID-19 vaccines are allocated. Providers must now electronically request their desired doses through the Michigan Care Improvement Registry (MCIR), including both first and second doses. Orders will not be automatically approved; local health departments (LHDs) will review requests and approve allocations accordingly. Providers should ensure they are following LHD guidance prior to placing an order in MCIR.

Providers should plan operationally to order second doses within the MDHHS MCIR order timing recommendations to ensure they arrive before patients’ second dose appointments. The MDHHS has provided a tip sheet on how to place orders; a recording and slides from a May 11 webinar detailing the process; and additional ordering information and resources on its website. It will add other materials as they are created throughout the transition.

The state has also received an allocation of the Moderna vaccine in the new 14-dose (maximum 15-dose) vials. Both the 10- and 14-dose vials may be ordered via MCIR.

Comprehensive resources for COVID-19 vaccination efforts are available on the MDHHS COVID-19 Vaccine Provider Guidance webpage. Members with vaccine questions may contact Ruthanne Sudderth at the MHA.

CDC Updates Guidance, Michigan Lifts Mask Requirement for Fully Vaccinated Individuals

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, announced May 13 revised guidance allowing fully vaccinated individuals to participate in any indoor or outdoor activity without masks. Walensky cited several factors that influenced the decision, including published literature on the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and its effectiveness on the original virus and its variants circulating in the United States; the low risk of transmission from vaccinated individuals; and universal access to vaccines. The recommendations specifically apply to individuals in nonhealthcare settings. The CDC stated that healthcare settings can continue infectious disease practices that require masks within their facilities.

The following day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the MDHHS would update its Gathering and Mask Order to align with the updated CDC guidance, effective May 15. Under the updated order, Michiganders who are outdoors will no longer need to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status. Residents who have not completed their vaccinations must continue to wear a mask or face covering indoors to protect themselves and others. After July 1, the broad indoor mask mandate will expire.

While the MDHHS order has been updated, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) emergency rules for workplace safety remain in effect. Among other things, the rules stipulate screening and tracking of visitors and employees, mask wearing and other social distancing measures. The MHA has been in contact with the MIOSHA and expects the emergency rules to be significantly revised in the coming days (see below).

Process to Approve MIOSHA Permanent COVID-19 Workplace Rules Continues

The MIOSHA continues to pursue permanent workplace COVID-19 rules, even though Michigan is making progress vaccinating eligible residents. Because the state recently reached the 55% vaccination benchmark in the governor’s MI Vacc to Normal plan, in-person work will no longer be prohibited where it is feasible for the employee to work remotely, beginning May 24. All other workplace regulations that govern the use of personal protective equipment, physical distancing, contact tracing and other pandemic-related modifications would be required under the rules.

The MHA submitted comments to the MIOSHA expressing disagreement with the proposed permanent COVID-19 rules as written, because they fail to address concerns on cementing rules into the administrative code that do not reflect the rapidly changing environment related to the pandemic. The MHA recommended the rules be updated to address, at a minimum, two main concerns:

  1. Any new standard should be promulgated in a manner that would allow future updates, based on current CDC guidance, to be made automatically.
  2. A sunset clause for the rules to expire after the MDHHS declaration of emergency has ended.

The MIOSHA will host a public hearing at 9 a.m. May 26.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Week of April 12

MHA Covid-19 update

A somber milestone was reached April 17 when, according to Johns Hopkins University data, the global number of deaths caused by COVID-19 surpassed 3 million. The MHA continues to keep members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

MHA Board of Trustees Focuses on COVID-19 Data, Vaccines

The MHA Board of Trustees held a virtual meeting April 14, where much of the agenda focused on COVID-19 as the spring surge continues to challenge Michigan communities and health system resources (see related article). Board members heard presentations on hospitalization and other surge-related COVID-19 data, which may be starting to show signs of improvement as growth rates and emergency department visit rates begin to slow and plateau. Despite these encouraging signs, healthcare providers must continue to urge their communities to stay vigilant in preventive actions.

Board members also discussed vaccine-related issues, including the Johnson & Johnson pause and how it may impact conversations around equity, hesitancy, safety/effectiveness and more. They also discussed efforts health systems can pursue to encourage as many employees as possible to be voluntarily vaccinated. For more information on the board meeting, contact Amy Barkholz at the MHA.

Board members also met April 12 via Zoom with U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-West Bloomfield), who expressed interest in the experience of hospitals and health systems during the current surge of infection. Members shared the damage the pandemic has done to staffing capacity by causing exhaustion and early retirements; the need for post-COVID-19 care for brain health including seizures, anxiety and depression; and the younger average age of hospitalized patients. Peters announced his Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs is doing a complete after-action study of the COVID-19 pandemic to improve preparedness and communications for future long-term crises. For more information about federal advocacy and policy, members may contact Laura Appel at the MHA.

J&J Vaccine Paused While Investigation Continues on Six Blood Clot Events

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), out of an abundance of caution, issued a statement April 13 that providers should halt administration of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) COVID-19 vaccines while they investigate six instances of blood clots in previously vaccinated individuals. More than 6.8 million J&J vaccines have been administered to date nationally, meaning these instances are extremely rare. All those affected were women between the ages of 18 and 48, and their symptoms developed six to 13 days after vaccination.

The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met April 14 to discuss and review these incidents and, after several hours of debate, concluded that it would take additional time to review the cases and make a final recommendation for continued use of the vaccine. A decision is expected by the end of April.

Because the ACIP is an advisory committee, it is permissible, but highly unlikely, that the CDC and FDA would advise providers to resume use of the vaccine without a new recommendation from the ACIP. In the meantime, providers should continue to only use Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and store/label J&J vaccines as instructed by recent alerts from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). The department stated, in part, “Clinics that are scheduled to administer J and J vaccine should be rescheduled to use a different vaccine. If you have inventory of this vaccine, please separate in your storage unit, mark do not use and store appropriately until further notice.”

The MHA will keep members apprised of recommendations as they become available. Members with questions on vaccines may contact Ruthanne Sudderth at the MHA.

Pfizer Requests Emergency Use Authorization for Younger Children

Pfizer recently asked the FDA to grant expanded emergency use authorization (EUA) of its COVID-19 vaccine for use in adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15. The request is based on data from Pfizer’s late-stage trial of the vaccine in children in this age group with or without prior evidence of COVID-19 infection, which demonstrated 100% efficacy and robust antibody response after vaccination.

The participants tolerated the vaccine with the incidence of side effects similar to adults, and Pfizer continues to monitor these adolescents. The company is also confident the vaccine will deliver long-term protection for as long as two years after the completion of dosage, although currently available data supports at least six months of protection. Since the vaccine is currently allowed to be used for anyone ages 16 and older, young Michiganders are urged to get vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine as quickly as possible to prevent further spread among this age group, as well as illness, hospitalization and death.

Given the speed at which the expanded EUA could take effect, making 12- to 15-year-olds eligible for vaccination, health systems are encouraged to educate their family practice/pediatric care settings on administration of the Pfizer vaccine. The MHA will work with the Michigan Association of Family Physicians and the Michigan Chapter of the American Association of Pediatrics to coordinate messaging and resources. Members with vaccine questions may contact Ruthanne Sudderth at the MHA.

FDA Recommends Moving Away from Decontaminated N95 Respirators

The FDA recently issued guidance recommending that healthcare personnel and facilities transition away from crisis capacity conservation strategies for N95 respirators. Due to an increased supply of respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the FDA believes there is a sufficient domestic supply to allow organizations to transition away from decontamination or bioburden reduction and reuse of respirators intended as single-use items. The guidance does not specify a “days on hand” calculation for when the recommendations should be implemented; it simply references moving away from the crisis capacity strategy.

To date, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) has not issued guidance or statements on how it will interpret this FDA letter in Michigan. The MHA will continue to advocate with state leaders for organizational flexibility in determining their supply needs and crisis capacity strategies.

Organizations that have concerns about their supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) should contact the appropriate Regional Health Care Coalition. Members with questions or concerns on PPE may also contact Adam Carlson at the MHA.

MIOSHA Issues Permanent COVID-19 Workplace Rules

The MIOSHA released draft rules that would make permanent workplace regulations governing the use of PPE, physical distancing, contact tracing and other pandemic-related modifications. The MHA participated in a work group on the development of the permanent rules, but its suggestions to allow the rules to be flexible for updated CDC guidelines and to set an end date to the rules were not adopted in the draft rule set. The association followed up by submitting its recommendations to the MIOSHA in writing.

Emergency rules already in place on this topic were slated to expire April 14 and are expected to be extended to Oct. 14, 2021. The MHA hosted a webinar in December on that rule set for members, and the association will review the renewed emergency rules when they are available. The MHA will compile additional recommended changes to the permanent rule set prior to a public hearing being scheduled. Members with questions on the emergency or permanent MIOSHA rules may contact Adam Carlson at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC).

Combating the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19): Weeks of Nov. 23 and Nov. 30

MHA Covid-19 update

04COVID-19 patients continued to fill Michigan hospitals throughout the Thanksgiving holiday and into December, while drug companies Pfizer and Moderna applied for emergency authorization of their respective COVID-19 vaccines from the Food and Drug Administration (see related article). The MHA keeps members apprised of pandemic-related developments affecting hospitals through email updates and the MHA Coronavirus webpage. Important updates are outlined below.

Nursing Home Application Deadline Extended; CRC Bulletin Issued

The state announced Nov. 30 that it is extending the deadline from Dec. 1 to Dec. 15 for long-term care (LTC) facilities to become care and recovery centers (CRCs) and COVID relief (CR) facilities. The MHA has advocated for this extension to ensure LTCs do not transfer residents to hospitals without medical indication simply to avoid being out of compliance with new law requirements. While this is a positive step, the MHA will continue to advocate for more permanent solutions to transfer issues and the number of LTCs approved as CRCs and CR facilities.

The MDHHS also issued a bulletin for hospital-based CRCs. Bulletin Number MSA 20-78 supplements Bulletin Number MSA 20-73, which established operational requirements for nursing facilities to operate as CRCs during times of a public health emergency and provides a pathway for Michigan hospitals to establish hospital-based CRCs to support the safe care and isolation of COVID-19-positive individuals. Details about requirements for hospitals seeking designation as a CRC, how to apply and more are available in the bulletin.

Quarantine Duration Requirements Addressed

The MHA hosted its weekly call of hospital/health system chief medical officers Dec. 4, which was joined by representatives of the MDHHS. Among the topics discussed was quarantine requirements and the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising the public that shorter quarantine periods of 7-10 days may be acceptable, depending on their access to testing and their symptoms or lack thereof.

According to Public Act 238 of 2020, healthcare workers who are exposed to COVID-19 but test negative and are not symptomatic are still able to report to work. Employees’ quarantine needs apply to how they spend time outside of work. There remains in state statute a 14-day quarantine provision for employees who test positive for COVID-19. The MHA is working with state officials and legislators to amend Public Act 238 of 2020 to bring quarantine times for employees who test positive in line with the CDC guidance. Additional information on the statute and administration rules is available from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), as discussed below.

Healthcare facilities and professionals may get questions from patients/community members on this change in quarantine guidance. The state announced its recommendation that the public continue to use the 14-day quarantine as a best practice, but if that is not feasible, the 10-day recommendation should be followed. The state did not endorse a seven-day quarantine with a negative test as a safe alternative.

MIOSHA Emergency Rules Clarified

The MHA hosted a call Dec. 1 with representatives from MIOSHA regarding its emergency rules that, among other items, emphasize the use of a remote workforce and proper use of personal protective equipment.

MIOSHA provided an overview of the rule set and answered questions, emphasizing the agency’s reliance on CDC guidelines in developing the rules and the availability of the free MI Symptoms app to assist employers. Questions or requests for the meeting materials should be directed to Adam Carlson at the MHA.

New Uses of Surge Capacity Beds May Require Certificate of Need Approval

Temporarily licensed surge capacity beds that have already been approved by the Bureau of Community and Health Systems (BCHS) may continue to be used if the following criteria are met:

  • An originally required emergency certificate of need (CON) approved by the MDHHS remains in effect.
  • The facility has maintained the BCHS-approved surge capacity so that it can be used within 48 hours if needed.
  • The facility has not notified the BCHS since the original approval that it has voluntarily surrendered the surge capacity.

If facilities with existing BCHS-approved surge capacity beds want to operate these beds in a different location, manner or use than originally requested, they must contact the MDHHS CON program, as applicable, and the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) State Licensing Section to determine whether new approval is required. Such requests must include a detailed narrative description of the proposed new use, space and floor plans of the area showing the new bed locations. If the proposed space deviates from current BCHS physical plant regulatory requirements, such as minimum square footage, hand sink locations or number of patients/residents to a room, the facility must include a narrative description of how those issues will be addressed to ensure patient/resident safety and care needs.

If the state has questions or concerns on a proposal as submitted, the Health Facilities Engineering Section engineer assigned to the facility will follow up as needed to address those concerns.

All applications not previously approved must apply to both the MDHHS and LARA as applicable and required. Both BCHS-HFD and Appendix E forms are required when applying. Members with questions may contact Paige Fults at the MHA.

BCBSM Provides Update on Coverage for COVID-19 Care and Testing

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM) recently announced that it will continue to waive cost-sharing for its members diagnosed and treated for COVID-19 through March 31, 2021. This extension of a temporary benefit, originally set to expire Dec. 31, means members will not pay out-of-pocket costs — copays, deductibles or coinsurance — for the medical care and pharmacy costs associated with COVID-19. Members with feedback or questions are encouraged to contact Jason Jorkasky at the MHA.

Judge Denies Injunction for Bars, Restaurants Ordered Closed by MDHHS

A federal judge Dec. 2 denied a motion for preliminary injunction seeking to end the temporary MDHHS-ordered closure of bars and restaurants intended to prevent further spread of COVID-19. The MHA submitted an amicus or “friend of the court” brief in support of the temporary emergency measures enacted by the MDHHS. The MHA also issued a media statement supporting the order, which is effective from Nov. 18 through Dec. 8.

The ruling on Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association v. Gordon was issued by Judge Paul Maloney of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. It states that the motion was not granted to plaintiffs because it found the MDHHS’ reasoning for the order convincing and that groups tend to linger more in those settings than transitional environments like a food court or airport dining area.

Maloney further stated that, because the Michigan courts have not yet had an opportunity to evaluate the state issues and these challenges must be adjudicated before the federal claims can be considered, he scheduled a Dec. 17 certification hearing and will accept briefs from the parties to determine which legal questions to pass on to the state courts for further consideration. The MHA’s brief in support of the MDHHS provided medical evidence of the effectiveness of face covering and social distancing in curbing the spread of infection and reducing strain on the healthcare system. There are several other legal challenges in federal and state court against state and local public health orders requiring face coverings, social distancing measures and cooperation with contact tracing. Members with questions about the ruling may contact Amy Barkholz at the MHA.

Additional information on the COVID-19 pandemic is available to members on the MHA Community Site and the MHA COVID-19 webpage. Questions on COVID-19 and infectious disease response strategies may be directed to the MDHHS Community Health Emergency Coordination Center (CHECC). Members with MHA-specific questions should contact the following MHA staff members: