Commentary

Pets or People?

The governor’s perplexing executive orders

On March 20, Gov. Whitmer issued executive order 2020-17 that prohibited hospitals, medical clinics and dentists from providing “non-essential procedures,” defined as those “not necessary to address a medical emergency or to preserve the health and safety of a patient.” Specifically identified as nonessential were joint replacements, bariatric surgery and cosmetic procedures.

Ten days later, Gov. Whitmer issued executive order 2020-32, which allowed only "essential” veterinary services, defined as procedures "necessary to preserve the life of a pet" or "necessary to treat serious pain that threatens the health and safety of a pet." The order explained this was needed because vets use the same personal protective equipment medical professionals use, so equipment, which was in short supply, should not be wasted on nonessential pet treatments. The fact that the governor had already restricted Michiganders’ access to medical care while still allowing pets to get treatment may have also influenced the decision.

Gov. Whitmer quickly changed her mind, however. Two days later, she issued executive order 2020-34, which rescinded and replaced EO-32, but only made minor changes to the text.

Why these changes were urgently necessary is not clear. Perhaps the governor realized that veterinarians treat more than just pets. EO-32 referred only to “pets,” which it defined as “any domestic animal not raised for food or fiber.” Gov. Whitmer may have wanted to clarify that veterinarian services for animals used for agriculture should not be restricted. After all, the governor declared agriculture a “critical infrastructure.” Either way, EO-34 clarifies that only “non-agricultural” services are restricted, and where EO-32 said “pets,” EO-34 changed it to “animals.”

EO-34 also added a stipulation on providing essential veterinary services: Veterinarians must minimize the use of PPE “that could be used for the care of humans.” Why this was urgently needed is not entirely clear either, but perhaps the governor realized that permitting veterinarians to use PPE based on the health condition of a pet could be seen as prioritizing these supplies for the needs of animals rather than for Michiganders. Modifying her order this way allows the governor to be clear that veterinarians should at least consider human needs for PPE when providing essential veterinarian services.

This confusing episode illustrates a serious problem with the governor’s approach to bifurcating Michigan society into “essential” and “nonessential” activities. This requires making all sorts of perplexing moral distinctions. For instance, EO-34 says it is worth the risk of spreading COVID-19 to alleviate serious pain for animals, including, presumably, pets such as fish, rodents and reptiles. But EO-17 says it is not worth a similar risk for humans to get joint replacements and bariatric surgery. It’s as if the state has put care for animals during this pandemic on equal footing with medical care for humans. In fact, other guidance from the governor makes this clear: “[Under the stay-at-home order], a person may leave their home to pursue activities necessary to sustain or protect life. This includes animal life.”

How to prioritize the value of animal and human care in the midst of a pandemic is extraordinarily difficult, especially when trying to do it on behalf of 10 million people. How, exactly, can one decide if it's worth both the personal and public health risk to get Grandma a hip replacement and not worth it to get that nasty rash on Spot looked at? A better approach would consider how safely an activity can be performed and make decisions on that basis, rather than trying to rank the value of every human (and animal) concern.