Did lockdowns make a difference in Michigan?

After-action report answers few questions asked by public, including: Why were responses different with each wave of pandemic?

Although President Joe Biden recently said the COVID-19 pandemic is over, questions remain about Michigan’s response.

Why were the state’s prepared pandemic plans abandoned when the pandemic hit? How were some businesses and activities deemed “essential” and not others? Why were the responses different for each pandemic wave? And, of course, with the COVID-19 virus still circulating, did the lockdown orders actually make a difference?

State officials should be interested in these questions, and good news, it appears they are. The state paid $1.5 million to a consultant to produce an after-action report of its pandemic response. The 179-page report used what it called a “comprehensive information gathering process” of the “whole of government” to inform its findings. Upon inspection, however, the report contains very little valuable information.

Its primary findings derive mainly from surveying and interviewing state officials. These government employees have a unique and important perspective, but it’s unlikely to overlap much with the public’s concerns about what state government did during the pandemic. But what’s worse is that the responses to these surveys and interviews are heavily influenced by just a couple of state departments.

Only 15 of 26 state agencies responded to the survey used to inform the report. Ten of those 15 departments completed three or fewer surveys. But the health department and Michigan State Police made up 62% of all the responses. Interviews were similar: More than half the interviewees came from those same two departments. So much for a “whole of government” approach.

Knowing this, it may not come as a surprise that the main takeaway from this report is that the state’s pandemic response was really pretty great. The report describes strengths and areas for improvement for several state functions, such as logistics, communications and financial management. There were 62 identified strengths and only 39 areas for improvement. The report reads more like a celebration of the state’s pandemic response rather than a useful critique of it.

Another section of the after-action report presents a similarly rosy picture of each department’s reaction to COVID-19. It includes “response highlights” from each bureaucracy, which by and large, reports that the department did a bang-up job and many even exceeded expectations.

The challenges the state faced when trying to stop COVID-19 were largely your fault, dear reader. Several departments listed enforcing the state’s unprecedented restrictions on basic rights, which came from the governor and health department, as one of their top highlights. They found that ensuring compliance difficult, though, because “public backlash to public health interventions made many public health officials wary of getting involved in enforcement.” Plus, “differences of opinion between state and local officials, coupled with public backlash against some regulations, created tensions.” But, no worry, the state worked “to ensure the safe and seamless implementation of COVID-19 Public Health Orders.”

Few of the suggestions for improvement identified in the report are helpful and at least one is just plain false. The report claims that the state’s “several plans in place for pandemics” were insufficient for COVID-19’s “scope, duration and breadth of impact.” If true, this would make the state’s response even more impressive — officials essentially flew by the seat of their pants and still managed to do a great job.

But it’s not true. The state’s existing pandemic plans expected precisely the type of threat posed by COVID-19. For instance, the state’s 2015 Pandemic Influenza Base Plan anticipated a pandemic that could last for more than a year and be similar in severity to the 1918 Spanish Flu. So did the 2008 Michigan Pandemic Influenza State Operational Plan. Despite this, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and top public health officials ditched the state’s prepared plans and simply made it up as they went.

It’s significant that the state deviated substantially from its prepared plans. The 2015 plan, for instance, makes no mention of granting the governor indefinite and unilateral powers to control nearly every aspect of society with the stroke of a pen. It does not even consider as options many of the steps the state did, such as imposing stay-at-home orders, broad business lockdowns, or statewide mask mandates. It is also clear that any intervention called for in the 2015 plan “can and should be undertaken voluntarily.”

The after-action report does offer some recommendations. But most are bureaucratic milquetoast. To improve its work with health care providers, the state needs to “identify and document the purpose, roles and responsibilities of healthcare coalition members,” “engage … in regularly scheduled meetings” and “continue to utilize a prioritization workflow,” among other busywork ideas. The recommendations section is filled with calls to encourage changes, leverage partnerships, conduct exercises, evaluate processes and develop plans, programs, working groups and committees. There’s very little by ways of meaningful changes.

The state produces docile and biased reviews of its programs on a regular basis, so expecting this after-action report to be something different is probably too much to ask. But the strange thing is that, despite its overwhelmingly positive news, the Whitmer administration has stayed mum about it. This “predecisional” draft, completed in July, was only made known recently because media outlets submitted FOIA requests for it.

One might think if the state’s pandemic response really was a smashing success, it would be a key message of the governor’s reelection campaign. But for some reason, she never mentions it these days.

Whitmer seems wary of reminding the public of her administration’s actions during the pandemic, and that, perhaps, speaks louder than the 239 pages of this report.

Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.