Michigan health officials broke public trust with pandemic response

Public health officials never admitted their shortcomings. Instead, they blamed the public for not following orders.

Michigan’s public health officials want to regain your trust, though they don’t seem to understand how they lost it.

The Michigan Association of Local Public Health says politicization and disinformation around COVID-19 created the distrust. That’s a convenient story to avoid culpability. But blaming the public for being too partisan, gullible and stupid is not a way to win its trust. Health leaders should take a closer look at their own failures with COVID-19 if they want to rebuild the public’s trust.

If they asked and then dared to listen, public health officials would find they lost that trust with heavy-handed pandemic orders. Michigan health officials forced schools and businesses to close for months and required healthy people to test, to wear masks and to isolate at home. Never before had such broad and long-lasting mandates been forced on the public. Later, many public health officials pushed other controversial policies, such as vaccine mandates. Michigan State University still has a COVID vaccine mandate.

Health officials would also find that their broken promises affected public trust. In 2020, they made all sorts of declarations about their ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. They said they could track and trace the virus. They said it would take just a few weeks to “bend the curve.” If we did what they said, we could “avoid a second wave,” and eventually, “beat the damn virus.”

After their orders and advice failed to do what they said they would, public health officials did not admit their mistakes or apologize for misleading the public. Instead, they blamed us for not following their orders.

When the second, third, and fourth waves came to Michigan, officials declared it our fault. We weren’t staying home, or masking, or washing our hands enough. It definitely was not because their policies were failing, public health officials told us.

Even after real-world experience proved them wrong, officials carried on, vowing they could win the war against COVID-19. In 2021, the promises shifted to vaccines. Officials told us vaccinated people no longer need masks. They said vaccines would help “eliminate the virus.” They repeated over and over: “get vaccinated,” and then “get boosted,” and now, “stay up to date.”

And yet, here we are, and the pandemic is not over. In fact, after nearly three years of public health interventions and guidance, it’s difficult to find clear progress.

Consider that through Dec. 12 this year, based on the state’s data, 12,656 people in Michigan died of COVID-19. This is more deaths than in the previous two years over the same period. Or consider that the test positivity rate — a measure of viral activity — has been consistently above 10% since June. That’s higher than it was when public health officials were forcing schools and businesses to close in fall 2020.

The most vulnerable populations in Michigan are still at risk. MIRS News warns, “A significant winter surge of COVID-19 appears to be gaining a foothold in Michigan nursing homes.” Public health officials responded by telling residents to get another booster. But only 40% of them have, according to AARP.

Are 60% of nursing home patients too partisan and disinformed to get the most recent booster, or is something else going on here? Perhaps even nursing home residents no longer trust the public health officials who unapologetically overpromised for the last three years.

Where do public health officials go from here? The path of least resistance will be to blame COVID’s persistent spread on people who fail to stay up to date. Continuing to blame the public, though, is unlikely to build trust. And officials may have a mountain to climb to restore trust. Some 85% of people in Michigan are not following the latest public health advice, to be up-to-date with the vaccine. It’s hard to chalk that all up to politicization and disinformation. It could be a severe lack of trust at work.

If health officials want to win back the trust of the public, they should examine their mistakes and prevent them from happening again. To its credit, the Michigan Association of Local Public Health says it is studying the COVID-19 response. That’s an opportunity to honestly assess failures and identify solutions.

Public health officials should also create clear expectations for the next pandemic. Their haphazard COVID-19 response eroded trust. Officials should articulate preciously what to expect next time. This would enable the public to hold them accountable to their plans and reduce the chaos and controversy.

Public health runs on trust, so it is vital to get this right.

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

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.