Commentary

Gov. Whitmer’s Latest Plan Lacks Detail

The public remains mostly in the dark

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer finally released more detailed information about the approach her administration is taking to combating the novel coronavirus, including a rubric to guide decision-making. The MI Safe Start plan defines six phases the governor will use to methodically reopen Michigan society. While this sheds some new light on the governor’s strategy, it lacks necessary detail and leaves the public still largely in the dark.

The MI Safe Start plan is the most detailed information the Gov. Whitmer has provided since declaring a state of emergency more than eight weeks ago. It lists the type of evidence her team is considering when making decisions about how tightly to restrict public mobility and social interactions. These statistics include the percentage of tests that come back positive, the number of new cases per day, hospital capacity, medical supplies availability and the state’s testing ability.

These are the same factors the governor listed in executive orders already, so none of this is new information. The MI Safe Start plan offers lengthier descriptions of the data, but like the executive orders that came before it, does not explain how the data will be used. It defines no benchmarks or targets nor explains how different factors will be weighed when used in conjunction with each other.

Without these details, the governor’s decisions cannot be reviewed. Potential weaknesses in the methodology cannot be identified and possible alternatives cannot be offered. And, importantly, Michiganders cannot reasonably predict what might come next.

For instance, Gov. Whitmer says the state is currently in the third, or “flattening,” phase. The next phase, “improving,” starts when “the number of new cases and deaths has fallen for a period of time, but overall case levels are still high.” Also in this phase, “most new outbreaks are quickly identified, traced, and contained” and “case fatality rate does not rise above typical levels.”

But no other detail is provided about these factors. As such, one cannot know how this information will actually be used. Several decisions need to be made first. For instance, how large of a “fall” in cases and deaths is needed, and for how long must they fall? (They’ve been falling since early April.) How high is “high” when it comes to case levels? Does “most,” referring to new outbreaks, mean more than 50% or more like 90%? What are the "typical levels" of case fatalities and how are those determined?

The governor should reveal more specific information than she has so far concerning the state’s plan to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. There will always be some natural limitation to what the public can know and how fast they can know it, but Michiganders have a right to meaningful transparency from their elected officials, even in times of emergency.