News Story

Politicians Believed ‘Grim’ COVID Messaging Would Be The Most Effective

Telling public you won't die 'if you're lucky' a long way from 'minimization of public panic and fear'

Days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed a stay-at-home order in March 2020, top administration officials discussed using what one called the “grimmest” messaging about COVID-19 as they communicated to state residents.

The discussions were held through email as part of a larger conversation about what would be the most effective way to release information to the public on the coronavirus.

“As part of the philanthropically funded comms work, there is some new testing on the effectiveness of different messages,” said Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), in a March 31 email. “The grimmest message works much better than the others: You can have COVID-19 and not even know it. By leaving home, one person with COVID19 could infect 40 others—and those 40 people could go on to infect 2,000 more. Do your part. Stay home, stay safe and slow the spread. This one was suggested by some behavioral science people who said it was now being used in Italy.”

State officials had already assembled an epidemic response, in 2008. It stated, “The goals of crisis Communications are to: Instill and maintain public confidence in the nation’s public health system and its ability to respond to and manage a comprehensive response."

That 2008 MDHHS plan also stated messaging should, "Contribute to the maintenance of order, and minimization of public panic and fear."

The state appeared to stray from that 2008 guidance by August of 2020.

That was when Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for the state, said at an Aug. 19 press conference that residents would be lucky to survive the coronavirus.

“If you’re lucky, you get to keep your life and you don’t die. But even if you live, there are many people that have long-term health consequences,” Khaldun said.

The role of the state health department is to give the public factual information that they can use to protect themselves and others, according to Michael Van Beek, director of research for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

"Here the department appears to have tested messages not based on how well they would protect the public but on how 'effective' the messages themselves would be," Van Beek said.

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.