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Lessons from COVID require tough questions

The government’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic was controversial and unprecedented, and it deserves thorough scrutiny. Welcome, then, is a new report published by a congressional committee that examined the U.S. response. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who chairs the committee, claims the report’s recommendations would “ensure our nation can prevent the next crisis … from reaching this magnitude.”

Given that ambition, you might be surprised to learn that the report, despite its nearly 250 pages, is silent on the most important questions about our pandemic response. It does not address lockdowns, for example. Vaccine mandates receive no mention. Ignoring them leaves out significant negative effects the government’s response to COVID-19 had on some Americans.

You’ll find no cost-benefit analysis of lockdowns in the Peters report, nor answers to common questions Americans have asked themselves over the past couple years. Were lockdowns worth it? Will states close the schools again? Should we force people to keep apart and wear masks? What businesses should close first? Unfortunately, this two-year-long, congressional investigation did not produce answers, or hardly address, questions such as these.

To be fair, evaluating lockdown orders may be beyond the scope of the report. Local and state governments issued them, and they varied significantly. Some Americans endured months of severe restrictions on their everyday lives, especially those in Michigan, New York and California. Others, in South Dakota, Texas and Florida, experienced only short-lived or no shutdowns. Pandemic responses differed dramatically within states, too; some cities, counties and school districts took drastic actions and others did nothing.

Without a review of lockdowns, the report’s findings are not very useful. They do highlight some important failures of the federal government in the early days of the pandemic. This is the closest the report gets to addressing lockdowns. It retells how some federal officials argued early on that lockdown-type orders might extinguish the virus. The president does not have the authority to issue such orders, however. He could not require states to lock down.

The federal government’s limited role is not lost in the report. It recognizes that public health “operates predominantly at the local level, with the majority of states having locally governed health departments.” The report’s focus on the federal government’s COVID response severely limits its value in helping to prepare for the next pandemic.

But even its value here is suspect. The 17 recommendations the report offers, written in technocratic code, sound like deck chairs being rearranged. We should “reassess … organizational structure to improve coordination,” “clarify agency roles,” “strengthen and coordinate … capabilities” and “establish safeguards and processes.” While these may look good on paper, what they mean in the real world is anyone’s guess. Federal bureaucrats could claim to accomplish these without doing much of anything.

The chief recommendation is to “invest in sustainable multi-year funding for public health emergency preparedness.” The benefits of preparing are obvious, but it is unlikely that more money will accomplish much. The report itself suggests this.

The Peters report calls the U.S. “historically unprepared” for COVID-19, but details a significant amount of preparedness. Indeed, it describes a cottage industry of emergency planning within the federal government. Three departments maintained five pandemic-specific emergency plans. Preparation exercises were routine: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did 15 exercises from 2010-2019, while the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) did 11. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted at least three per year between 2014 and 2019.

In fact, the report recalls that, just months before the world learned about COVID-19, the federal government ran its most extensive pandemic exercise ever, codenamed Crimson Contagion. It was a “multi-state, whole-of-government simulation … to test the nation’s response to a novel influenza virus pandemic.” The exercise was well-suited for COVID, based on a “fast-spreading airborne influenza virus scenario that originated in China.” If this is insufficient preparation, what exactly would it take for the federal government to be adequately prepared — even more exercises?

Despite focusing its recommendations on tweaking the federal bureaucracy, the Peters report casts doubt on the value of its own advice. It acknowledges that the government’s COVID failures “were previously anticipated in pandemic response assessments.” Nothing was done about them, apparently. Further, the report points out the “continued failure to learn from prior crises,” noting that HHS received 115 recommendations for improving its emergency response since 2007. It took no action on two-thirds of them. Why should we expect something different this time?

Most people want to move on from the challenging past couple of years. That’s understandable, especially considering the unprecedented disruptions and sacrifices forced on livelihoods, children’s education, social relationships and our mental and emotional health. To its credit, the Peters report recognizes some of these costs, but it falls flat in helping to prepare for the next pandemic. A complete review of all the COVID-19 mistakes is needed, and policymakers need to find a way to prevent them from happening again.

Michael Van Beek is the director of research at Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. 

Tags Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Congressional investigation COVID-19 pandemic Emergency Preparedness Gary Peters Health and Human Services lockdowns

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