Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Humans Services, recently argued before a legislative committee that Michigan’s experience with COVID-19 could have been much worse were it not for the actions of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. According to MIRS News (subscription required), Gordon used the death rates in Louisiana and Mississippi to argue that 4,600 or 2,600 more Michiganders would have died if Michigan had the death rates of those two states, respectively, implying the governor’s actions made the difference. This analysis is irresponsible and wrong.
Understanding the effects of the governor’s orders is more complicated than that, and Gordon’s simplistic comparison is thus incomplete. But it is also misleading; the bulk of the evidence he uses suggests the exact opposite of what he implies.
That’s because there’s 41 states that have lower COVID-19 death rates than Michigan. Using Gordon’s same simple calculation, one could show how many fewer deaths this state would have had if it had a lower death rate like those in 41 other states.
For example, compare Michigan to its neighbor across the lake, Wisconsin. The Badger State, which had its stay-at-home order ruled unconstitutional in May, has a death rate of 21 per 100,000 people. Michigan’s is about 70, according to Gordon. Using his logic, if we had Wisconsin’s death rate, about 4,900 fewer Michiganders would have died due to COVID-19.
Of course, many reasons that have little to do with COVID-19 policies might explain why Michigan’s death rate is more than three times higher than Wisconsin’s. But that’s the point, and why cherry-picking the states that performed worse and assuming Michigan would mirror their results is an inappropriate assessment of the effects of the governor’s executive orders.
In other words, if Gov. Whitmer gets the credit for Michigan’s death rate being lower than that of a couple of states, then one could reasonably argue she should get the blame for Michigan’s death rates being higher than 41 other states. Well, either that or the state’s director of the Department of Health and Human Services should use better evidence.
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