Mich. faces another COVID data debacle

This must be some cruel form of COVID-19 déjà vu.

State health officials confirmed this week they either can’t or won’t learn from their mistakes.

Leaders with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in a baffling repeat of their handling of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes, last week refused to release details related to 14 schools where health departments reported coronavirus outbreaks.

Not school names. Not district names. Not the number of cases at each. Not total cases found. Not even the counties where the outbreaks occurred.

It’s an alarming obfuscation as parents, teachers and the lion’s share of our state’s 1.5 million students prepare for a new school year.

A list of districts and schools that have potential problems with COVID-19 seems like important information to disseminate to families facing decisions about how and when to return to school.

It’s also the kind of information common sense tells us would be important to make widely available and in realtime. Considering schools and children, under normal circumstances, act as accelerators for contagious illnesses, wouldn’t data on infections in schools be especially important to the public during a pandemic?

At first, the murkiness appeared intentional, as department officials proffered privacy concerns as their grounds for withholding even basic information about the outbreaks. They also offered the now-familiar “trust us, you’ll be contacted if you’re exposed” line.

The “ignorance is bliss” approach simply isn’t something we, or anyone else should tolerate from any public health official at this juncture.

State leaders, since Wednesday, evolved their response in the face of calls for transparency. It’s now clear they’re operating on a dangerous mix of intentional obstruction and systemic incompetence.

The state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, told Bridge Magazine on Friday that MDHHS will release information on infections in schools in the coming weeks, but not before the agency has a chance to revamp outdated reporting systems that make such disclosures difficult or impossible.

“In the upcoming weeks, we’ll be able to post information, at least by school, on our website,” Khaldun told Bridge. “So if a parent is interested in seeing if there’s any outbreaks associated with their school, we are able to have that information on our website.”

Khaldun’s pivot from previous positions taken by her department is important progress. And it echoes the widespread struggle public health officials have faced as they were woefully unprepared to respond to a pandemic outbreak of a communicable disease.

Still, we find ourselves wondering what MDHHS leaders were thinking? After the nursing home data debacle, how did they put themselves in such a position again?

If this is a case of inadequate data collection systems, why not say so up front — why try to hide an inadequate reporting infrastructure?

Nobody should’ve been surprised summer break would end and students and teachers would be called back to school. Likewise, public health officials should’ve anticipated widespread interest in COVID-19 infections in our schools.

Now, we’re left hoping MDHHS officials learn from their follow-up missteps during the nursing home debacle when they provided data late, and in such poor condition it was untrustworthy and unusable.

For all our sake, we hope the third time is the charm.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today