Draft report points to shortfalls in state’s COVID-19 response – Detroit Free Press

LANSING — An “after-action” report on Michigan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic says the state government’s response was hampered by a lack of “unified command” and by emergency training that had mostly focused on natural disasters and nuclear plant accidents, not a highly contagious virus.

A draft copy of the report, prepared by the emergency management division of the Michigan State Police and a Virginia-based consulting firm and dated July of this year, was obtained by the Free Press under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

Though the 177-page report identifies shortfalls and makes recommendations for improvement, it says the state’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic was “well-coordinated.”

Still, a top MSP official, Capt. Kevin Sweeney, stressed Thursday the report the Free Press obtained is a draft and disputed some of its findings, saying it was not yet complete and didn’t account for a chain of command and other processes the state ultimately put in place.

The MSP expects to pay about $1.5 million to its emergency management consultant, Tidal Basin Group of Alexandria, Va., to help with the report, which involved a review of documents, a survey of state employees, and interviews with just over 100 people. A final report is expected by the end of this year, MSP spokeswoman Shanon Banner said Thursday.

Among the problems the report identified:

  • The state operates in “silos” with different state agencies having various responsibilities, and it lacked a “unified command structure … to ensure clear vertical lines of communications” in an emergency that required responses across state government, the report said. “Longstanding operational silos resulted in communications/collaboration challenges.”
  • Prior to the start of the pandemic in March 2020, emergency managers and key state agency officials had participated in emergency response drills and training, but they were mostly focused on hypothetical natural disasters and nuclear accidents at Michigan power plants, the report said. There was one pandemic exercise modeled on Ebola, but it was limited to medical personnel. None of the training scenarios had been similar in terms of scope, duration, or breadth of impact.
  • State emergency planning documents had the same basic focus as the training drills, so they suffered from the same weaknesses and omissions. “For example, existing plans did not account for social distancing among SEOC (State Emergency Operations Center) staff who typically work collectively in person.”
  • The state had underinvested in technology for so long that its database systems were overwhelmed, negatively impacting everything from managing test results to importing hospital capacity metrics, to the recruitment of volunteers. “In the case of laboratory software, database compatibility issues halved the capacity of one machine from 1,000 samples to 500 samples per day,” the report said.
  • During the first few months of the pandemic, state agencies charged with urgently ordering supplies and hiring contractors were overwhelmed and “careful expenditure tracking was lacking.”
  • A state spending freeze early in the pandemic, combined with difficulties managing and allocating multiple federal funding sources for state agency emergency use, complicated response efforts. State employee furloughs in the early months of the pandemic also hampered the response. “Members of leadership were furloughed in some cases, causing them to return to work without pay to maintain critical functions,” the report said.
  • Once the pandemic began, state agencies that frequently offered in-person emergency training, such as the Michigan State Police and the Michigan National Guard, were required to cancel sessions. That negatively impacted general readiness, the report said.

Though not stamped “secret” or “confidential,” the report does not appear to have been intended for public consumption.

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“This report is intended for State of Michigan executive leadership, department directors, and those who the aforementioned parties deem critical partners,” and should not be shared without the “express permission” of a specific manager in the MSP’s emergency management division, the report says.

Still, the draft report identifies many strengths in the state’s pandemic response, including:

  • State emergency teams began “forward-leaning efforts” related to the COVID-19 response in December 2019, months before the state had its first confirmed case in March 2020.
  • The state distributed federal relief funds to hospitals and other health care providers, preventing “a catastrophic collapse” of the system, and it leveraged strong pre-existing relationships with such providers to expedite response and increase collaboration.
  • The governor’s office involved public health officials in response efforts, allowing the timely implementation of initiatives such as virus surveillance, outbreak management, expansion of testing and genomic sequencing to identify and track variants, the report said.
  • The transition to remote work by state employees “was effective and did not significantly disrupt or delay service delivery,” the report said.
  • State communications, both internal and external, were generally effective.

Sweeney, commander of the MSP Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division and state deputy director of emergency management and homeland security, said the draft report, while subject to revisions, “affirms the strengths of our emergency preparedness that make Michigan a national leader in natural disasters and public safety emergencies and allows us an opportunity to better serve and protect Michiganders in novel, health-related emergencies.”

Sweeney said the MSP is working with Tidal Basin Group on revisions for the final report.

“The draft report included incomplete sections that did not account for final processes that were ultimately put into place, such as a chain of command,” Sweeney said.

“In a short period of time, we had a very strong unified chain of command in place involving various state departments in consultation with issue-area experts and external stakeholders during this all-hands-on-deck effort to make the best decisions guided by the data and science that was known at the time.”

Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said the state asked for the after-action report, just as would “any organization that seeks to maintain peak readiness for any scenario.”

“While the draft report concludes the state’s overall response to the worst health crisis in 100 years was ‘well coordinated,’ the review is still ongoing,” Leddy said in an email. “We look forward to continue working with experts to complete this review and ensure that Michigan has one of the best emergency preparedness processes in the country.”

Though Tidal Basin Group’s work on the report was at one time estimated to cost $1.9 million, Banner said the MSP has paid the firm about $1.3 million in federal emergency funds so far and expects to pay the firm about another $170,000 by the time the report is complete.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or pegan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan.