“Federal and state officials alike have both succeeded and failed in battling the virus and its social and economic consequences,” concludes a new report by the Heritage Foundation.
The report, “COVID-19 and Federalism: Public Officials’ Accountability and Comparative Performance,” was authored by Doug Badger and Robert Moffit.
Singling out an article in the JAMA Forum in which a group of researchers questioned the efficiency of a federalized system in a national emergency, the authors write that, “Centralized government can just as easily issue authoritarian edicts or mandates based on bad information and poor judgment that can also inhibit speed and efficiency and sow confusion and disunity.”
Well before COVID-19 struck, Paul C. Light, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had examined the federal government’s performance from 2001 to 2014. He concluded: “Federal failures have been so common they are less of a shock to the public than an expectation. The question is no longer if the government will fail every few months, but where? The answer is: ‘Anywhere at all.’”
Weakening Public Trust
COVID has confirmed Light’s observation. Badger and Moffit note that the “initial extreme mortality projections and contradictory and confusing advice from public health experts, as well as hypocrisy in public health enforcement, has created unnecessary anxiety and anger and weakened public trust.”
As the first pandemic to strike since the less-virulent Asian flu outbreak of 1957/58, COVID-19 posed unique challenges to the nation’s federal system. Yet early on, certain characteristics of the disease became apparent. Though the disease is highly contagious and dangerous, serious illness and death have been heavily concentrated in the elderly and people with underlying conditions.
The accumulated data show that younger people who have contracted the disease generally had mild cases. Only about 1.3 percent of children diagnosed with the coronavirus were hospitalized, and 0.01 percent have died. “According to CDC’s best estimates,” Badger and Moffit write, “a person over 65 who contracts the virus is 4,500 times likely to die from it than a person under 18.”
The authors also note that, as a highly contagious disease, the coronavirus has had different impacts demographically and geographically. “The metrics of caseloads, hospitalizations, and mortality per million have varied from state to state and within states,” they point out. “Based on the science and the data, therefore, sound policy would accurately reflect these epidemiological and demographic distinctions, targeting intense efforts to protect the most vulnerable and relaxing social and economic restrictions on the least vulnerable.”
State and Federal Roles
That didn’t always happen. Ideally, under our federalist system, Washington has the responsibility of providing accurate data and reliable information and guidance, promoting scientific advances in the development and deployment of vaccines and therapeutics, making federal regulatory changes, and providing emergency supplies and technical and financial assistance.”
State and local officials, on the other hand, “can use the federal assistance to make balanced judgments that will secure the best outcomes for public health and the general welfare of their citizens.”
Some states, such as Florida and Texas, deviated from the excessively restrictive advice of federal agencies, the authors note. Other states, notably California and New York, went beyond what federal agencies recommended. Florida kept its economy and its schools largely open while California went so far as to close private schools in addition to subjecting businesses to prolonged lockdowns.
“The evidence shows that Florida and Texas had health outcomes similar to California’s and better than New York’s while maintaining while maintaining much lower unemployment rates,” the Heritage report finds.
Federal Successes and Failures
As for Washington’s response, the report credits the Trump administration for taking decisive steps in the initial phase of the pandemic, including banning travel to and from infected areas around the globe, launching a comprehensive review of federal rules and regulations, and marshaling the resources of the private sector to combat the virus, notably, Operation Warp Speed, which led to the accelerated development of vaccines.
On the negative side of the ledger, the authors point to the poor performance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which began under Trump and has continued under Biden. The CDC showed an inability to rapidly develop and deploy the diagnostic testing necessary to determine the extent of the infection, undermining the response to COVID-19 to this day; failed to provide timely accounts of infection and deaths; and was slow to learn lessons from other countries’ experience with the disease. In addition to its early mistakes, the CDC later resisted new testing methods, including at-home COVID-19 tests that could reveal rapid results without a prescription. The CDC’s blunder on at-home testing was magnified by the refusal of the Food and Drug Administration to approve such tests until March 2021.
Bureaucracy to Blame
“When speed and clarity were required, instead Americans were too often treated to a CDC response that was sluggish, confusing, and sometimes erroneous,” Badger and Moffit point out.
Failure to maintain an updated data collection and dissemination system and to stockpile a sufficient storehouse of emergency medical equipment is also symptomatic of a bureaucracy that did not rise to the occasion.
“This pattern of clinging to policies and guidances long after they have been shown to be misguided is a central characteristic of the government’s public health communications regime,” the authors conclude. “These public health officials have been reluctant to follow the science when it conflicted with their earlier pronouncements. They seem equally unwilling to admit error or acknowledge that they sometimes base their advice on unproven or disproven hypotheses, not conclusory scientific evidence.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D., (email@example.com) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.
Doug Badger, Robert Moffit, “COVID-19 and Federalism: Public Officials’ Accountability and Comparative Performance,” The Heritage Foundation, July 26, 2021.