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Opinion: Share the data: Informed citizens make Michigan stronger

Patrick L. Anderson

Early in February, as the coronavirus pandemic was unfolding in China, Anderson Economic Group sounded the alarm on the human and economic toll it would cause. Even then, we rightfully described the situation as “a crisis, not a slowdown.” We also lamented the fact that information on the true course of the epidemic in China was not being forthrightly shared with their own citizens, nor those in other countries.

This is now very much a crisis in America. However, it is a crisis in which Americans have endured exaggerated projections of the course of the epidemic, as well as self-serving statements by both elected officials and their political opponents. Missing, all too often, has been real data. 

That should stop. My colleagues and I are making real data available to citizens in Michigan and other states, so they can make their own decisions.

Evidence on jobs was clear in March

It was very difficult to predict the course of the epidemic in February. However, by the middle of March, good information was available from Italy, some areas of the United States, and other countries. By March 19, my colleagues at Anderson Economic Group predicted the dramatic economic blow the virus and the business closures would deliver to Michigan, estimating that they would deprive between 800K and 1.4 million Michigan workers income and jobs. That prediction has come all too true, with over 1 million unemployed by the middle of April.

More:Another 219K people filed for unemployment last week in Michigan

Evidence on the epidemic was clear in early April

We also began looking at the course of the epidemic in multiple countries, including the United States. We focused on real data on the actual experiences of people — not extrapolations of what might happen if nobody took the virus seriously. 

We found that, while the epidemic’s path was frightening, it was also largely predictable. The spread of this disease has been consistent with what scientists have observed in epidemics going over a century. To be sure, that meant using data that were incomplete, and a model that was imperfect, in an environment filled with uncertainty. However, that is exactly what strong people do when they are faced with a crisis.

We began sharing that information on Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and other states in early April. As the seriousness of our situation became clear — and unemployment began to skyrocket — four courageous business leaders stepped forward to commission us to present the hard data we had collected. That evidence was presented to our governor, along with a letter signed by those four CEOs, on April 13. 

Similar analyses — now extended to Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Grand Rapids, Lansing, northern Michigan, Hillsdale, Chicago, California, Ohio, and Virginia — have now been provided to citizens, business leaders, public health officials, and many others since then.

What the data show

The data we presented in that April 13 memo, and in our April 22 memo, and again in this week’s charts, are broadly consistent:

► Actual COVID-19 cases in the state of Michigan, whether in rural areas or in the hardest hit areas around Metro Detroit, peaked in early April.

The graph shows predictions in the decline of Michigan coronavirus cases born out.

► Except in a few areas — Grand Rapids being one we identified last week — cases have steadily declined since then.

► The epidemic in Michigan is following a path that is well-predicted by a standard “SIR” model that dates to 1927. This and similar models —with known limitations — are a solid basis for making decisions that unavoidably involve uncertainty. 

► Michigan has seen proportionately larger infection rates, most likely due to higher population density in Detroit and heavy international travel, than other Midwestern states. However, the overall pattern in Michigan — with cases growing rapidly, peaking, and then falling — is like that in Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, and even New York.

The graph shows predictions in the decline of coronavirus cases born out in Metro Detroit.

Making the actual data available

Our company, together with our data analytics partners in Virginia, Massachusetts, Italy, and Eastern Europe, have spent numerous hours building the capability to provide these data to business leaders, union leaders, government officials, and the general public.

We all have decisions to make about reopening stores and shops, re-engaging with customers and coworkers, and resuming the important relationships with family members. We must consider not only the risk of contagion, but also the broader health of Michigan’s citizens. This includes delivering the enormous backlog of health care services that have gone unaddressed; activities that support mental health, such as socialization with family and friends; fellowship during worship services; and outdoor physical activities. These are also part of our health and cannot be ignored. 

There is now, and will be forever, uncertainty and risk. However, there is less uncertainty, and less risk, when people are given the tools to manage their own lives. Strong people face the facts. Let us start facing them.

Patrick L. Anderson founded the consulting firm of Anderson Economic Group in 1996, which now serves business, university, nonprofit, and government clients across the United States from its offices in East Lansing and Chicago. Updated analyses of selected Michigan counties are available on the company’s website at: https://www.andersoneconomicgroup.com.