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A bill that would have created a commission to review Maine’s COVID-19 response stalled in the Legislature last week. The idea behind this commission, however, should carry over to future legislative and executive branch work.
If you listen to the public health experts, as we’ve been calling for throughout the pandemic, it’s not a matter of if another pandemic happens down the road — it’s a matter of when. The more policymakers can understand, in depth, the ways that different elements of Maine’s COVID response have worked and haven’t worked, the better our state will be positioned for that eventual next crisis.
This idea should be palatable regardless of politics and which party is in power in Augusta. Such a commission can still be and should be framed around preparing Maine for future challenges, despite the potential for it to be used as a campaign springboard to attack or defend individual politicians.
We have generally given Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and her administration high marks for the state’s COVID-19 response, while calling for better collaboration and communication at various points in the pandemic. But regardless of whether someone thinks this administration has done a good job or not, everyone should want to better position future administrations for other public health emergencies. This type of commission could help provide a roadmap rather than a referendum.
The bill to create a COVID-19 review commission, introduced by Republican Sen. Lisa Keim of Dixfield, advanced unanimously in the Senate but unfortunately met opposition from Democrats in the House, where it stalled. It was also opposed by the Mills administration.
In testimony before the Committee on State and Local Government in early May, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew raised several concerns about the COVID-19 review bill, including that the commission would be staffed by DHHS personnel at an “already-exhausted capacity,” and that the review would take place during an ongoing pandemic response. She said that DHHS and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention regularly do “after action reviews” of their work, but that those “can only be fully informed once a mission is complete.”
Since May, the landscape has changed in ways that should diminish concerns about creating this type of commission, if not remove those concerns altogether. First of all, an amendment to Keim’s bill removed the language about DHHS staffing the commission.
Second, the amendment pushed back the timeline for the commission’s final report until the end of 2022 (the original would have required the commission’s report by the end of 2021, and the amended version would have required an interim report by December 2021 and a final report by December 2022). This is notable not only because it would help address the concern about conducting a review in the middle of a pandemic response, but it could also push the final report until after the 2022 gubernatorial election, hopefully minimizing the chances of an important review turning into a political football.
In addition to the bill changes, Mills has since announced that Maine’s state of civil emergency will end June 30. That may not be a total “mission complete” moment for the state, but we’re getting to a point where it is both appropriate and necessary to take a careful look at what has worked and what hasn’t.
“In both the public and private sector, looking back at large, impactful events is
essential to improving the response to future events of the same magnitude,” Keim said in a June 7 press release. “It is very important that we have a full, thorough review of state government’s actions and their effectiveness.”
Keim’s commission legislation should set the foundation for additional debate about reviewing the state’s COVID-19 response and planning for future public health emergencies. There may be ways to further depoliticize a commission like this — such as filling it with public health, economic and legal experts rather than current lawmakers — but a lot of that work has already been done through the bill amendment.
This is a case where Maine can move forward by looking back, and do so in pursuit of good policy rather than political gain.