Whitmer sets vaccine benchmarks to lift coronavirus restrictions

COVID-19 Vaccine

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has announced specific benchmarks for when her administration will lift mandates meant to slow the spread of the virus in Michigan.

At a Thursday morning press conference in Lansing, the governor tied the lifting of restrictions to the new “MI Vacc to Normal Challenge.”

The process has four steps, each happening two weeks after the state hits a certain percentage of residents over the age of 16 who have received at least one dose of the vaccine. The first step will be allowing more people to return to office buildings, then raising some capacity restrictions, then lifting all capacity limits and finally the expiration of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Gatherings and Masks epidemic order.

The plan includes some leeway for MDHHS to maintain restrictions if case rates remain high or if the state starts seeing the spread of vaccine-resistant variants, which the state is so far not seeing.

So far, more than 6.8 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Michigan. Nearly half of the state’s population over the age of 16 has received at least one shot and more than 37% of that population has finished their doses.

If Michigan keeps up its current vaccination pace, it could hit the first benchmark — 55% with the first dose — by late next week.

“We are so close and increasing these numbers is how we will put this pandemic behind us,” MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said at the governor’s briefing. “It’s how we will keep the people we love safe and return to a more normal life. And it is how we will get back to roaring stadiums, concerts, safe workplaces, full dining rooms and big in-person celebrations.”

Up to this point, the governor has refused to link the loosening of restrictions to specific case and test positivity rates; she and Michigan’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said that context of the types of outbreaks was key in making those decisions.

Asked why she’s changing her approach now, Whitmer said the vaccines are the difference because they are the most reliable way to end the pandemic.

“This (MI Vacc to Normal Challenge) is a creative way of challenging us to rise to this moment and to meet it,” Whitmer said. “Tying (the loosening of restrictions) to increases in the number of people who get vaccinated is a metric that makes sense.”

WHITMER GETS SECOND VACCINE DOSE

In the afternoon, Whitmer put an exclamation point on her plan by getting her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids. Her 19-year-old daughter Sherry also got her second dose. Khaldun administered the governor’s dose.

“If you haven’t already gotten your shot, today is a great day to get your shot,” Whitmer said. “After I get mine here in a few minutes, I am … making some plans for what reconnection looks like with a group of people that I  haven’t seen in over a year and I’m very excited about that.

“As we keep ramping up our vaccinations, we can all see the light at the end of this tunnel, it’s getting brighter,” she continued. “We’re still in the tunnel. We still have to be smart. We have to encourage our loved ones and neighbors, friends and co-workers to get vaccinated and keep wearing our mask, but we are getting closer to that normalcy we all crave.”

Joining the governor were six Grand Rapids Public Schools students who volunteered to get their shots as ambassadors for the Protect Michigan Commission, which is encouraging residents to get vaccinated. Teens as young as 16 may get the Pfizer vaccine. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson doses are available to those 18 and up.

“This is team Michigan. We’ve all got to be on the same team here,” Whitmer said.

She urged people who are nervous about getting the vaccine to talk to their doctor about why it’s safe and effective.

Spectrum Health President and CEO Tina Freese Decker said the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic expected to administer its 200,000th dose Thursday. Spectrum is helping run the Grand Rapids mass vaccination site in partnership with Mercy Health, the Kent County Health Department at Vaccinate West Michigan.

“The best public health work happens with strong partnerships, when people really come together,” Khaldun praised the West Michigan Vaccine Clinic. “That’s truly what has happened here.”

The state is also rolling out a new set of public service announcements in which people explain why they got the shots.

More walk-in clinics are being offered around the state, including at Meijer pharmacies. The Allegan County Health Department will be offering walk-in doses at clinics Friday at Allegan High School and Saturday and Hamilton High School. Appointments are also available. Walk-in hours at both clinics are from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and a limited number of doses will be available.

The Portage Senior Center at 320 Library Lane is hosting a drive-thru vaccination clinic from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on May 5, which a follow-up clinic for second doses on June 2. Doses, all of which will be the Moderna vaccine, are available by appointment only. You can call the senior center at 269.329.4555 to set up an appointment. If you got your first Moderna dose but missed your second one, you can sign up to get it at the clinic.

—News 8 political reporter Rick Albin contributed.

LATEST MICHIGAN VIRUS DATA

MDHHS on Thursday reported 3,623 more confirmed cases of the virus and 109 more deaths. The state says 78 of the deaths were discovered during the three-times-weekly check of death certificates to find any that had not been reported to the state.

In all, Michigan has now seen 837,514 confirmed cases of the virus since it was first identified here in March 2020 and 17,576 related deaths.

On Wednesday, labs tested 49,751 samples for the virus and 5,155, or 10.36%, were positive. The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.

Kent County saw two more deaths, bringing its total to 725, and 292 more confirmed cases for a total of 63,685.

Several other West Michigan counties also reported additional deaths:

  • Allegan County: Three more deaths for 106 total; 9,235 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Berrien County: One more death for 249 total; 13,168 total cases.
  • Cass County: One more death for 69 total; 4,575 total cases.
  • Kalamazoo County: Two more deaths for 315 total; 18,737 total cases.
  • Montcalm County: One more death for 98 total; 4,873 total cases.
  • Ottawa County: One more death for 352 total; 28,281 total cases.
  • Van Buren County: One more death for 100 total; 6,250 total cases.

Wayne County, hit hardest by the virus, recorded 25 more deaths for a total of 4,340 and 666 more confirmed cases for a total of 142,524. Neighboring Oakland County has had 96,176 cases (370 more than the previous day) and 2,064 deaths (nine more). Macomb County has had 86,736 cases (305 more) and 2,107 deaths (31 more).

Michigan is seeing its key virus metrics “trending in the right direction,” Khaldun said, with the case and test positivity rates and hospitalizations all declining.

However, the state still has the highest case rate in the nation and the highest hospital bed utilization in the country. The rate of daily deaths, a lagging metric, has recently been on the rise.

  

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