Whitmer acknowledges hardships but optimistic about slowing coronavirus

Coronavirus

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said social distancing measures seem to be starting to work to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus in Michigan and promised that her agency is looking at ways to make sure our economy gets back on track when it’s safe to do so.

“It became clear to me this weekend that there are a lot of people who, understandably, are really worried about whether or not we’re ever going to get past this moment — and we are. I know that there’s the worry that maybe it’s three weeks, and then another three weeks and another three weeks, and this will go on and on,” Whitmer said at a Monday afternoon press conference in Lansing. “We will get past this. We will get through this. This is not a permanent moment.

>>Slides from press conference

“We are crunching the data daily,” she continued. “We are analyzing what is happening across Michigan, in our hospitals, in our communities. We are checking in to make sure that we are mindful about how and when we can move on to the next phase. Every day, we are writing the plan so that we can reengage safely at the appropriate time because not one of us wants to go through this again — not in a month, not in the fall. We want to avoid that at all costs.”

Whitmer last week extended her stay-at-home order through April 30. On Monday, the order that shut down theaters, gyms, bars and other public places and also required restaurants to do drive-thru or carry-out only was also extended to the end of the month. Other orders suspending load restrictions on roads and allowing for certain state administrative hearings to be held remotely were extended to May 11.

A new executive order temporarily extends the expiration dates of driver’s licenses, state IDs and commercial vehicle registrations since Secretary of State Office storefronts aren’t currently open. IDs that expired between March 1 and May 31 and registrations that expired after March 1 all now expire June 30. Many people may still be able to renew their license online.

The goal of all the social distancing measures is to keep the number of severe cases low enough that hospitals can cope. Whitmer said a hospital leader told her that the measures taken so far have “saved the health care system.”

>>Michigan launches mental health warmline: Call 888.733.7753

Whitmer took a moment to dispel what she called “demonstrably inaccurate” rumors circulating on social media: She hasn’t banned the sale of car seats, bug spray or American flags. She hasn’t banned homeschooling. She advised people to check the state’s coronavirus website, where they can read the executive orders themselves and FAQ.

LOWER DAILY INCREASE IN CASES

State officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” because the number of new cases seem to be slowing — though more data is needed to confirm that — and said that was down to people obeying the stay-at-home order.

New state figures show an additional 997 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Michigan Sunday for a total of 25,635 statewide. That’s one of the lowest single-day increases we’ve seen in weeks, behind the numbers released the day previous. The death toll increased by 115 for a total of 1,602. That increase is about the same as what we saw much of last week.

“We are starting to see early signs of a plateau in the rate of growth of COVID-19 cases here in the state of Michigan, and particularly in southeast Michigan,” where the outbreak has been the worst, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical officer, said at the press conference. “Despite the reductions in the rate of growth, there are still many new cases and deaths every single day.”

Wayne County has 11,648 confirmed cases and 760 people have died. Oakland County has 5,073 cases and 3,347 deaths and Macomb County 3,418 cases and 240 deaths. As of Monday, there were enough hospital beds and ventilators to help everyone who needed help.

Khaldun said some areas are seeing an increase in the number of cases, notably in Genesse County, where Flint is. Genesse County now has 988 confirmed cases and 77 people have died. The chief medical executive said different regions may see different peaks in the curve of the virus.

Kent County has 311 confirmed cases and 13 people have died. News 8 confirmed Monday that nine of those who died were patients at the Metron of Cedar Springs nursing home, where 31 residents tested positive for the illness. Of the 31, three who were hospitalized are now back at the home to keep recovering.

Barry County on Monday announced its first death, saying the patient was a 59-year-old woman who died Sunday. That death is not yet included in state data and will be reflected in Tuesday’s update.

In Berrien County, health officials said there appeared to be COVID-19 cluster at the Hallmark Living nursing home in Benton Harbor, where eight people — half residents and half workers — tested positive for the disease. Three of those four residents have died; officials said they were already terminally ill before getting COVID-19. The workers who tested positive are isolated at home. Overall, five people in Berrien County have died after contracting COVID-19; there are 105 cases confirmed in the county.

Michigan is now fourth in the nation in number of confirmed cases, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, surpassed by Massachusetts Monday. New York still has the largest number of cases by far, followed by New Jersey. Michigan still has the third highest number of deaths in the country.

At the press conference, state officials announced 13 expanded drive-up testing sites for COVID-19, including in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and the addition of a lab in Grand Rapids to run those tests.

Khaldun said that once all those are up and running, testing would be expanded by 40%. She said that expanded criteria also means that many more people will be able to get tested, including those with only mild symptoms. She noted the expanded testing will be “critical” in deciding when social distancing measures can be relaxed.

On Saturday, the most recent day for which data is available, about 3,000 tests were run in Michigan and about 29% came back positive.

Volunteers are still needed to staff field hospitals — one in Detroit that’s already in use and a second in Novi expected to be ready next week. Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists can sign up on the state’s website at Michigan.gov/FightCOVID19.

COVID-19 presents with a fever, cough and shortness of breath. For most who contract it, symptoms are mild. Though anyone can get it and anyone can develop a serious case, the people most at risk to develop severe complications are the elderly and those with preexisting health problems.

If you think you have coronavirus, call your health care provider. Unless you are in need of emergency help, do not go to the emergency room. Get advice from a doctor over the phone or a televisit and they will direct you on how to get tested.

WHEN WILL THE ECONOMY GET MOVING AGAIN?

Whitmer acknowledged the economic hardship her stay-at-home orders have caused and the anger from many people who want to get back to work.

Whitmer said social distancing restrictions could start being lifted when:

  • There is a sustained reduction in the rate of infections;
  • There is “enhanced ability” to test for the virus and trace the spread;
  • The health care system has the capacity to handle a resurgence;
  • There are best practices for safety in the workplace.

She encouraged employers to start thinking ahead about safety measures that would be implemented once businesses can reopen.

She said the reengagement would happen in phases, not all at once, and that she would give regular updates on that process.

“I think a little humanity and compassion is really important,” Whitmer said. “Think about the 1,602 Michiganders who have died from COVID-19. Think about their families and their loved ones who can’t support one another in person because it’s just too dangerous. Every one of these people had a story and has a family and has people who are in mourning. While some of us are grieving the loss of our freedom, they are grieving the loss of their loved ones.”

Dr. Khaldun cited the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 as an example of why we can’t let up on social distancing too soon. She said cities that were less aggressive then saw more deaths and their economic rebounds were stymied.

Whitmer said she would always hear complaints, but asked opponents not to protest in large groups to prevent the spread of the virus. One protest has been scheduled for Wednesday in Lansing — the governor asked people to stay in their cars.

“It’s OK to be frustrated. If you makes you (feel) better to direct it at me, that’s OK, too. I’ve got thick skin and I’m always going to defend your right to free speech,” she said. “I just ask that those who are protesting these orders do so in a safe manner so that you don’t get sick and so you don’t subject our first responders to risk, either.”

She noted that one of the groups involved in the Wednesday protest, the Michigan Freedom Fund, is heavily backed by the conservative DeVos family in West Michigan.

“I think it’s really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States’ president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor, but obviously on me here at home,” Whitmer said, referring to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who married into the family. “I think they should disavow it and encourage people to stay home and be safe.”

The DeVos family released this statement in response:

“Contrary to the Governor’s statements, the DeVos family hasn’t spent a dime on this protest nor has it offered prior support to the organizing entity,” the statement from family spokesperson Nick Wasmiller reads. “The DeVos family, however, understands the frustration of fellow Michiganders as elements of the governor’s top-down approach appear to go beyond public safety. Michigan deserves competent governance, not baseless attacks.”

The Michigan Freedom Fund has posted the Facebook event for the protest on its page and paid to boost that post so it will appear on more feeds.

MORE THAN 1 MILLION NEW UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS

The number of people who have filed for benefits has surpassed 1 million — more than a quarter of the state’s workforce, Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Jeff Donofrio said.

The LEO includes the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

Donofrio said only California and Pennsylvania have seen higher figures and that every state is struggling to handle the increases.

On Monday morning, the state UIA website crashed due to the heavy volumes as self-employed people were allowed to start filing claims. To help get people processed, the agency asked only applicants with last names that beginning with A-L to file Monday and recommended to wait to file until off peak hours between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

“We are committed to making sure that every eligible Michigander who needs unemployment insurance benefits will get them,” Donofrio said.

He promised everyone would be signed up eventually. If you’re having trouble doing so, the state has noted that unemployment benefits can be back-dated to when you lost your job.

So far, $350 million in benefits has been paid out to about 600,000 families, including extra emergency funds provided by the federal government.

“We’re adding capacity, we’re increasing eligibility and benefits and making sure that we work hard to provide that emergency relief that’s needed to weather this economic crisis,” Donofrio said at Monday’s press conference. “We understand the deep economic pain associated with COVID-19 and we appreciate your patience as we work to process the historic need for benefits. We are committed to getting our economy back up and running, as the governor said. But we need to make sure we get this health crisis right. Flattening the curve of transmission is the most important thing we can do to minimize the long-term economic damage and get our economy back to work.”

Complete weekly figures on unemployment rates are expected to be released Thursday.

Whitmer has also joined a group of 12 governors asking the Trump administration to allow for a 30-day special extension to the open enrollment period in Affordable Care Act programs on healthcare.gov. The federal government previously decided that would not happen; the governors want it to reconsider.

The other governors who signed the letter, all Democrats, are John Carney of Delaware, JB Pritzker of Illinois, Janet Mills of Maine, Steve Bullock of Montana, Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, Kate Brown of Oregon, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Ralph Northam of Virginia and Tony Evers of Wisconsin.

  

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