LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer again encouraged Michigan residents to double down on washing their hands, practicing social distancing and wearing masks, as well as called on them to get vaccinated as soon as possible, to combat the state’s current coronavirus surge.
“We’re in a tough spot, Michigan,” Whitmer said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference in Lansing. “I know how hard this year has been on all of us. I know we’re all feeling pandemic fatigue., but we’ve got to remember we’re in this together. It’s going to take hard work to beat this pandemic, but Michiganders are used to hard work and we can beat this virus together.”
While the state still has a mask mandate, capacity restrictions and high school sports testing requirements in place, Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services did not issue any new orders Wednesday — even though the state now has the worst coronavirus surge in the nation despite 14 months of stringent restrictions.
“We were very successful for a long period of time pushing COVID rates down in Michigan. …We were the envy of most other states for a long period of time. We didn’t know a lot about his virus a year ago, so we took action and we were quite successful compared to the rest of the country,” Whitmer said when asked to explain the surge. “At this point, we are now 14 months in and people are tired. Every single one of us is tired. I’m tired of this. (Michigan chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun) is tired of this. And we are seeing people abandoning the protocols. We’re seeing more mobility. That’s what’s happening and the worst part is we now have the existence of variants here in Michigan which are easier to spread. So you combine with the fact that we’ve got reservoirs of people that we kept safe for a long period of time that don’t have antibodies and variants that are easier to catch and that is part of why we’re seeing the increase that we have in Michigan.”
She has cited increased understanding of the virus and the vaccine rollout as her reasons for not issuing new rules.
She also explained that MDHHS was working to expand the usage of antibody therapies in this who are sick and that her administration was partnering with the federal government to get more doses of the antiviral Remdesivir into the state.
Among the most pointed of the questions the governor fielded after prepared remarks were about what some see as a double-standard involving MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel. After months of state health officials discouraging travel, it was revealed that last week that Hertel and her family went on vacation to Alabama for spring break.
“There have never been travel restrictions in Michigan,” Whitmer replied when asked if there were two sets of rules in play. “There just haven’t been. What we have done is to ask people to be smart, to get vaccinated, to mask up. That is the key to traveling with confidence that you’re going to be safe and not expose yourself or your loved ones to COVID or your community to COVID. So what directors do on their personal time is their business, so long as they are safe, which is what we’re asking everyone in this state to do. Get vaccinated, mask up. We all want the freedom to do these things we’re longing to do. That is the key to doing it with confidence we’re going to be safe.”
NEARLY 8,000 NEW CASES
Michigan on Wednesday reported 7,955 more confirmed cases of the virus and 33 additional associated deaths. The state has now had a total of 764,519 confirmed cases since the pandemic started in March 2020 and 16,619 related deaths.
On Tuesday, labs tested 47,291 samples for the virus and 6,917, or 14.63%, 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 confirmed 651 more cases for a total of 58,364 since March 2020. One more death was recorded, bringing the total to 693.
A few other West Michigan counties also reported additional deaths:
- Allegan County: One more death for 100 total; 8,329 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
- Berrien County: One more death for 240 total; 12,489 total cases.
- Ottawa County: Two more deaths for 342 total; 25,879 total cases.
- Van Buren County: One more death for 94 total; 5,768 total cases.
Wayne County, the state’s most populous, reported two more deaths for a total of 4,127 and confirmed 1,445 total cases for a total of 128,376. Oakland County has had 87,336 cases (1,030 more than the previous day) and 1,986 deaths (one more). Macomb County has had 78,596 cases (799 more) and 1,970 deaths (one more).
Michigan’s case rate has been rising for seven straight weeks, the seven-day average of the test positivity rate is above 18% and more than 2,750 cases — more than any other state in the country — of the more transmissible variants have been confirmed. The number of deaths has increased nearly 40% week-over-week and the state now ranks eighth in both highest number and rate of deaths.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said hospitals are reporting they are at or near capacity. Michigan has the highest hospitalization rates in the country with more than 18% of all hospital beds in the state treating COVID-19 patients. The state posted record highs of confirmed COVID-19 inpatients two days in a row this week — though not on Wednesday.
Khaldun, who is a working emergency room doctor, said she is seeing the surge stress health care infrastructure and exhaust her fellow health care workers.
“We are seeing more and more people who are being diagnosed with COVID-19,” she said at the governor’s briefing. “Many of them are younger than what we were seeing with previous surges. … Patients are again lining our hallways like they were last spring.”
“The surge we are seeing now is very troublesome,” added Dr. Adnan Munkarah, the executive vice president and chief clinical officer for Henry Ford Health System in metro Detroit, explaining his hospital system has seen a nearly sixfold increase in COVID-19 inpatients in the last four weeks.
He echoed the governor’s call for everyone to follow coronavirus mitigation protocols and get vaccinated.
“Families continue to lose their loved ones to COVID-19 and all struggle to cope with loved ones who are getting very sick and hospitalized,” Munkarah said. “Our care teams are emotionally and physically exhausted. They are more than committed and dedicated to provide the best care; however, they are frustrated to see people coming in, very sick and die of an infection that we can control.”
Whitmer last week urged — but did not order — people to avoid dining in at restaurants or otherwise gathering for two weeks to help bring the virus metrics down. She also called on schools to go virtual and hit pause on indoor sports for two weeks. In an email sent to school administrators Tuesday, the Kent County Health Department encouraged schools to move to virtual or hybrid learning and call off other activities. So far, few schools in West Michigan have changed their learning formats.
On Wednesday, Khaldun again reminded people that just because restaurant dining rooms are open doesn’t mean it’s safe to eat there. She advised getting takeout.
“The past 14 months (have) been very challenging and especially the past couple of months in Michigan as our cases have climbed — but I still have hope we know what to do. We just all have to come together and do it,” Khaldun said.
With fewer people on unemployment the longer the pandemic progresses, the state was told by the federal Department of Labor that extended unemployment benefits would end this week. State officials say many family may still be eligible for federal pandemic emergency unemployment compensation or pandemic unemployment assistance.
The governor’s news conference came a day after the federal government’s recommendation to “pause” using the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended the pause out of an abundance of caution after six women reported potentially dangerous blood clots that occurred six to 13 days after vaccination. Health officials have not tied the blood clots to the vaccine and issued the pause out of an abundance of caution.
“This proves that our monitoring system for these vaccines is robust and it works,” Khaldun said.
She pointed out that with only six cases of clots and 6.8 million doses administered, the chances of experiencing such a reaction are about one in a million — “incredibly rare.”
“Your risk of getting COVID if you are not vaccinated is much higher than your risk of getting an adverse reaction to this vaccine,” Khaldun said.
Whitmer told News 8 Tuesday that she has high confidence in the safety and efficacy of the J&J vaccine but would follow guidance from the federal government.
Meijer told News 8 Wednesday that its pharmacies would be rescheduling appointments for anyone who was set to get a J&J vaccine, and added that only about 10% of patients were set to get that shot.
Cherry Health, which has been hosting vaccine clinics for populations including those who are homeless, said it has stopped using J&J and will shift all planned events to Moderna for now.
Khaldun urged people to keep signing up to get the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
“Vaccines give you the freedom and the peace of mind that your risk of COVID is low,” Khaldun said.
The state has received more than 6.2 million vaccine doses (all brands) and more than 5.5 million of those have been administered. More than 42% of the state’s population over the age of 16 has received at least one shot. The goal is to reach 70%.
—News 8 political reporter Rick Albin contributed to this report.