7 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID briefing: Could Michigan variant spread lead to another lockdown?

Governor says Michigan’s progress in decreasing COVID-19 spread is ‘fragile’

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke about the “fragile” success of Michigan’s COVID-19 situation Tuesday, and she was asked about the possibility of variant spread leading to another lockdown.

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke about the “fragile” success of Michigan’s COVID-19 situation Tuesday, and she was asked about the possibility of variant spread leading to another lockdown.

Here are the top takeaways from Tuesday’s briefing.

More cases of B117 variant

Last week, Khaldun said 28 combined cases of the COVID-19 variant B117 had been confirmed in Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

On Sunday, health officials announced they have identified a confirmed case of the variant in Kent County.

“While our numbers continue to trend overall in the right direction, I’m very concerned about what we are seeing with the new B117 variant,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We now know of 45 cases of the variant identified in Michigan across 10 counties, and there will be more.”

The variant first appeared in the United Kingdom, but not all the cases in Michigan have been associated with people who traveled there, Khaldun said. That means the variant is likely in the “general community.”

“We are in a race, as I’ve said,” Whitmer said. “There are variants that are now present and that we have got to be concerned (about).”

She reiterated the variant is a threat to the progress Michigan has made in decreasing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths during the “pause.”

Could variant spread cause lockdown?

On the topic of variants being even more contagious than the original COVID-19 virus, Whitmer was asked Tuesday about the chance of more restrictions being put in place.

“If these become the dominant viruses going around, what’s the likelihood that we could go back to more lockdowns of restaurants and other public gatherings?” Whitmer was asked.

“No one wants to go back, take steps backward,” Whitmer said. “That’s why we’re asking everyone to keep doing their part. The B117 variant, the other variants that we’ve seen around the globe -- we still know that they can’t pass person-to-person if we wear our masks, we socially distance and we wash our hands.

“We still know how to beat these viruses and these variants of this virus if we continue to do that, but we are in a race to get these vaccines into arms, and that’s why the resources in that Michigan COVID recovery plan are so crucial in this moment. It’s a race, and we want to continue leading in this race, and we need to get those resources there.”

Khaldun also expressed some worries about the variants.

“Of course I’m concerned, but as the governor said, masks, social distancing, washing hands -- those things work,” Khaldun said.

She said the state’s contact tracing and testing are in good standing because cases have decreased, so there are plenty of contact tracers and antigen tests available at the moment.

“We have revved up our public health response, and I’m confident in what we’ve done with our local health departments and other places where we’ve seen these outbreaks,” Khaldun said.

South Africa variant

At this point, Michigan doesn’t have any confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant that’s been traced back to South Africa.

“For the South Africa variant, I’ll say, we do not at this point know of any of that variant that is located in the state of Michigan,” Khaldun said.

Michigan laboratories are doing whole-genome sequencing for any possible samples of that variant, she said.

“But we have not identified that one, as of yet in the state,” Khaldun said.

Updated metrics

Since the start of the pandemic, officials have been paying close attention to the case rate, percent positivity and hospitalization numbers related to COVID-19.

As of Tuesday, Michigan is reporting 144 cases of COVID-19 per million population per day, Khaldun said. The case rate is steadily declining and is down 81% from the mid-November peak, she said.

The state’s percent positivity is 4.5%, which is a rate that continues to decline, according to the state.

Khaldun said only 6% of hospital beds are currently occupied by COVID-19 patients. That number is down 72% since the “fall peak” on Dec. 1.

‘Success is fragile’

Michigan officials have been reported declining COVID-19 numbers for more than a month, but Whitmer cautioned residents not to let their guard down.

“Just as it has been these past 11 months, our success at this point is fragile,” Whitmer said.

The state has reported fewer than 2,000 single-day cases for two straight weeks after at one point getting to over 9,000 cases in a day. But both Whitmer and Khaldun said the fight isn’t over.

“We know how to slow the spread, and it’s the same thing Michiganders have been doing so well for the past year to slow the spread of the virus and bring our curve down last spring and in the fall,” Khaldun said.

Return to in-person learning

In January, Whitmer set a goal for all Michigan school districts to offer an in-person learning option for students by March 1.

Since then, the state has made teachers eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and allowed youth contact sports to resume in an attempt to make that goal more feasible and eliminate conflicting messages.

On Tuesday, Whitmer doubled down on the importance of returning to in-person learning.

“The value of in-person learning, however, for our kids, is immeasurable, and we’ve got to do everything we can to get them back safety in the classroom so they get the education they need,” Whitmer said.

She said many students and families have struggled with remote learning and need, at minimum, a hybrid schedule that includes some face-to-face interaction.

“This can be done safely with the safety protocols and a strategy to keep our students and our teachers and our support staff safe,” Whitmer said.

The state is “strongly encouraging” school districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible.

“We also know that in-person learning can be done safely, and in many school districts across the state, this is already happening,” Khaldun said.

Epidemiologists across the country have found that schools can reopen with a low risk of COVID-19 transmission through mask wearing and other infection prevention protocols, she said.

Michigan has received federal funding for students to return to in-person learning.

COVID vaccinations in Michigan

Last week, Whitmer announced more than 1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Michigan. On Tuesday, we learned more about vaccination progress.

She said Tuesday that Michigan has administered exactly 1,292,572 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Michigan officials are prioritizing vaccinating health care workers, but residents in phases 1A and 1B are both currently eligible to sign up for the vaccine.

Many Michiganders have struggled to secure appointments, however, and state officials said that’s due to a shortage in supply.

“The demand for vaccines outpaces the supply we currently have,” Whitmer said. “That is going to change. We are seeing an increase in vaccines.”

Khaldun said the state has seen a 16% increase in the amount of vaccine coming into the state. She’s hopeful the vaccine made by Johnson & Johnson will be authorized by the end of February.

The state’s goal is to get 50,000 shots in arms per day.

Khaldun said every dose of the vaccine available to the state has either been administered or is scheduled to be administered.

“Every resident and staff in a skilled nursing facility has been offered a first dose of the vaccine, and many have already completed their second doses, as well,” Khaldun said.

She said 11% of Michiganders age 16 and up have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and about 25% of residents ages 65 and up have been vaccinated.

About the Authors:

Derick is the Lead Digital Editor for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.

Rod Meloni is an Emmy Award-winning Business Editor on Local 4 News and a Certified Financial Planner™ Professional.