12 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID briefing -- More reopenings ahead; state’s quiet order extension

Whitmer joined by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Feb. 24, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke Wednesday about the handling of COVID-19 in Michigan, including the chance that the state will be reopened further in the next few days and why the current MDHHS order was extended so quietly without an announcement.

She was joined by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

Here are our takeaways from the briefing:

Quiet extension of MDHHS order

Whitmer was asked Wednesday about the state’s quiet extension of the previous MDHHS order, which was previously scheduled to expire Feb. 21. It is now in effect until March 29, and the state didn’t make its usual public announcement.

“Was that done on purpose to keep that more quiet, and then do you understand how some people have issues with transparency with that?” Whitmer was asked.

“I was a little surprised by the reaction, to tell you the truth,” Whitmer said. “Anyone who’s just even casually watched over the last 12 months knows we have a tendency to have about a three-week cadence. We make a change, see how it’s going, watch the data, report on the data, make changes along the way. But usually, three weeks or longer increments, and that’s no different in this case.

“So frankly, I was a little bit surprised by the kind of characterization of it. We’ve been very open. We’ve been sharing data every step of the way. There are a lot of reasons to feel very positive right now. The variant is not a good reason to feel positive, with being the second-most variants in the country right now, in terms of the B117, in terms of the sheer number of cases.”

“But, you know, we still are seeing low positivity numbers and high vaccination rates, so it’s generally headed in the right direction and if you think about that timeline, it would probably conclude justifiably that in the coming days we will be assessing and making more determinations on a number of fronts.”

Reopening Michigan

Whitmer said the state is planning to re-engage more of the economy soon.

“We’re expecting to make more announcements on additional re-engagements in the coming days,” Whitmer said. “Our case numbers and public health metrics are trending in the right direction, and we’re very pleased to see that.”

Michigan has been under an MDHHS order that began with a “pause” in mid-November. Since then, the state has reopened little by little as the order was extended and adjusted.

Right now, there are restrictions on gatherings, entertainment facilities, restaurants and much more. The current rules limiting in-person dining at restaurants and forcing them to close by are in place until March 29.

“I’m feeling very optimistic,” Whitmer said. “Let’s keep it up.”

Restaurant restrictions

Are restaurant restrictions among those that could be changed in the upcoming days, or are they destined to stay the same until March 29?

Whitmer said she has heard from restaurant owners who want to increase capacity to 50% because they think that it can be done safely.

“I’m hopeful that eventually we get to that point,” Whitmer said. “But at this juncture, we’ve been at it just a couple of weeks. We’ve got to keep watching the data. We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got antigen tests that are available.”

She said her hope is that if the Legislature can get moving on the Michigan COVID Recovery plan money, the state can move toward more normalcy.

Top COVID metrics

Khaldun offered another update to the state’s most critical COVID-19 metrics, which have been improving significantly over the past couple of months.

“We continue, as the governor said, to see positive trends in the key metrics that we are tracking for COVID-19,” Khaldun said.

Michigan’s case rate is at 95 cases per million people -- a number that has been declining for six weeks. This is the first time since the fall peak that the state’s case rate has dropped below 100 cases per million population.

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in Michigan is down to 3.5%.

Right now, 4.9% of available inpatient hospital beds statewide are being used to take care of people with COVID-19, Khaldun said. That percentage continues to decline.

“Our case counts and positivity rates remain among the lowest in the country,” Whitmer said.

Last week, Michigan reported a case rate of 113 per million, 3.9% positivity and a 5.2% hospitalization rate.

“While we are pleased with these metrics, I am concerned that our testing numbers are declining across the state,” Khaldun said. “The weekly average across the state last week was about 35,500 tests per days. In November, we saw several days that were above 60,000 tests per day.”

She said testing is still important in the fight against COVID-19 because it’s the only way to track the spread of the virus and slow it down.

“Testing is an important tool for us to be able to reopen critical parts of our society,” Khaldun said.

B117 variant

Michigan has now identified 314 cases of the B117 variant across 19 counties, Khaldun said.

Last Wednesday, Michigan had confirmed 157 cases of the variant across 12 counties.

“There are possibly more that we have not yet identified,” Khaldun said. “Models and national experts predict that this new variant could be the dominant one in the United States by the end of March.”

The first cases of the variant found in the state were within the University of Michigan athletic department. At that time, cases of the variant were contained to Washtenaw and Wayne counties, but now B117 has been confirmed in residents not connected to that situation.

That suggests community spread of the variant, Khaldun said.

Though it isn’t believed to cause more serious cases or affect approved vaccines, the B117 variant is known to be more contagious than the original COVID strand. Officials are worried it will cause a spike in overall cases and therefore spark a rise in Michigan’s metrics.

“The good news is, the same basic public health measures that we’ve been talking about -- masks, social distancing, washing hands and getting a vaccine when it is your turn -- those things slow the spread of the new variants, as well,” Khaldun said.

Michigan vaccinations

Last week, Whitmer said Michigan had administered 1,657,215 vaccines. On Wednesday, seven days later, that number has risen to 1,942,759, the governor said.

Michigan is ninth nationwide for total vaccines administered, she said.

“Our target remains equitably distributing at least 50,000 shots per day -- a metric that we have met for 13 days, including five days where we were above 60,000 doses,” Whitmer said.

As of now, several groups of frontline workers, including pre-K through 12 educators and all Michiganders over age 65, are eligible for the vaccine.

Khaldun said about 15.5% of Michiganders over the age of 16 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Almost 675,000 people in the state are fully vaccinated with two doses of the vaccine, she said.

About 41% of Michiganders over the age of 75 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Khaldun.

“This is great progress toward our goal of vaccinating at least 70% of Michiganders age 16 and up as quickly as possible,” Khaldun said.

500,000 deaths

Over the weekend, the national death toll from COVID-19 eclipsed 500,000 people.

“It’s staggering,” Whitmer said. “It matches the loss of life felt during World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam combined.”

In Michigan, more than 15,000 people have died due to COVID-related issues since the start of the pandemic, according to the state.

“We’ve lost over 15,000 Michiganders to COVID-19,” Whitmer said. “If we took one minute of silence to recognize each life, it would last 10 days, 16 hours and two minutes of silence.”

Michigan COVID Recovery plan

Whitmer again spent some time urging Michigan Legislatures to pass her proposed COVID Recovery plan.

“It spends over $5 billion that has already been appropriated to us in a bipartisan bill that was signed by Donald Trump in December,” Whitmer said. “If the Legislature does not act, the $2 per hour wage increase for direct care workers will expire this Sunday.”

She said the plan includes $1.7 billion to help Michigan schools meet the state’s March 1 goal for returning to in-person classes.

The governor has made a similar plea to the Legislature during briefings for several weeks. She said legislators need to “do their job” and pass the plan so Michigan can purchase more critical Binax antigen tests.

“The urgency to pass this plan couldn’t be higher,” Whitmer said.

In-person learning

It’s been seven weeks since Whitmer encouraged all Michigan school districts to have an in-person learning option in place by the beginning of March.

“As of today, 83% of school districts are currently back in person, according to a report from our research partners at EPIC, and 97% of school districts will be back in-person in one way or another by March 1,” Whitmer said.

The governor provided the following reasons for why she believes returning to school is the right decision:

  • Schools are cornerstones of healthy, vibrant communities.
  • A school environment provides social and emotional skills that are foundational to development. Those traits are difficult to develop without peer-to-peer interaction.
  • Face-to-face instruction is critical to learning. A significant loss of classroom time has long-term consequences on a child’s long-term development.
  • Tens of thousands of vulnerable children in Michigan are in risk of falling through the cracks, unless concerted efforts are made to catch them up.
  • Disheartening impacts on children’s mental and physical health since their lives were “upended” in March.
  • Anxiety and depression rates are up, according to the CDC.
  • Child immunization rates are down, according to the CDC.
  • Schools are often the first place that children receive a vision and hearing screening to address basic barriers to learning. Both services have been on pause during in-person learning.
  • Staff who are trained to detect and address child abuse and neglect are unable to do so remotely.
  • Without schools, the economy is hamstrung. Working families have been spread too thin over the past year, often taking on the roles of parent, teacher and employee at the same time. Parents rely on schools as places for their children to learn while they’re working inside and outside their homes.
  • Some parents -- especially women -- have had to step away from workforce to care for their children and aid remote learning.
  • Massive job losses amidst the economic downturn have forced 2.4 million women -- disproportionately women of color -- out of the workforce since last February.
  • Transitioning to remote learning has exacerbated equity gaps statewide that officials have been working to narrow. Students who are economically disadvantaged, require special education, experience housing insecurity or are learning English as a second language need in-person learning opportunities more than others, Whitmer said.
  • Michigan schools have the infrastructure to deliver the required services and be the best place for children to learn and grow.
  • With proper precautions and the right resources, the risk of spreading COVID-19 in schools can be mitigated.
  • Studies suggest younger children are not a major source of COVID transmission to peers or adults.
  • Michigan State University researchers found there is not a correlation between schools being open and community spread of the virus.
  • Michigan has seen few large outbreaks in pre-K-12 schools and very little evidence of outbreaks due to in-person learning.
  • Over the course of the pandemic, the state has learned more about the virus and has adjusted accordingly to lower the risk of spread.
  • Medical experts have created a set of “best practices” for schools to follow to prevent infection and minimize the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. Wearing masks, socially distancing and washing hands are among the precautions.

3 pillars of public health

In talking about in-person learning, Whitmer described “three pillars of public health.”

1. Universal masking:

“Face masks must be worn indoors by all staff and students 5 and up, except for meals and other limited circumstances,” Whitmer said.

2. Social distancing:

“Classrooms should be adjusted and arranged to space students out to follow social distancing protocols,” Whitmer said.

In addition to separating desks, school districts are encouraged to use all of their available space, including gyms, cafeterias and multi-purpose rooms to return to in-person learning.

3. Hand hygiene:

Schools should provide students and staff members with soap, paper towels, tissues, signage to reinforce hand washing and hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol, Whitmer said.

Other safety guidelines:

  • Designate a staff person to be the point for responding to COVID-19 concerns.
  • Implement a cohort model, dividing teachers and students into distinct groups that stay together throughout the entire day.
  • Maintain air flow. -- Open windows, use fans and change air filters more often.
  • Upgrade heating and cooling systems.
  • Secure the water supply. Steps must be taken after a long shutdown to minimize the risk of lead or copper exposure.
  • Adhere to testing, screening and quarantining criteria. Anyone who tests positive, exhibits symptoms or has been exposed to someone who tests positive should follow guidance set forth by health officials.

Nursing home visits

Whitmer was asked whether the state is considering changes to ease nursing home visitation regulations to allow residents to visit their loved ones more easily.

She said the state is continuing to follow the science and the data.

“We’re looking very closely at the trend lines,” Whitmer said. “We have seen, really, Michigan move into a much stronger position.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to announce additional aspects of re-engagement on that particular front -- hopefully as soon as next week,” Whitmer said.

Household gatherings

Since so many people are getting vaccinated and the state’s COVID-19 metrics are improving, is the state of Michigan considering lifting or lightening the restrictions on household gatherings?

“As we are determining next steps, this is part of the conversation that we’re having,” Whitmer said. “One of the things, though, that I caution, is we know one of the biggest places of spread this fall were in homes. They were gatherings that were happening, where people were dropping their guard.”

She said if the state takes a step toward allowing more gatherings, that step will be incremental. That’s to avoid a major spike in cases, she said.

“Every step we’ve taken has been incremental,” Whitmer said. “Like we’ve said, it’s a dial, not a light switch.”

Gatherings restrictions are among the components that could be updated in the coming days, she said.

About the Author:

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.