LANSING, Mich. – On Friday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a COVID-19 briefing for the first time in 21 days, and talked about alarming virus trends, voluntary restrictions and a possible timeline for when vaccinations will turn things around.
Alarming COVID metrics
“I am quite concerned with what we are seeing in our data,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “We are on track to potentially see a surge in cases that’s even greater than the one we saw in the fall.”
Khaldun said Michigan is at 515 cases per million people per day. That’s four times the case rate we saw in the middle of February.
The percentage of COVID-19 tests that are coming back positive is up to 18%, which is also four times the positivity rate in mid-February.
“We have not seen that high of a positivity rate since our first surge last spring, a year ago, and that’s concerning because we are doing many more tests than we were then,” Khaldun said. “This indicates that there is now broad community spread.”
Hospitalizations have increased to the point in which 15.2% of all hospital beds across the state are being used for COVID-19 patients.
“We now know that hospitals are evaluating and implementing their surge plans, including consideration of canceling elective surgeries that are not time sensitive and preparing to make sure they have the equipment, supplies and staff to be able to take care of both COVID and non-COVID patients,” Khaldun said.
MDHHS is currently tracking 991 outbreaks in counties across the state, Khaldun said. Between January and March, there were 291 outbreaks associated with youth sports teams.
“We have seen 58 new outbreaks in just restaurant and retail settings alone in the past week, compared to the previous week,” she said.
Reasons for COVID spike
Whitmer said she spoke to experts about the state’s sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, and they identified three central issues: compliance, variants and mobility.
“We know enough about COVID-19 after a year of living with it,” Whitmer said. “We know what works and what we have to do to reduce cases.”
She said policy changes alone won’t reduce the spread, and implored Michiganders to keep following the safety measures that are known to protect them from the virus.
“Although we have announced some re-engagements over the last few months, we still have a mask mandate,” Whitmer said. “There are still limits on indoor social gatherings larger than 25 people. We have mandatory testing requirements for indoor sports.”
She said it’s up to Michiganders to “step up their game” and slow the spread.
Whitmer called on Michigan high schools to voluntarily return to remote learning for the next two weeks -- past spring break -- to bring down rising cases.
She also called on youth sports to voluntarily suspend games and practices for two weeks.
“I’m strongly encouraging Michiganders to avoid dining indoors and avoid gathering with friends indoors for two weeks,” Whitmer said.
She asked Michiganders to get carry-out, eat outdoors and wear masks even during small gatherings.
“These are very tough things to do, and we do not make these recommendations lightly,” Khaldun said. “But everyone needs to understand that if we can just pause some of these activities temporarily, it will go a long way to prevent the spread of the virus and save lives.”
Khaldun also emphasized MDHHS recommendations to pause segments of the state for two weeks.
“Just because something is open, it does not mean that it is safe or that you should do it,” Khaldun said.
Here are the recommendations she outlined:
“Given where we are with our numbers, MDHHS recommends that all high schools pause in-person learning for two weeks. Students and staff should also get tested if they have traveled during that time. As the governor mentioned, we have over 56 pop-up testing sites with schools on campuses across the state that are offering post-spring break testing.
“We also recommend that all youth sports -- both contact and non-contact -- pause both practice and competitions for two weeks.
“Everyone should also be implementing specific public health mitigation measures in their personal lives. Infectious disease and public health experts across the country have been quite clear that indoor dining is one of the riskiest things you can do during this pandemic. With the numbers we are seeing now, we simply do not recommend it. You should order takeout, a drive-through service or do outdoor dining. My family orders takeout multiple times per week.
“You should avoid gatherings with multiple households, and if you do have a gathering, it should be small. It should be outside, and people should be wearing a mask. You should get tested if you’ve been exposed, especially if you’ve just returned from a spring break trip. Get tested.”
Why aren’t restrictions mandated?
Whitmer was asked why restrictions -- on youth sports specifically -- are being recommended, and not mandated.
“We know now that we’ve got the tools we need to protect ourselves, and it is less of a policy problem that we have and more of a compliance and variants issue that we are confronting as a state,” Whitmer said.
She said policy changes alone aren’t enough to change the tide.
“We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here,” Whitmer said. “So I’m not taking any options off the table, but in this moment, we are strongly urging that public schools and youth sports voluntarily take action. We are strongly urging restaurants and diners to be smart and eat outdoors or get takeout. We know what works.”
She said it’s not as much about policy change as it is about a behavioral change.
Whitmer said Michigan has administered more than 5.1 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to more than 3.1 million people, as of Friday.
“That’s 5 million doses in less than four months to nearly 40% of our state,” Whitmer said.
She said it took less than two weeks for Michigan to go from 4 million to 5 million doses, and said the process of getting Michiganders vaccinated is speeding up.
Whitmer received her first dose of the vaccine earlier this week, and acknowledged members of the legislature who have done the same.
Almost 175 million doses of the vaccine have been administered nationwide, with over 1 in 3 people getting a shot, Whitmer said.
“All Michiganders 16 and up are now eligible to get vaccinated,” she reminded.
Timeline for vaccines to cut into cases?
Experts say vaccines are the best tool in the fight against COVID-19, but how long will it be until we start seeing the vaccination progress cut into rising cases?
Michigan has a goal of vaccinating 70% of residents age 16 and up, and Whitmer recently increased the daily benchmark to 100,000 vaccinations per day.
“We would anticipate that if vaccines come as we currently expect them to, meaning there’s no glitches -- and just this week we saw there was a glitch with J&J, and we’re getting fewer J&J than we expected,” Whitmer said. “There was a snowstorm a few weeks ago. That was a setback. So assuming there are no setbacks and everything goes as we are led to believe that it will go and we don’t have any lulls in terms of demand -- which is another big if -- we could theoretically by the middle of May be to a place where we’re at 70%.”
She said that’s not highly likely because there could be glitches or officials will have to work to make sure more people are interested in getting vaccinated.
“But at this juncture, if all of those things happen, well in advance of, or at least by, the Fourth of July, we could hit that 70% number, and that would be incredibly helpful for all of us in the state, and good for our economy if we were able to hit that number,” Whitmer said.
Michigan requesting full allotment of vaccines
Khaldun confirmed that Michigan is requesting its full allocation of vaccines from the federal government.
Michigan officials met with the Joe Biden administration and spoke about potentially surging more vaccines to Michigan because of its rising COVID-19 cases, but for now, that plan is not in place.
Khaldun said the state is getting as many vaccines as it can and administering them as quickly as possible.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Despite rising COVID-19 cases in Michigan, Whitmer reiterated that there’s a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel.
“But the recent rise in cases is a reminder that we are still in the tunnel,” Whitmer said. “The only way out is forward and together.”
She said Michiganders have to wear masks, wash hands, stay home when sick, get vaccinated as soon as possible and follow social distancing.
Three variants of COVID-19 have been identified in Michigan, and experts are worried they could cause an even more rapid spread of the virus.
“The variants in Michigan that we are facing right now, won’t be contained if we don’t ramp up vaccinations as soon as possible,” Whitmer said.
On April 1, Michigan confirmed its first case of the P1 COVID-19 variant, which was first identified in Brazil.
Michigan has already identified more than 2,262 cases of COVID-19 variants across the state, including the B117 variant, which was first found in the United Kingdom, and the B.1.135 variant, originally discovered in South Africa.
“These variants are incredibly series and easy to catch,” Whitmer said. “Now that the variants are here and people are fatigued, we’re more vulnerable because we have large reservoirs of people in our state who have not caught the virus yet.”
Public health system overwhelmed
Khaldun said the presence of variants and the rise of COVID-19 cases has started to become overwhelming.
“Our public health system is overwhelmed,” Khaldun said. “We are not able to get information on many cases, nor are we able to identify their close contacts.”
As a result, officials don’t know where all the cases or outbreaks are, she said. That means the total number of cases being reported is likely an under-count.
“These trends are concerning,” Khaldun said. “We need everyone to do their part, not only to protect themselves.”
Johnson & Johnson vaccine
Whitmer singled out the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine as vital in the fight against those COVID-19 variants.
“We need additional supply of the one-shot J&J vaccine, which we believe is vital to our strategy of rapidly distributing vaccines and slowing the rise of spread,” Whitmer said.
Research shows the one-shot vaccine is critical to protecting younger people or anyone who might have trouble getting back for a second shot, the governor said.
“We’ve been speaking with the administration in Washington, D.C., regularly over the last few days and will continue to do so,” she said.
Michigan a COVID hotspot
Whitmer said she believes the U.S. should be prioritizing vaccinations for states that have the worst COVID-19 metrics.
“Anyone who looks at a COVID map knows that Michigan is unquestionably a national hotspot right now,” she said.
The state is asking for more vaccines because of the rapidly rising numbers.
“I am concerned because I believe, as do a number of public health experts, that we really should be surging vaccines to states that are experiencing serious outbreaks,” Whitmer said.
She likened it to when the country had to surge personal protective equipment to certain states that needed help the most.