LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a briefing Wednesday to update the COVID-19 situation in Michigan, addressing possible new restrictions, why the state’s numbers are so high, what’s going on with vaccines and much more.
Whitmer was joined by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Khaldun provided updates on Michigan’s COVID metrics and variants.
Whether or not Michigan needs new restrictions has been a hot topic over the past week, with Whitmer saying she doesn’t believe we need another MDHHS order, but national experts claiming that would be the best way to slow the spread of the virus.
Whitmer was asked Wednesday, if the state is willing to use every tool at its disposal to decrease COVID cases, why haven’t there been any new restrictions, as there were in the past?
“At this juncture, we know that the tools at our disposal that can most dramatically improve outcomes for people in this state are vaccines, and that’s why we’re moving so swiftly to get people vaccinated,” Whitmer said.
She mentioned vaccines, masks and monoclonal antibody therapy as tools that be used to fight COVID-19 without restrictions.
“We know a lot more about our common enemy than we did a year ago,” Whitmer said. “We know that masking up is crucial. We know that social distancing is crucial. We’re asking everyone in Michigan to do their part. Utilize this knowledge to keep yourself safe, to keep our community safe.”
She said her personal recommendation is that Michiganders avoid eating inside restaurants, gatherings and other risky activities.
Reluctance to issue restrictions?
Whitmer was asked why there’s a reluctance to issue restrictions as numbers rise, considering the state issued a stay-at-home order last spring and a “pause” in the winter.
“Well, we’re having a lot of conversation about what makes sense to contribute to bringing down the spread, but here’s what we know: The national experts with whom we consult said you don’t have a policy problem,” Whitmer said. “Michigan still has some of the strongest protocols in place -- capacity restrictions, we’ve still got a mask mandate. Other states have dropped all of these things. We still have them in Michigan, and yet, we have high positivity.
She said it’s not a question about whether the policies need to be changed or strengthened, but a combination of more contagious variants, residents without antibodies and how much Michiganders comply with those policies.
“That’s precisely why instead of mandating that we’re closing things down, we are encouraging people to do what we know works,” Whitmer said. “That’s the most important thing that we can do. It’s not a policy problem. It is a variant and compliance problem, and that’s why we really need everyone to continue taking this seriously, to do your part.”
As soon as Khaldun took the podium, she expressed her concern about the state’s COVID-19 trends.
“I continue to be incredibly concerned about our state’s COVID-19 data,” Khaldun said.
This week, Michigan surpassed the case and hospitalization rates that we saw in the fall, she said.
As of Wednesday (April 14), Michigan’s case rate is at 574 cases per million people. That’s five times what it was in mid-February.
“Data indicates we have broad community spread,” Khaldun added.
The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is around 18%, Khaldun said. She reports that’s about five times the positivity rate in mid-February.
MDHHS is tracking 1,152 outbreaks in counties across the state, including new outbreaks in K-12 schools, manufacturing and construction, long-term care facilities, childcare facilities, retail, restaurants and bars, according to Khaldun.
“Since January, we’ve identified 291 clusters associated with youth sports teams,” Khaldun said. “Since last week, we’ve also seen 52 new outbreaks in restaurant and retail settings.”
She said hospitalizations are still increasing, with many facilities now at or near capacity.
More than 18% of hospital beds are being used for COVID-19 patients across the state.
“Right now, we’ve got some work to do to get our COVID metrics headed in the right direction again,” Whitmer said. “Cases are continuing to rise. Our test positivity rate is hovering around 18%. Two dozen hospitals are at 90% capacity or higher. We have a tough couple of weeks ahead of us.”
Michigan labs have identified 2,753 variant cases across 62 counties, according to Khaldun.
“Because of this sharp rise in cases overall, there are likely many more that we do not yet know about, which makes the risk of contracting COVID even greater,” Khaldun said.
Michigan has confirmed positive cases of three different variants of COVID-19: B117, B.1.135 and P1.
The B117 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom and has been found in thousands of Michiganders. The B.1.35 variant was first found in South Africa, and multiple cases have been confirmed in Michigan. The first case of the P1 variant, from Brazil, was identified in Michigan earlier this month.
Khaldun didn’t provide how many instances of each specific variant have been confirmed.
Why does Michigan have such high numbers?
Whitmer was asked why Michigan -- despite shutdowns, orders and mask mandates -- continues to have among the highest COVID-19 numbers in the country.
She said there is an “educated theory” about the cause.
“We were very successful for a long period of time at pushing COVID rates down in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “(We were at) 3%. We were the envy of most other states for a long period of time. We didn’t know a lot about this virus a year ago, so we took action and we were quite successful compared to the rest of the country.
“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. Dr. Khaldun is tired of this. We are seeing people abandoning the protocols. We are seeing more mobility. That’s what’s happening, and the worst part is we now have the existence of variants here in Michigan that are just easier to spread.
“So you combine the fact that we’ve got reservoirs of people that we kept safe for a long period of time who don’t have antibodies and variants that are easier to catch, and that’s a part of why we are seeing the increase that we have in Michigan.”
Khaldun’s emergency department experience
Khaldun said she spent time working in the emergency department last weekend and shared some of her experiences.
“I’ll tell you, it was exhausting,” she said. “We are seeing more and more people who are being diagnosed with COVID-19. Many of them are younger than what we were seeing with previous surges.”
Khaldun said doctors are trying to juggle taking care of the rising number of COVID-19 patients while other residents continue to come in with other medical issues.
“It is really putting a strain on our staff and our resources and our bed space -- all of which are spread way too thin,” Khaldun said. “Patients are again lining our hallways like they were last spring. This situation is very serious.”
She repeated a line she’s used several times throughout the pandemic: “Just because something is open and legal, it does not mean that you should be doing it.”
Khaldun specifically spoke about the risks associated with dining indoors at restaurants.
“Sitting in an indoor space, like a restaurant, where there’s less ventilation and people are talking with their mask off is simply not a safe thing to do right now,” Khaldun said.
Indoor dining is one of the activities Whitmer asked Michiganders to avoid for two weeks during Friday’s briefing.
“Large gatherings are riskier, particularly if it is indoors and people are not distanced apart appropriately,” Khaldun said.
Whitmer said Michigan has administered more than 5.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to more than 3.4 million residents.
More than 192 million doses of the vaccine have been administered nationwide, she said.
Whitmer said 41.9% of Michiganders ages 16 and up have gotten at least their first dose of the vaccine, and 27.5% are fully vaccinated. About 61% of seniors are fully vaccinated, she said.
“Our vaccine response is a testament to what we can do if we work together,” Whitmer said.
She said the CEO of Pfizer announced the company will up its COVID-19 vaccine output by 10%.
Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause
As of April 12, 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered across the country, but Michigan has paused the administration of that vaccine due to six instances of women developing blood clots after receiving it.
“While these events are very rare, out of an abundance of caution, the CDC and FDA made a recommendation for states to pause on giving additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while they are able to look at the data on those six cases more closely,” Khaldun said.
More than 209,000 people in Michigan have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Khaldun said.
She said the identification of the six U.S. patients who developed blood clots proves the monitoring system in place is robust and reliable.
“Just six cases out of 6.8 million doses -- that’s about one in a million -- means that this reaction is incredibly rare,” Khaldun said. “Your risk of getting COVID if you are not vaccinated is much higher than your risk of getting an adverse reaction from this vaccine.”
Michigan officials still want residents to schedule appointments for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Khaldun said anyone who has received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the past three weeks should contact a health care provider if they develop symptoms of a blood clot -- severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath.
Slowing the spread
Whitmer said to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan, everyone has to double down on what is known to work: masking, distancing and hand washing.
“I also want to stress that we still have public health laws in place to mitigate the spread of COVID, including a mask mandate, capacity limits on indoor gatherings and mandatory testing for sports,” Whitmer said.
She said the most important thing Michiganders can do is get vaccinated.
“If we all do our part, I know we can slow the spread and put this pandemic behind us,” Whitmer said. “But we also must find ways to keep people safe and out of the hospital.”
Monoclonal antibody therapy
Whitmer and MDHHS announced the state is working to expand the use of a medical intervention designed to reduce hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.
The process involves additional doses of monoclonal antibodies being made available to providers and requests to providers to expand the number of infusion sites in the state.
“We are using every mitigation strategy, every medication, and every treatment option to fight the virus here in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “These antibody treatments could keep you out of the hospital and save your life, and my administration and I will continue working with the federal government to make sure we are using all the tools in our toolbox to keep you and your family safe and get back to normal sooner.”
Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system’s attack on cells. They target different parts of the virus and prevent it from bonding with cells in the body, effectively neutralizing it, according to experts.
State officials said clinical trials have shown promising data that this therapy works for the treatment of COVID-19 in patients who are at high risk for progressing to severe symptoms or hospitalization.
Preliminary data suggests more than 6,600 Michiganders have received this treatment, with 65% reporting feeling better with two days of treatment and less than 5% of them requiring hospitalization following treatment, according to the state.
“When administered to non-hospitalized patients within 10 days of symptom onset, monoclonal antibodies may reduce symptoms and the risk of hospitalizations and emergency room visits associated with the virus,” Khaldun said. “Michiganders who contract COVID-19 should ask their health care providers about receiving this treatment and I urge providers to assess if their patients qualify. We have seen successful use of this therapy in long-term care facilities and even in home use by EMS providers.”
‘We’re in a tough spot’
After talking about the number of Michiganders in hospitals and the need to keep the health system from being overwhelmed, Whitmer admitted the current state of affairs isn’t promising.
“I’m going to shoot straight with you, as I always have,” Whitmer said. “We’re in a tough spot, Michigan, and while we appreciate the support we’ve received from the federal government, I will not stop fighting for more tests, more vaccines and more ways to keep you and your family safe.”
She said over the past year, Michigan has been one of the most proactive states in fighting COVID-19. We took this seriously from the start and followed the science, Whitmer said.
“I know how hard this year has been on all of us,” Whitmer said. “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 virus, but Michiganders are used to hard work.”
Whitmer addresses aide’s trip
The first question to Whitmer on Wednesday was about her aide traveling to Alabama last week despite the administration asking residents not to travel.
“How do you justify this to residents who feel there might be two sets of rules in play here?” the reporter asked.
Here’s Whitmer’s full answer:
“Well, I think -- first and foremost, let me say this: I’m not going to get distracted by partisan hit jobs on my team. There have never been travel restrictions in Michigan. There just haven’t been. What we have done is 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 the state to do. Get vaccinated. Mask up. We all want the freedom to do these things that we’re longing to do. That is the key to doing it with confidence that we’re going to be safe and we’re not going to expose anyone else to COVID.
“So, go get your vaccine is my strongest response to everyone who’s watching. That’s the crucial component to use getting through this moment and that’s exactly what we are promoting within state government and across the state.”