Busy week of COVID news in Michigan -- Everything you need to know

Officials discuss restrictions, hospital capacity, rising COVID-19 cases

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at an April 14, 2021, COVID-19 briefing.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at an April 14, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (Michigan Governor's Office)

It’s been an extremely busy week for COVID-related topics in Michigan, from debates about another shutdown to quickly filling hospitals to six more months of workplace restrictions.

If you’ve had trouble keeping up with everything or just want a refresher, we’ve got a breakdown of all the major COVID-19 topics below.

Shutdown debate

Everyone wants to know whether or not Michigan will shut down again due to rising case totals. As Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said Wednesday, the state’s case and positivity rates are five times what they were two months ago.

But Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has insisted throughout the week that her administration does not plan to mandate additional restrictions beyond the ones already in place. Those include rules covering gatherings, capacity limits at restaurants and masks.

MORE: Michigan still isn’t issuing new COVID-19 restrictions -- here’s why

On Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, made it clear she believes Michigan needs to shut down.

“The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down to flatten the curve,” Walensky said.

When Whitmer held her Wednesday briefing, her stance hadn’t changed.

“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.

The governor’s stance is essentially this: She believes the spread of COVID-19 can be slowed with the rules that are already in place. She thinks the problem is a combination of noncompliance, more contagious variants and reservoirs of people without antibodies.

RELATED: Why Whitmer says Michigan’s low COVID rates early in pandemic are contributing to current spike

Last week she asked Michiganders not to dine indoors at restaurants, participate in youth sports or gather with people from other households for two weeks. But those will remain recommendations, not rules, she said.

Dr. Nick Gilpin, the medical director of infection prevention for Beaumont Health, spoke Thursday about hospital capacity and agreed with Walensky.

“If you also look back at our prior surges, what was the difference?” Gilpin asked. “The difference in the first surge that we experienced is that there were restrictions in the community to limit gathering sizes and limit indoor activities that we know are very effective ways to transmit coronavirus. We saw it in March and April of last year. We saw it in the fall and winter months in Michigan, and both of those surges, I believe, we curved, in part, because of active restrictions.”

When asked directly if he believes Michigan needs to shut down, Gilpin said he does believe Michigan needs more restrictions to fight this surge.

“I think that yes, we do have to have some level of commitment to restrict some of those activities in the community,” Gilpin said.

Vaccine surge not an option

Whitmer wants the federal government to surge additional vaccines to Michigan because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 here. But that’s not part of the national vaccine plan.

READ: Whitmer asks for extra vaccines to be sent to ‘COVID hotspot’ Michigan

“There are different tools that we can use for different periods of when there is an outbreak,” Walensky said. “For example, we know that if vaccines go in arms today, we will not see an affect of those vaccines, depending on the vaccine, for somewhere between 2-6 weeks.

“I think if we try to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan, we would be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work, to actually have the impact. Similarly, we need that vaccine in other places. If we vaccinate today and we will have impact in six weeks, and we don’t know where the next place is going to be that is going to surge.”

Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, agreed.

“We have to remember the fact that in the next 2-6 weeks, the variants that we have seen in Michigan -- those variants are also present in other states,” Slavitt said. “So our ability to vaccinate people quickly in each of those states, rather than taking vaccines and shifting it to playing whack-a-mole, isn’t the strategy that public health leaders and scientists have laid out.”

Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause

The other big vaccine news of the week is that Michigan will follow FDA and CDC recommendations to temporarily pause administration of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Of the 6.8 million people who have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nationwide, officials have identified six women who developed a rare blood clot afterward, according to experts.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are following recommendations from FDA and CDC and pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in Michigan,” Khaldun announced.

Even though these blood clot cases are extremely rare -- just six in 6.8 million -- experts are investigating just to be sure.

For the time being, any Michigander scheduled to receive a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should proceed as planned, and anyone who was supposed to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should either reschedule or receive one of the other brands, officials said.

Emergency workplace restrictions extended

Michigan has extended the COVID workplace rules that were already in place, and they are now in effect until Oct. 14.

The six-month extension means any employees who can feasibly work from home should do so in order to reduce the chance of spreading COVID-19.

READ: Do Michigan workplace COVID rules mean employees can’t go back to in-person work?

In-person work is allowed for jobs that can’t be performed elsewhere, but remote work is strongly recommended.

In-person businesses have to maintain a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan and provide thorough training to employees. That training must cover workplace infection control practices, how to use personal protection equipment, steps to notify the business about COVID-19 symptoms and how to report unsafe working conditions.

Extended unemployment benefits ending

Federal officials announced extended unemployment benefits will no longer be available for Michiganders after this week. They will officially expire Saturday.

Those benefits are expiring because the state’s unemployment rate has dropped below the required threshold. Extended benefits take effect when the total unemployment rate averages 6.5% or higher for three straight months.

The U.S. Department of Labor notified the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency that the program will no longer be payable after this week. UIA officials have started to notify the 16,000 claimants currently receiving extended benefits about the program’s end.

The extended benefits program provided an extra 13-20 weeks of benefits for people who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits and other extensions.

Michigan officials said the state has paid about $419 million in extended benefits since high unemployment rates triggered the program.

Hospitals filling up quickly

Gilpin said most Beaumont hospitals very close to reaching capacity. He expects they’ll soon reach their ceiling.

“It’s tight,” Gilpin said. “Every day each of our sites meets very actively to see what they can do to create space.”

Beaumont Health’s chief nursing officer, Susan Grant, said as of Thursday morning (April 15), most Beaumont hospitals are between 90% and 95% capacity..

During the second surge in Michigan this winter, Beaumont was caring for more than 700 COVID-19 patients in its eight-hospital system, Gilpin said. Right now, there are more than 800 patients.

Gilpin likened it to “a runaway train.”

“If we continue to see COVID numbers rise, we’ll have to make some accommodations, open up some additional beds, but again, the challenge here and the theme of the day is: Where are we going to get that staff from?” Gilpin said.

Grant said nurses and hospital workers are exhausted physically and emotionally. Some nurses have opted for early retirement, and others are leaving the profession entirely.

“We worry about it every day, and we are seeing it already, unfortunately,” Grant said. “It’s very concerning.

“At this time last year, none of us would have imagined, going through that extraordinarily difficult time, that we would be here again, same time this year. That we would be working and seeing so many patients who are infected with the coronavirus. Hundreds and hundreds of them coming through our emergency rooms.”

Detroit mayor’s COVID concerns

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is worried about hospital capacity and vaccine rates within the city.

Of the 22 Detroit residents who died from COVID-19 in the first 10 days of April, 10 were 70 and older and have been eligible for the vaccine since January, he said.

“Many of these tragic deaths were preventable,” Duggan tweeted. “Our hospitals are soaring with COVID-19 patients. With COVID-19 vaccines more accessible than ever, I’m urging Detroiters to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

He said Detroiters aren’t getting vaccinated at a high enough rate. Moderna and Pfizer vaccine appointments remain widely available.

“In comparison with surrounding counties and suburbs, Detroit’s vaccine rate is extremely low,” Duggan tweeted.


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