11 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID update: Lifting restrictions based on vaccinations

Vaccine milestones will trigger loosening of COVID restrictions

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP)
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP) (AP PROVIDES ACCESS TO THIS PUBLICLY DISTRIBUTED HANDOUT PHOTO PROVIDED BY MICHIGAN OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR; MANDATORY CREDIT. A JAN. 13, 2021 PHOTO)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided an update Thursday on COVID-19 in Michigan, discussing a new plan to lift restrictions based on how many people get vaccinated.

The governor was joined by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel.

MORE: Here are the Michigan COVID restrictions that will be lifted when we reach 4 vaccine goals

Vaccinations determine mask restrictions

Whitmer introduced her “MI Vacc To Normal” challenge -- a vaccination-based goal that eases mask restrictions based on certain vaccine thresholds.

  • Step 1: Two weeks after 55% of Michiganders have gotten at least one dose, the state will allow in-person work for all sectors of business.
  • Step 2: Two weeks after 60% of Michiganders have gotten at least one dose, the state will increase indoor capacity and sports stadiums and indoor capacity at conference centers, banquet halls and funeral homes to 25%. It will also increase capacity at exercise facilities and gyms to 50% and lift the curfew on restaurants and bars.
  • Step 3: Two weeks after 65% of Michiganders have gotten at least one dose, the state will lift all indoor capacity limits and require only social distancing between parties, as well as further relax limits on residential social gatherings.
  • Step 4: Two weeks after 70% of Michiganders have gotten at least one dose, the state will lift the gatherings and face masks order so MDHSS won’t broadly mitigate it unless there are unanticipated circumstances (variants that resist the vaccine, etc.).

Click here to read the full breakdown of this plan, the goals and the restrictions that will be lifted.

When could Michigan hit first milestone?

Whitmer was asked about when Michiganders can realistically expect to hit the milestones outlined in the “MI Vacc To Normal” plan.

“We have had a lot of conversation across our economy with our public health experts,” Whitmer said. “We are focused on trying to encourage people to make sure that they avail themselves of these vaccines.”

The governor said officials knew there would be a moment when the vaccine supply would eclipse demand, and Michigan has reached that point.

“Things are proceeding as anticipated,” Whitmer said.

State models suggest Michigan could get to the first step in the plan over the next seven to 10 days, Whitmer said. Fourteen days later, the re-engagements under that step would be triggered.

“I think that that’s a very real timeline -- so perhaps by the end of May,” Whitmer said.

Why outline specific milestones?

In the past, Michigan officials have stayed away from tying specific metric milestones to restrictions. So why did they base future re-engagements on vaccination percentages?

“Well, for 11 of the last 15 months, we didn’t have vaccines,” Whitmer said. “So we couldn’t tie something to a metric that is really the best tool that we have to get back to normal.”

Whitmer said getting to the vaccination thresholds outlined in the plan is the most important goal in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

“This is a creative way of challenging us to rise to that moment,” Whitmer said.

State officials will continue to watch case and positivity rates as Michigan moves through the “MI Vacc To Normal” plan, but vaccination rate is a metric worth tying restrictions to, they believe.

What if vaccine goals aren’t met?

Obviously, the loosening of restrictions outlined in the new plan is reliant on Michiganders getting vaccinated. Whitmer was asked what would happen if the state doesn’t reach the 70% milestone.

“Seventy percent is an operational goal,” Whitmer said. “We know that we’re going to work to vaccinate everyone that we can. The more people that get vaccinated, the better.”

Whitmer said Pfizer has applied for the right to vaccinate people ages 12-15 years old, which could also affect the way these milestones are viewed.

“When younger kids become eligible, we’ll continue to push our energy and our efforts to making sure that they get vaccinated, as well, and that ultimately our work will not be done when we hit one of these goals, but that we can enjoy a lot of things that we’ve all be craving when we do,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer speaks to reluctant Michiganders

After unveiling the new “MI Vacc To Normal” plan, Whitmer had a message to Michigan residents who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Here’s what she said:

“To those family, friends and neighbors who still have questions about the vaccine, let me answer them and speak directly to you.

“The vaccine is safe. It’ll protect you, your family and other people from getting COVID. It has gone through rigorous testing and over 140 million Americans have taken it. The COVID vaccine, like others before it -- for Polio and Smallpox -- is trusted by doctors.

“Vaccines are our best chance of putting this pandemic behind us and returning to normal. They represent hope and healing. If you want to learn more, I encourage you to talk to your family doctor, learn about the safe, effective vaccines, how they can save your life and the lives of those you love.”

COVID metrics

After months of reporting metrics that were moving rapidly in the wrong direction, Khaldun revealed Michigan has seen some progress in recent days.

“Our COVID-19 cases remain high, but I’m pleased that we are starting to see key metrics trend in the right direction,” Khaldun said.

As of this week, Michigan’s case rate is at 493 cases per million people, which is 30% lower than it was two weeks ago. It’s still four times higher than in the middle of February, though.

“Data still indicates that we have broad community spread,” Khaldun said. “This includes spread of the more easily transmitted variants that have been identified across the entire state.”

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is at 13.2%, which is nearly three times as high as the mid-February mark but down 4.3% from two weeks ago, Khaldun said.

There are more than 1,272 COVID-19 outbreaks in counties across Michigan, MDHHS reports. That number is holding steady, Khaldun said.

Right now, 19% of hospital beds in Michigan are being used to treat COVID-19 patients. The total number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is trending downward.

“This is better, but this is still not where we want to be,” Khaldun said. “These are good trends, in the right direction.”

Voluntary restrictions

Earlier this month, Whitmer and Khaldun asked Michiganders to follow some voluntary restrictions for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. They asked residents to avoid indoor dining, youth sports and gatherings.

“Thanks to you, our numbers are starting to come down again,” Whitmer said. “Two weeks later, our seven-day case average, hospitalizations and ICU numbers are all coming down.”

She said while most of the state’s primary COVID-19 metrics are still too high, they’ve started to trend in the right direction.

Vaccinations

Michigan has administered 6,657,997 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, as of Thursday. Whitmer said the state is likely to surpass 7 million doses this weekend.

Currently, 48.8% of Michiganders ages 16 and older have received at least one dose, with 35.9% percent of Michiganders ages 16 and older being fully vaccinated, according to the state.

Tracking COVID-19 vaccines in Michigan: New openings, clinics, appointments

“Nearly 1 in 2 Michiganders have received their first shot, and nearly 1 in 3 are fully vaccinated, including 2 out of 3 seniors,” Whitmer said.

Michigan has the second-most effective FEMA community vaccination site in the country, and ranks ninth in terms of doses administered, the governor said.

Of residents scheduled to get their second doses of the vaccine, 96.4% are showing up for that second dose, which is above the national average, according to Whitmer.

Relaxing outdoor gathering rules

As early as Friday (April 30), Michigan officials are planning to revise the rules for outdoor gatherings, Whitmer said.

“We envision issuing a revised epidemic order that encourages Michiganders to gather safely outside by relaxing our rules for outdoor gatherings,” Whitmer said.

Michigan will also incorporate the CDC’s new guidance on wearing face masks outdoors, she said.

CDC guidance for vaccinated people

Khaldun expanded on those new CDC guidelines, which were issued for people who have gotten fully vaccinated.

The new guidelines allow for small gatherings outside without masks. They eliminate the need for routine COVID testing and quarantining due to exposure in some circumstances. Again, these updated guidelines are only for people who are fully vaccinated -- two weeks after their final dose.

“This is a big deal,” Khaldun said. “Getting vaccinated means fewer days of missed school because of illness or quarantine. Fewer missed days of work. It means a family vacation without needing to test or to quarantine. It means going to more of the events that we all love.”

Khaldun said the new CDC guidelines, along with the “MI Vacc To Normal” plan will help Michiganders get back to normal quicker.

Summer events

Hertel said Michigan officials are exploring easing restrictions for summer events. Those events include festivals, fairs and golf tournaments.

“Changes coming soon also include official changes to the epidemic order to reflect and align with the new CDC guidance,” Hertel said.

She didn’t mention any potential changes to indoor summer events, but considering the new CDC guidelines center around loosening restrictions for outdoor activities, Michigan’s focus is likely also in that arena.

Hertel said the steps forward will be determined by Michiganders following COVID-19 rules and getting vaccinated.


About the Author:

Derick is a Senior Web Producer for ClickOnDetroit and has been with Local 4 News since April 2013. Derick specializes in breaking news, crime and local sports.