11 takeaways from Whitmer’s first COVID briefing since June: Mandates, omicron, ‘critical point’

Critical care specialist shares perspective

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a Dec. 21, 2021, COVID briefing. (WDIV)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held a COVID briefing Tuesday for the first time since June, answering questions about whether this surge warrants new mandates and delivering specific messages for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.

“We’re in for another tough 4-6 weeks, is what all the experts are projecting, with the omicron variant spreading rapidly across the country,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer spoke from the Hispanic Center in Grand Rapids. She was joined by Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

‘Critical point’ in pandemic

Hertel spoke about her struggle to remain optimistic about COVID in Michigan as cases remain high and the omicron variant begins to spread.

She said she looks forward to the day when COVID is “a minor concern” in our everyday lives.

“We aren’t there yet,” Hertel said. “Today, we remain at a critical point in the pandemic.

“While vaccination is a choice being made at the individual level, when it comes to vaccine decisions and a highly transmissible, potentially deadly virus, one person’s decision has the potential to directly impact everyone around them, including, and especially, family members, loved ones with underlying conditions and kids who are too young to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Critical care specialist shares perspective

Hertel introduced Dr. Shelley Schmidt, a pulmonary critical care specialist, to share her perspective on COVID and the current situation in Michigan hospitals.

Dr. Shelley Schmidt, a pulmonary critical care specialist, speaks at a Dec. 21, 2021, COVID briefing. (WDIV)

“I’m an intensive care unit physician, and what I see every day is heartbreaking,” Schmidt said. “I see school-aged children draped over the body of their parent with tear-streaked cheeks and bloodshot eyes, with their mother asking, ‘Why my husband?’ Their parents asking, ‘Why my son? What more could we have done?’

“I wrote the first COVID-19 death certificate for Spectrum Health, and since the beginning of this pandemic, I have never taken care of a patient dying from the vaccine. I have taken care of dozens and dozens who are dead from this virus -- nearly all unvaccinated. Healthy people in their 20s and 30s and 40s, making their last FaceTime call to their loved ones while they’re about to be put onto life support, knowing they have less than a 50/50 chance of survival.

“This is not a game. This is not about ratings or readership or polls. This is about 800,000 American lives, and this is preventable. The mRNA vaccines are the safest, most effective vaccines that humans have ever created. Based on over a decade of basic science research and billions of your tax dollars that brought it to fruition. It is a medical miracle of the modern age. We doctors are vaccinated. Our children are vaccinated.

“You will have to trust me when you or your relative comes to my intensive care unit and needs to be put on life support. Trust me now. Trust this vaccine. Mask, distance, but above all, vaccinate. Boost. We will only find our way through this if we do this together.”

Should we expect mandates?

Since Michigan currently has more COVID cases than in the past when mandates were issued, Whitmer was asked whether residents should expect MDHHS to step in with restrictions.

“At this juncture, we’ve got tools we didn’t have (before),” Whitmer said. “We’ve got knowledge we didn’t possess at the early days of the virus. We used blunt tools in the early days, and we saved thousands of lives doing that. At this juncture, we know that it’s the unvaccinated population that is most at risk to themselves, to others, to all of us, in terms of being a vector for mutation. That’s why our focus has to be on making sure that people get boosted, that the unvaccinated get vaccinated, and that our kids get vaccinated.

“Sweeping mandates are less likely to influence and encourage that population to get vaccinated, and that’s why it’s an education effort. It is sharing what the experience is, what the real threat is, how powerful and quick-spreading the omicron variant is, and why it’s important that we avail ourselves of these vaccines.”

3 goals for Michigan

Whitmer outlined three goals she wants Michiganders to achieve going forward in the fight against COVID.

  1. Keep Michiganders safe by helping people get vaccinated and get their booster shots.
  2. Protect health care workers from becoming more overwhelmed.
  3. Keep children in school and allow businesses to stay open.

We must all take action to protect ourselves and help our healthcare workers and hospitals do their jobs,” Whitmer said. “I encourage every Michigander who is eligible to get their booster shot. Together, we can help 1 million more Michiganders, including 95% of all eligible nursing home residents get their boosters by the end of January 2022. We know from preliminary data that the booster offers more robust protection against omicron. A 15-minute appointment to get your booster can help keep you out of the hospital and save your life. If you still have not gotten vaccinated yet, know that it is not a matter of if you will get sick but of when. We have safe and effective vaccines. Please get your shots.”

“Now is the time for everyone to make sure you have plans for the holidays that will keep you and your family safe into the new year and make sure we all have access to care if we need it,” Hertel said. “We have been surging staffing, requesting more resources, and prioritizing keeping Michiganders safe.”

Messages to Michiganders

To Michigan residents who have already received their booster shot, Whitmer said, “Thank you for taking action to keep yourself, your family and your community safe, and to help our economy recover. I’m proud to have gotten my booster, and that everyone in my family has gotten their booster.”

To Michiganders who are vaccinated, but not yet boosted, she said, “Data shows that you are protected against COVID-19, but not as well-protected against the delta or omicron variants until you get that booster. So, simply put, two doses is an important thing that you’ve done, but the booster is the best way to stay safe.”

To parents who have children in Michigan schools, Whitmer said, “I think we all want the same things, right? It’s to keep our kids in school and to keep them safe. For them to be safe and to continue learning, we’re encouraging parents to get your questions answered by your pediatrician or a trusted medical professional that you know. These vaccines can ensure that our kids stay in school and stay safe.”

To unvaccinated Michiganders, she said, “I urge you to consider moving forward now. We all see the stories playing out of people who have not been vaccinated, who desperately ask to be vaccinated while they’re suffering from the impact of COVID, while they’re getting breathing treatments, while they’re fighting for their lives, and it’s too late at that point. If you’re unvaccinated, now is a perfect time to get vaccinated.”

Vaccine data

More than 6.2 million Michigan residents have gotten the vaccine, according to Whitmer.

“From Jan. 15 to Dec. 3 of this year, unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated Michiganders made up 85% of the COVID cases -- 88% of our hospitalizations and 85.5% of deaths from COVID,” she said.

People who are vaccinated can still get COVID, but it’s much less likely and the illness will be less severe, Whitmer said.

The governor said over 35% of Michiganders who received their two doses of vaccine have already been boosted. That includes nearly two-thirds of seniors, she said.

“To you, you’re well-protected against both the delta variant, and preliminary data suggests that you are well-protected against the omicron variant,” Whitmer said.

She said the booster shot offers better protection against infection and severity of illness. Anyone can get their booster shot six months after their second dose of vaccine.

“You’ve already taken action to protect yourself by getting two doses of the vaccine -- please get your booster,” Whitmer said. “Fifteen minutes of your day can help keep you out of the hospital and keep you safe.”

Children ages 5 and older are eligible to get a vaccine, and Whitmer urged parents to take advantage of that.

Mutations

Whitmer said the state is making progress, but that progress depends on everyone doing their part to stop the spread.

“The longer this virus lasts, the more it spreads and the more it mutates,” Whitmer said. “The more it mutates, the more transmissible and possibly deadly (it gets).”

“We may be ready to move on from the pandemic and this virus -- all of us are ready,” Hertel said. “But right now, it’s proving once again just how unrelenting it can be unless all of us take this seriously and do something to slow the spread.”

Whitmer said because the virus continues to mutate, everyone is likely to be exposed at some point. But the goal is to keep people out of the hospital.

Emergency rooms

Hertel said this surge of COVID cases is “severe” and is pushing health care workers to the brink.

“It not only has the potential to impact your access to care, if you remain unvaccinated and need hospitalization, but it also jeopardizes the ability of you or your family who might need care for other common conditions or in emergencies to access that care,” Hertel said.

She said emergency room wait times have increased dramatically in some parts of Michigan.

“Some of our hospitals have been forced to close their emergency departments for extended periods of time,” Hertel said.

COVID metrics

Hertel said the state’s positivity rate has decreased, but remains high, at 16.2%. She said that percentage reflects “high” transmission levels.

Cases are at 477 per million and have been rising and falling recently, she said. Despite that fluctuation, they remain at an elevated level, according to MDHHS.

“This is a number we expect to rise -- and rise very rapidly -- as omicron variant continues to spread very rapidly,” Hertel said.

Right now, 20.8% of inpatient hospital beds are occupied by people with COVID, and that number has been increasing for 22 weeks, Hertel said.

Over the past month, 30-39-year-old Michiganders experienced the highest case rates, and there were increases in hospitalizations among most age groups under 50, according to experts.

Mortality rate

Michigan’s mortality rate is increasing, and from Dec. 3 to Dec. 9, there were 756 COVID deaths in the state.

“That’s over 100 people every day in one week who won’t be here to celebrate the holidays or ring in the new year, and there could be hundreds or thousands more who won’t be at the tables next year unless we make the choice to double down on our precautions this week and in the coming weeks,” Hertel said.

She said no matter someone’s age, it’s impossible for them to know how sick they will get if infected by COVID.

5 simple prevention steps

Hertel outlined five simple steps for everyone to take to help slow the spread of COVID.

  1. Get vaccinated and get the booster shot -- everyone age 5 and up should get vaccinated, and everyone age 16 and up who had their second dose at least six months ago should get their booster shot.
  2. The state strongly recommends everyone age 2 and up wear a mask in indoor public places and crowded outdoor places.
  3. Get tested, even before gatherings, if you have symptoms or may have been exposed. The safest way to gather for the holidays is to keep gatherings to small groups of people who have been vaccinated and tested negative for the virus.
  4. Stay home if you are sick with COVID-19 or have any symptoms of a respiratory illness. Find a way to connect with your family virtually instead.
  5. If you test positive, ask a doctor if you qualify for therapeutics and visit the state testing website to find a monoclonal antibody location near you.

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.