CDC: Michigan’s response to rising COVID cases should be to ‘shut things down’

Dr. Rochelle Walensky says vaccines aren’t quick answer to current COVID situation

The director of the CDC said the answer to Michigan’s alarming rise in COVID-19 cases isn’t to “vaccinate our way out” of it, but to “shut things down” like the state did last spring and summer.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, spoke Monday about the COVID-19 situation in Michigan.

On Friday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Michigan a “COVID hotspot” and called on the federal government to surge additional vaccines here in response to rising case numbers.

RELATED: 13 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID update on Friday, April 9

Walensky and Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, were asked specifically about the situation in 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”

She argued that in Michigan’s case, the answer isn’t to wait for more people to get vaccinated, but to start shutting down segments of the economy once again.

“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, to decrease contact with one another, to test to the extent that we have available, to contact trace -- sometimes you can’t even do it at the capacity that you need,” Walensky said.

Michigan was under a stay-at-home order for 70 days last spring, from March 24 to June 1. In that time, indoor dining at restaurants was shut down, gatherings were banned and schools were shifted to remote learning.

As the stay-at-home order was lifted in June, Michigan was seeing its COVID-19 cases plummet -- at times fewer than 100 new cases per day were confirmed. But cases began to rise again a few months later, and new restrictions were enacted in mid-November.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services implemented a three-week “pause” that reinstated many of the restrictions from the stay-at-home order. That pause was extended multiple times until the end of January.

Restaurants and entertainment venues reopened Feb. 1. Capacity rules were relaxed at the beginning of March. Since then, COVID-19 cases have risen dramatically.

As of Friday, Michigan’s case rate has reached 515 cases per million people per day. The percentage of COVID tests coming back positive is up to 18%. Both of those numbers are four times higher than they were in mid-February, according to Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive of MDHHS.

Whitmer has responded by asking Michiganders to voluntarily follow restrictions -- such as avoiding gatherings and indoor dining -- for two weeks. She also asked high schools to go remote for that same period of time.

Walensky is suggesting that’s Michigan’s best way to slow the spread.

“Really what we need to do in those situations is shut things down,” Walensky said. “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.”

Slavitt also shot down the idea of surging vaccines to Michigan. He essentially said that strategy could create shortages elsewhere and keep the country one step behind if they try to chase outbreaks.

“Our job here is to follow the science, and I think in that regard, exactly what Dr. Walensky said, is important to us,” Slavitt said. “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. So our ability to vaccinate people quickly in each of those states, rather than taking those vaccines and shifting it to playing whack-a-mole, isn’t the strategy that public health leaders and scientists have laid out.”

He said the federal government is trying to help Michigan fight the spread of COVID-19 in other ways.

“We have offered to surge monoclonal antibodies,” Slavitt said. “Testing -- there’s a CDC team on the ground, 140 FEMA vaccinators have just moved into the town. Those are things you can (put into) effect quickly, and we believe can ramp things up more quickly. We know there are appointments available in various parts of the state, and so that means that we have access to vaccine in some parts of the state, so we’re going to help work with the state, and any state, quite frankly, to help the rebalancing which occurs in a situation like this as we pay attention around the country.”

You can read the full statements from both Walensky and Slavitt below, or listen to their comments in the video posted at the top of this page.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky

Here is the question that was posed:

“You know, vaccines, we understand, are not a panacea, given the crisis situation in Michigan right now, but some public health officials, including Dr. (Scott) Gottlieb over the weekend, are saying that the administration probably should have surged vaccines to Michigan two weeks ago, when the data started coming in. Can you address that, and what is the argument against doing this, as well as what specifically are you doing on monoclonal antibodies to this date?”

Here is Walensky’s answer:

“There are different tools that we can use for different periods of when ... there is an outbreak. 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. So when you have an acute situation, an extraordinary number of cases, like we have in Michigan, the answer is not necessarily to give vaccine. In fact, we know that the vaccine will have a delayed response.

“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, to decrease contact with one another, to test to the extent that we have available, to contact trace -- sometimes you can’t even do it at the capacity that you need.

“But really what we need to do in those situations is shut things down. 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

“Our job here is to follow the science, and I think in that regard, exactly what Dr. Walensky said, is important to us -- 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. 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.

“There are other things that we can do. We have offered to surge monoclonal antibodies. Testing -- there’s a CDC team on the ground, 140 FEMA vaccinators have just moved into the town. Those are things you can (put into) effect quickly, and we believe can ramp things up more quickly. We know there are appointments available in various parts of the state, and so that means that we have access to vaccine in some parts of the state, so we’re going to help work with the state, and any state, quite frankly, to help the rebalancing which occurs in a situation like this as we pay attention around the country.”


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