8 takeaways from Whitmer’s COVID briefing: In-person learning, vaccine distribution, restaurants

Whitmer strongly encourages public schools to offer in-person learning by March 1

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Jan. 8, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer held her second COVID-19 briefing of the week Friday to discuss the future of in-person learning, vaccine distribution and how current trends affect the possibility of reopening restaurants in the state.

Click here to watch the full replay of the briefing.

READ: 8 Michigan businesses cited for COVID-19 safety violations, state says

Here are the takeaways from the Jan. 8, 2021, briefing.

Public schools encouraged to reopen

Whitmer “strongly encouraged” Michigan public schools to reopen for in-person learning by the beginning of March.

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Public schools in Michigan were shut down during the fall due to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Their buildings have been closed for about two months -- since the state reported thousands of COVID-19 cases per day in November.

“I strongly encourage districts to provide as much face-to-face learning as possible, and my administration will work closely with them to get it done,” Whitmer said.

In-person learning at high schools and colleges was specifically banned Nov. 18, when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a “pause” on certain segments of the economy.

Whitmer recommended schools resume in-person instruction by March 1 or earlier.

“MDHHS will continue to do what it takes to save lives and limit the spread of COVID-19,” Director Robert Gordon said. “At the same time, in-person instruction is critical for the current and the future well-being of children, especially young learners and students who are disadvantaged. We encourage schools to reopen as soon as they can do so with proven protections for staff and students.”

What data led to school recommendation?

Why did Michigan decide to make this recommendation now? Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive of MDHHS, said it’s become clear that school districts can reopen safely.

“I can tell you there’s been many studies that talk about the data in schools and where the outbreaks have been,” Khaldun said. “In general, most children across the country have been able to be in in-person learning with the proper mitigation measures in place.”

Khaldun said outbreaks occurring throughout the country are not primarily in schools.

Based on the current MDHHS order, schools are allowed to be open for in-person learning.

“It’s not so much a shift as an encouragement,” Khaldun said. “We’re looking to provide even more tools so that schools can reopen as safely as possible.”

Reopening not required

While Whitmer and state officials are strongly recommending schools have an in-person option by March, it will not be a requirement.

“We recognize that there is a challenge,” Whitmer said. “We’ve got 800 different districts that have unique situations that we have to be mindful of.”

She said the state wants districts to have in-person options available, especially for younger students. Some schools haven’t offered such options since last March.

Whitmer mentioned the new variant of COVID-19 as an example of why it’s important to keep watching the data and make decisions accordingly. She also said getting more people vaccinated would help toward the goal.

New COVID-19 metrics

It’s only been two days since the last COVID-19 update, but Khaldun provided the new statewide metrics again Friday.

Michigan’s case rate is at 222 cases per million people, which demonstrates an increase of eight cases per million in the past week, she said.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, of MDHHS, at a Jan. 8, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

The percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is at 9.3%, which has also increased over the past week, according to Khaldun.

Hospitalizations continue to trend downward, though, with 12.8% of inpatient beds currently filled with COVID-19 patients.

“Our metrics overall tell me that we are at a pivotal moment,” Khaldun said. “The declines we were seeing prior to the holidays seem to be reversing.”

What about restaurants?

Whitmer was asked directly, “Where do you stand on allowing bars and restaurants to reopen in the near future?”

Specifically, the question was directed at data that suggested there were more outbreaks in schools than in bars and restaurants.

She said studies have shown that restaurants and bars are places where COVID-19 outbreaks are common. She said the reason that didn’t always show up in studies is that Michigan’s contract tracing couldn’t keep up with leads in that area.

“We know that the pause is working,” Whitmer reiterated.

She said she’s aware of the economic pain and the personal sacrifice caused by the ban on indoor dining.

“The fact of the matter is, the studies show that’s where we have seen the highest risk,” Whitmer said. “Our numbers are better than most other states in our region, stronger than many states in the nation.”

New variant giving officials ‘pause’

Part of the hesitation to further reopen parts of the state is a new variant of COVID-19 that appears to be even more contagious, according to Khladun and Whitmer.

“This variant is giving us pause, and we want to watch and make sure that we’ve got as many days worth of data post-holiday,” Whitmer said.

RELATED: New, mutated variant of COVID-19 ‘very likely already here’ in Michigan, top health official says

Khaldun also referenced the variant, saying it will likely be in Michigan soon, if not already.

“I’m very concerned that it’s only a matter of time until we see a new variant of this virus in Michigan that originated in the UK and has caused a dangerously fast increase in cases there.”

She said the new variant is transmitted more easily than the previous forms of COVID-19, and cited a significant increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the UK when that new variant arrived.

Vaccine not required for teachers

The governor said she doesn’t think teachers should be required to get the COVID vaccine because support for it is increasing.

“I don’t think that that’s necessary,” Whitmer said. “People want to get this vaccine. They have seen people like (Khaldun) get it, and they are healthy and fine. People are getting confidence in the vaccine as well.”

Teachers are included in the state’s new phase of vaccinations, which begins Monday (Jan. 11). There are questions about vaccine availability, and Whitmer didn’t say she believes the state can get all teachers and childcare workers vaccinated by the March 1 recommended date for in-person learning.

“I believe that so many of our teachers, our educators, our support staff in our schools, are eager to get this vaccine, and that’s why we’ve moved them into a phase where they can,” Whitmer said.

Governor defends distribution efforts

As Michigan moves into a new phase of vaccinations that includes people 65 and older, along with many others, there has been criticism of the distribution efforts.

MORE: Here are the 9 groups of people included in new phase of COVID vaccinations in Michigan

People are confused about the availability of the vaccine and how they go about getting an appointment. There are questions about unused doses of vaccine, and many providers have said they won’t be moving onto the next phase Monday because they are still working on the previous phase.

“I know that when you look at the website about how many vaccines have been received versus how many have been administered, you would recognize that this is a process that has to take a little bit of time,” Whitmer said. “I know everyone wants to see you’ve got 500 shots, you get 500 shots given.”

She said the state is transporting and breaking down the deliveries, as well as working with health departments an hospital systems. Khaldun said more than 24,000 shots had been administered in the last 24 hours.

“We’re making great strides,” Whitmer said. “If you look at what’s happening across the country, you know, we have to have perspective here. Michigan is in the same situation as every other state. We’re all building this up and we’re all at about the same level.”

Whitmer said Michigan has pushed out “every single vaccine” it has received to eligible providers or public health departments.

“There are some recipients who have not gotten shots in arms, and we’re giving technical assistance,” Whitmer said.

The National Guard has been called in to help with vaccinations. Whitmer said the state is getting about 60,000 vaccines per week from Pfizer, and 100% are being shipped out upon receipt.

She said 100% of the Moderna vaccine is shipped directly to CVS and Walgreens to be administered within seven days.

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.