LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke Friday morning about an alarming uptick in COVID-19 numbers, increased stadium capacity and the elimination of the former health director’s confidentiality agreement.
Here are our takeaways from the briefing.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updated its COVID-19 order to allow up to 20% capacity at outdoor stadiums and arenas with infection control plans. They must also have fixed seating.
Stadiums must create a plan, send the plan to health officials at least a week before events, post that plan publicly and administer a testing program for all players.
Youth athlete testing
The state announced increased testing for young athletes ages 13-19 to make sure they can safely participate in sports.
More information on the program is available on the Michigan.gov/Coronavirus website.
This is in response to an increased number of COVID-19 outbreaks associated with youth sports, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, of MDHHS, said.
The new rules go into effect Monday (March 22) and last until April 19.
Michigan has administered 3,310,162 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, according to Whitmer.
“More than 3.2 million doses of the safe and effective COVID vaccines have been administered in Michigan, and we are well on our way to vaccinating 70% of Michiganders ages 16 and up,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS. “While we are still very much fighting this pandemic and seeing concerning trends in new cases and hospitalizations, we are making these incremental steps that align with CDC guidance. We are again at a pivotal moment in our fight against COVID-19.”
Whitmer said more than 25% of Michiganders ages 16 and up have gotten shots.
Over the next eight weeks, Ford Field will host around 6,000 residents per day to administer vaccinations.
The governor said many of the state’s recent COVID-19 cases have been linked to high school athletics.
“High school student athletes will now be required to get tested before all sports practices and competitions,” Whitmer said.
Khaldun said the number of outbreaks in the state increased 9% from the previous week, to 645.
“Last week, for the first time since we’ve started tracking outbreaks, those in K-12 settings exceeded the number in long-term care facilities,” Khaldun said.
She said many of the outbreaks are associated with sports and people in younger age groups. Local health departments identified 315 outbreaks associated with recreational sports teams and clubs over the previous two months, Khaldun said.
Vaccinated residents at gatherings
In accordance with guidelines from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, Michigan will now allow residents who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19 to remove masks in certain instances at gatherings.
“Vaccinated people can remove their masks in residential gatherings if all participants have been vaccinated,” Whitmer said.
In order to remove masks under the new rules, the gathering must be residential, and everyone in attendance must have received both doses of their COVID-19 vaccines, or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“That means two weeks after receiving the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” Khaldun said.
Michigan has confirmed at least 756 cases of the B117 COVID-19 variant, Whitmer announced. This variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, is more contagious than the original strand of the virus.
Whitmer said Michigan has the second-most confirmed cases of B117 in the country, behind only Florida.
“We also have two cases of the South African B.1.315 variant,” Whitmer said.
Michigan tracks these variant cases through genetic sequencing in labs.
Michigan’s case rate has now increased for four straight weeks, rising to 172.9 cases per million people, as of Friday (March 19).
The case rate is up 77% from mid-February, but well below the peak of 737.8 cases per million people on Nov. 14.
“Cases have been rising since late February,” Whitmer said. “Thankfully, deaths have remained low, and on Wednesday, we had zero new reported deaths for the first time in months, which is excellent news.”
The percentage of COVID tests coming back positive in Michigan has also increased for four straight weeks, and is now at 6.2%.
Michigan’s percent positivity is up by 177% from the mid-February low, but is still nowhere near the December high of 19.4%.
The percentage of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients statewide is at 4.9%. Hospitalization peaked at 19.6% on Dec. 4, but Friday’s number is a 25% increase from the end of February.
‘We are going in the wrong direction’
Khaldun said the COVID-19 metrics above are very concerning and show Michigan is once again heading in the wrong direction.
“What we are seeing now is very concerning data that shows that we are going in the wrong direction with the key metrics that we are tracking for COVID-19,” Khaldun said.
With the case and positivity rates rising over the past four weeks, Khaldun said Michiganders need to remember the basic safety protocols, such as wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.
Khaldun said just because something is permitted under the new MDHHS guidelines, it doesn’t that action comes without risk.
The first question during Whitmer’s question-and-answer portion was about former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon.
This week, the state and Gordon eliminated the confidentiality agreement that kept him from speaking about his abrupt resignation.
Whitmer was asked about the reasoning for getting rid of that confidentiality agreement, which was widely criticized and even labelled “hush money” by Republican lawmakers.
“The conversation around transparency is important, and we don’t have anything to hide,” Whitmer said. “We released the former director from the agreement and waived the agreement in the interest of greater transparency.”
The governor said she will stay focused on the global pandemic going forward.
Any thoughts of shutting down athletics?
Due to the outbreaks associated with youth sports and high school athletics, Whitmer was asked if the state has considered shutting those activities down as overall cases rise.
“At this point in time, we’re not announcing any restrictions,” Whitmer said. “We don’t have plans to do this at this juncture.”
She said Michigan has the tools needed to fight the virus: masks, social distancing, vaccines and hand washing.
Whitmer said officials knew when they reopened more of the state that there would be an increased risk of COVID-19 spread.
“We are going to watch it closely, because these variants are very concerning,” Whitmer said.
She said as long as everyone does their part, the re-engaged segments of the economy can remain open.
Nursing home policy
The final question to Whitmer during the briefing focused on her nursing home policy that put COVID-19 positive patients in nursing homes with people who didn’t have the virus.
“Governor, do you believe that when COVID senior citizens were moved from the hospitals into nursing homes that that resulted in the deaths of residents that did not have the disease?” she was asked.
Whitmer said the nature of COVID-19 is that it targets people who are older and easily spreads in congregate settings.
She also said we have learned a lot about the virus since the start of the pandemic.
“We, at the beginning, had no idea that a mask was going to be the most important tool that every one of us could easily adorn to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID-19,” Whitmer said. “We’ve learned a lot. Now, our nursing home policy -- I know a lot of people have tried to re-write it. But, in fact, the nursing home policy was this: We followed the CDC guidelines.”
She said the state never mandated a nursing home take patients back into their care.