From 9,000 to 300: How Michigan turned COVID crisis around in under 2 months

State reported fewer than 300 single-day cases Tuesday for first time since July 6, 2020

Open sign. (Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels.)

April 16, 2021, was a critical point in the COVID-19 pandemic for the state of Michigan.

In the week leading up to that important day, a debate raged over whether or not the state needed to be shut down once again. Medical officials said yes. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said no.

Meanwhile, the federal government denied the governor’s plea to send more vaccines to Michigan. Speaking of vaccines, one of the three approved versions had been taken off the table to investigate a few rare blot clots around the nation.

Michigan extended workplace restrictions. Extended unemployment benefits ceased. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan spoke openly about his concerns for the city’s vaccination rate.

It was a busy week, and April 16 was no different.

On that day, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services extended its COVID restrictions for restaurants, masks, gatherings and more. One hour later, the state announced 8,955 new cases of the virus -- the highest total of the spring spike and second-highest single-day total ever for Michigan (Nov. 20 -- 9,779 cases).

Nearly 9,000 new cases of the virus in one day. Fast forward to yesterday: Fewer than 300.

Tuesday’s update revealed 293 new cases of the virus -- down more than 8,600 in 53 days. Michiganders can stay at bars past midnight. Fans can pack Comerica Park. Employees are returning to work -- some even without masks.

So how did we get to this point?

Here’s everything that’s happened since the peak of this spike.

April 27: CDC softens mask mandate

The first in a series of mask mandate tweaks by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention came in late April, when it determined fully vaccinated people could go without masks outside, unless in a large crowd.

Previously, anyone who was going within six feet of others, even outside, was told to wear a mask, so was a significant update.

The adjusted order also allowed fully vaccinated workers to continue working after an exposure if they were asymptomatic. Quarantine rules were also relaxed.

April 29: State unveils vaccine-based reopening plan

The cases were still well above 3,000 per day when the state outlined four new vaccination thresholds that would trigger the easing of COVID restrictions.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlines the "MI Vacc To Normal" plan on April 29, 2021. (WDIV)

When 55%, 60%, 65% and 70% of eligible Michiganders received at least one dose of the vaccine, certain rules would be lifted across the state, Whitmer announced.

At the time, her administration’s goal was still to get to 70% of Michiganders age 16 and up vaccinated. When that was achieved, MDHHS would lift the gatherings and face masks order entirely.

Only 48.8% of those residents had received a dose of the vaccine, however, so reaching that final threshold appeared an uphill battle from the start.

May 3: Half of Michiganders receive vaccine

Whitmer announced May 3 that the state had administered a total of 7 million COVID vaccines. Perhaps more importantly, 50% of people ages 16 and up had received at least one dose.

At the time, 38% of Michigan residents were fully vaccinated, and that number was still climbing at a reasonable rate.

May 5: MDHHS updates epidemic order

Michigan announced more than 2,500 new COVID cases on May 5, but that didn’t stop the state from easing some restrictions.

MDHHS updated its epidemic order to lift some rules for gatherings, mask wearing, events and organized sports.

Effective May 6, masks would be “generally not required” during outdoor gatherings of fewer than 100 people. A fully vaccinated person without COVID symptoms could attend both indoor and outdoor residential gatherings without a mask, the state announced.

Mask requirements were struck down for outdoor practices and games for non-contact sports. Crowd limits for large events were loosened. Stadium capacity was expanded.

May 10: Michigan hits first vaccine milestone

On Monday, May 10, Michigan reached its first -- and eventually, only -- threshold in the MI Vacc To Normal plan.

Whitmer announced 55% of Michiganders had received a dose of the COVID vaccine, meaning employees would be allowed to return to in-person work two weeks later, on May 24.

By the state’s estimation, this goal meant 4,453,304 people had received the vaccine.

May 12: COVID vaccine for children

Throughout the administration of COVID vaccines, only residents ages 16 and up were eligible. On May 12, the CDC endorsed Pfizer’s shot for children as young as 12 years old.

Officials said the shots would let children safely attend camps and return to a more normal classroom experience.

“This is another way to get closer to ending this horrible pandemic,” said adviser Dr. Camille Kotton, of Harvard Medical School.

Michigan was officially on track to join many other parts of the country that were already vaccinating middle school and high school students.

May 13: CDC removes more mask recommendations

The CDC’s most significant update to COVID mask and testing guidance came in mid-May, when it declared fully vaccinated residents no longer needed to wear masks or socially distance.

Those rules would still apply when required by any level or government, or even specific businesses. But the CDC was clearly doubling down on its confidence in vaccines.

Fully vaccinated people no longer needed to get tested after an exposure, unless they worked or lived at a correctional or detention facility or homeless shelter, according to the CDC.

May 20: State scraps old reopening plan

Perhaps it was because of new CDC recommendations, or the fact that Michigan’s daily COVID cases were plummeting toward 1,000 -- but Whitmer announced the state was scrapping the old MI Vacc To Normal plan just three weeks after it began.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a May 20, 2021, COVID-19 briefing. (WDIV)

The lifting of restrictions would no longer be tied to vaccination percentages. Now, June 1 and July 1 would act as rigid reopening dates, barring unforeseen circumstances.

“We went back to the drawing board,” Whitmer said. “Originally our plan had four steps, each of which was tied to a percentage of Michiganders receiving the first shot, plus two weeks.”

May 24: Triple digits

“One thousand” is arbitrary. It’s just a number. Still, when Michigan finally dropped below 1,000 cases on May 24, it felt like a significant step.

To be clear: Michigan announced 1,378 new COVID cases that day, but that included totals from Sunday and Monday -- an average of 689 per day.

It was the first time since March 9 that the state had dropped below 1,000 daily cases.

The average of 689 single-day cases was the lowest since Feb. 20 -- during the brief period between the winter and spring spikes.

May 24: Michiganders return to work

As promised, on May 24 -- two weeks after Michigan reached the vaccination threshold of 55% -- employees were allowed to return to in-person work, even if their jobs could be done remotely.

“Thanks to Michiganders who got their shots, all employees can return to work in person, effective today,” Whitmer said during a briefing at a Grand Rapids business.

Fully vaccinated employees were allowed to return to work without wearing masks or distancing. Businesses could also decide to keep those rules in place.

Restaurants and bars were allowed to reopen common areas. Other regulations were adjusted to match new CDC recommendations.

June 1: COVID rules relaxed

As daily case totals continued to decline at the end of May, Michigan relaxed its COVID regulations on June 1, as scheduled.

Restaurants were allowed to open indoor dining areas to 50% capacity. More than six people were allowed at tables. People could return to dance floors and communal spaces.

The 11 p.m. curfew was dropped for bars and restaurants. It reverted back to 2 a.m.

All outdoor capacity limits, as well as those for residential gatherings, were lifted.

June 8: Cases drop below 300

The last time Michigan announced fewer than 300 new COVID cases for a single day was July 6, 2020. That was nearly a full year ago.

Tuesday’s announcement of 293 new COVID cases was the first single-day announcement below 300 for this calendar year. Monday’s two-day announcement technically yielded an even lower daily average, as did last Tuesday’s three-day total following Labor Day Weekend.

But June 8 marked the first actual announcement of fewer than 300 new cases. The last time it happened on July 6, the state had reported fewer than 1,000 daily cases every single day since April 29, 2020 (with the exception of May 14, when backlogged results were reported).

This time, Michigan is just two weeks removed from a months-long stretch of 1,000 or more cases each day.

What’s next?

As we’ve all learned over the past 15 months, the COVID pandemic is unpredictable. When Michigan has seemed to get a handle on COVID in the past, significant spikes have followed.

Michigan officials have attributed this most recent decline in cases to vaccinations and a better understanding of the virus. It also helps that the weather has warmed up and more gatherings and events can take place outside.

Variants are always a concern -- not only because they have been known to spread more easily, but also because they introduce a new level of unpredictability. Health officials are continuing to keep a close eye on any that emerge.

But like last year, May and June brought a lot of change to Michigan -- and they also came with much more encouraging numbers.

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.