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As coronavirus cases rise, Whitmer halts plans to further reopen Michigan

LANSING — With coronavirus cases upticking in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has abandoned plans to allow additional business reopenings by July 4 and said she is contemplating a “more conservative” approach.

The first-term Democrat stopped short of promising to re-tighten rules, as governors in some southern and western states slammed by the pandemic have done this week, but said recent outbreaks at places like Harper’s Restaurant & Brewpub in East Lansing reinforce the need for continued precautions. 

“The virus has not changed; what has changed is our knowledge and our ability to make decisions that prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said in a coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday. 

“It’s on every single one of us to do our part to protect one another, to protect the gains that we've made as a state, and to strengthen our ability to get our economy back on track.”

Michigan reported 373 new cases of coronavirus Tuesday, bringing the state’s total to 63,870 since March. Case counts have topped 200 each of the past eight days but remain well below the early April peak, when Michigan recorded 1,953 cases in a single day. 

Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for public health in 19 mid- and northern Michigan counties, said she’s not surprised that cases have inched up again as Michigan reopens its economy.

But when it comes to a virus that has killed at least 5,915 Michiganders, Morse said, “we have to keep this to a slow trickle and not get overwhelmed by letting the flood gates open.”

She and others in public health are facing a new complication: COVID-fatigue among a public that has lived under restrictions for nearly four months.

And it’s this second battle that has them most worried, coming just a month after the state was lauded as being among the few in the country getting ahead of the spread after Whitmer’s tight and controversial lock-down.

“Michigan started off in a way better position than other states when we began to reopen. It was painful, but it had worked and we started in a better place,” Morse said.

She and others including Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at Michigan State University, said they see fewer masks these days and more crowds.

“It’s like they’re tired of it, they don’t care,” he said. “It’s ‘doggone it, I’m not going to eat my spinach anymore.’”

Cases among young adults

Michigan was hit earlier and harder by COVID-19 than many other states and at one point ranked third in the country for total cases. And the recent uptick here has been small in comparison to some other states.

With the virus now spreading more rapidly in the south and Sun Belt states, Michigan now ranks 11th in total COVID-19 cases, trailing states such as Texas, Florida, Arizona and Georgia where cases have spiked, according to Johns Hopkins University

Michigan’s newest cases are notably different than cases at the height of the pandemic, as hospitals and morgues in southeast Michigan were overwhelmed, and daily deaths peaked:

  • New infections are hitting younger people disproportionately, with nearly 47 percent of all new cases among those under age 30 since June 26. Before then, only 16 percent of infections were among that age group
  • Deaths have fallen precipitously, in part because cases overall have fallen from a daily average of 1,000 new cases a day in early April to just over 300 now. 
  • Deaths now average about 10 a day, down from nearly 40 as recently as June 1.
  • Just over 300 people are now in Michigan hospitals with confirmed COVID-19 infections. On June 1 it was nearly 700 and a week before that is was over 1,000. In the middle of April, when deaths were at their highest, over 3,600 COVID-19 patients were in the hospital.

Whitmer had hoped to move lower Michigan into “Phase 5” of her economic restart plan by the Fourth of July holiday, which would have allowed businesses such as gyms and fitness centers to reopen statewide, as they’ve already done in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. 

But “that’s not going to happen,” Whitmer conceded Tuesday.

Instead, creeping case numbers may warrant a “more conservative approach,” the governor said, noting she was planning to discuss the latest COVID-19 data with health officials later Tuesday and should have “more clarity” on next steps in a day or two. 

"If we see a sustained spike, that's precisely what would take us back to a Phase 3," Whitmer said, referencing a possible retreat that could see the state tighten restrictions on retail businesses, restaurants and bars.

 "I've always said, we're going (treat) this as a dial. If we're safe, we'll dial it up. If we see risk, we're going to dial it back."

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, said COVID-19 case counts are up in all regions of the state over the past week or two. 

But the increases are sharpest in the Lansing region, where there have been over 40 new cases per 1 million people per day, and the Grand Rapids region, where the percent of positive tests is also increasing. 

“Everyone, including young people, needs to understand that they are

not immune to this disease,” Khaldun said. “Not only can they spread it to others who are older, may have underlying medical conditions or are likely to get very ill from the disease, young people themselves can still get very sick from COVID-19, and they can even die from COVID-19.”

Despite that warning, Khadun noted the state’s hospitalization rate has “remained steady,” with about 80 percent of all inpatient beds across the state currently occupied by either COVID or non-COVID patients.

“A lot of states in the country are watching cases grow exponentially and worrying that their ICU’s are filling up,” Whitmer said. “We are not in that position. But our numbers are not as strong today as they were a couple weeks ago, so we must keep our guard up.”

A cautionary tale

The climb in cases prompted a boost in risk levels late Monday on the state’s Mi Safe Start Map, a collaboration between the state of Michigan and University of Michigan. The map assigns levels of risk of COVID-19 spread among the state’s regions.

The Lansing area, which includes East Lansing, the site of the outbreak at Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub, is now assigned deep orange, signifying its move from medium to high risk while the west region that includes Grand Rapids, has boosted to medium-high risk.

The Harper's outbreak has emerged as a cautionary tale — and not just for Michigan.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a Monday morning press conference, mentioned Harper’s while announcing he may delay plans to resume indoor dining in his city next week. 

Elsewhere, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy backtracked on plans to resume indoor dining and bar service. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered bars, nightclubs and water parks to close again for at least a month. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also ordered bars to close.

While troubling, the Harper’s outbreak in Michigan reinforced the importance of contact tracing, according to Whitmer, who praised the Ingham County Health Department for tracking down patrons who may have been exposed to ensure they were tested for the virus. 

Ingham County on Monday also prohibited bars and restaurants from allowing more than 75 patrons, toughening a state rule that allows a maximum of 50 percent capacity indoors. 

“I want to be clear: This is not unique to this establishment, it's not unique to East Lansing, it's not unique to Michigan,” Whitmer said. “This is happening across the country, but we have to learn from this instance here in Michigan.”

And importantly, the risk levels on the MI Safe Start map have increased not only because of reported clusters of cases, but “also the general rise” in cases, said Dr. Emily Toth Martin, who as co-director of the Michigan Influenza Center at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, helps manage the map.

Balancing health and the economy

The climb in cases is a sharp reminder of the policy decisions that must balance public health and the economy.

Republican legislators have pressured Whitmer to re-open the economy faster and sued her for extending a state of emergency without their approval, a lawsuit whose rulings so far have favored the governor. 

As Whitmer approaches her July 4 goal to further relax regulations, she "should be at the very least releasing all the data she's using to make these decisions," Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte, said Monday. “She still has yet to do that.”

Barrett questioned whether the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases is a result of more testing rather than more spread. State data show that Michigan has continued to ramp up testing after overcoming initial supply shortages. Between Monday and Friday of last week, officials reported conducting an average of 17,199 tests per day, up from 14,104 the prior week.

Sharing medical advice and best practices with the general public is important, but at some point, Whitmer will have to trust Michiganders to make their own decisions, Barrett argued. 

"You should be concerned about your own private health, your own responsibility for yourself," he said. "The government can't hold your hand for your whole life, and if you trust the government to do that, they will always let you down."

Barrett represents Clinton, Eaton and Shiawassee counties in the Michigan Senate. 

Eaton County reported 26 new COVID-19 cases over three days last week, including 14 cases on June 24, which represented its largest ever one-day jump.

Despite its relatively low number of active COVID-19 cases, Michigan remains one of three states where the U.S. Department of Defense continues to restrict travel by members of the military. 

The Pentagon announced on Monday that 47 states had met conditions to lift travel restrictions for service members. Only Michigan, Florida and California did not qualify, according to the department, which is no longer restricting travel in states like Texas and Arizona, where cases are rising sharply. 

On Monday, Morse, the health official, confirmed a third case at a central Michigan day care. Now the day care will close for two weeks, she said. 

“That’s 150 kids whose parents now might have to stay home from work because they don't have daycare,” Morse said.

Whether it’s a factory or a restaurant or a daycare that must close because of COVID-19, that’s more people out-of-work again, she said.

“It’s nerve-wracking right now,” she said.

Like Morse, Toth said some increase in cases is expected as the economy continues to open. 

She likens COVID-19 containment to controlling a forest fire with “a burn perimeter” — the idea of locking down the fire so it doesn’t jump to new spaces.

Social distancing, masks, quarantine and isolation of suspected infection — those can control spread. She holds out hope that cases can be blunted before a wide-spread surge, but “it’s going to mean people have to keep that social contract.”

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