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Experts: Politics, as well as science, fuel Whitmer COVID, mask decisions

Whitmer
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is up for re-election, has issued far fewer press releases featuring the word “COVID” in the past four months.

Feb. 25: New guidance: Most in Michigan can ditch their masks for now
Feb. 18: One Michigan mom rejoices, another worries as school mask mandates lift

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cited a host of positive trends Wednesday as her administration rescinded a recommendation for indoor mask usage, but consultants say there was no doubt a political consideration as well.

“I’m sensing the governor was seeing the same thing I’m seeing in polling,” said Steve Mitchell, a pollster who typically represents Republican candidates and causes.

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Mitchell said his research shows a growing expectation among parents that they should make decisions on masks and vaccines and that schools should remain open as much as possible.

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Whitmer’s decisions during the pandemic will play a huge role in her re-election campaign this year, and Republican challengers have railed against her decision early in the pandemic to lock down the state to prevent the spread of the virus.

Whitmer’s Michigan Department of Health and Human Services' rescission of the mask recommendation for schools and indoors came as daily cases ebbed below 2,200 for the first time in months, and after counties including Ingham, Wayne and Oakland removed local mask mandates.

Statewide mask recommendations had persisted while cases were far higher last fall, but health officials have said the availability of vaccines and milder nature of omicron make it safe to lift restrictions now.

But Whitmer’s move comes as frustrations over the two-year pandemic are rising: A six-day blockade of the Ambassador Bridge protesting Canada’s vaccine mandates halted traffic — and billions in international trade — and also raised millions of dollars from supporters on both sides of the border.

Whitmer and other Democratic governors from Connecticut to California who have recently ended restrictions are “bowing to the reality of the situation,” Mitchell said. 

In all, 18 states at one point had mask mandates during the 2021-02 school year, and only one, Maryland, was led by a Republican governor.

Unlike many Democratic counterparts, Whitmer ended a mask mandate in June 2021, leaving the decision on school masks after that to local counties and school districts. 

A Whitmer spokesperson told Bridge Michigan the governor followed “the best available data and science” in the early days of the pandemic when she ordered a lockdown that mirrored what most states did.

“These lifesaving actions bought time for the world’s top scientists to develop safe and effective vaccines that then enabled people to take their own action to protect themselves and their families,” Bobby Leddy said in an email.

“Now that everyone has the science-based tools to protect themselves, Michigan has been fully open since the summer of last year and our state’s economy has been surging, with 220,000 jobs added over a one-year timeframe.”

Distancing herself from COVID

Whitmer has spent months distancing herself from the sort of requirements that have attracted controversy and generated Lansing protests and an alleged plot to kidnap her, said Adrian Hemond, a political consultant who works with Democrats.

In early 2021, Whitmer held monthly COVID updates with reporters. 

But after May, when vaccines were widely available, Whitmer’s public discussions of COVID became rarer, though she and her administration routinely urged residents to get shots and boosters.

In the first eight months of 2021, Whitmer’s team issued 32 press releases with the word “COVID” in the headline and 34 with the word “jobs.” 

In the last four months of the year, seven news releases were about COVID and 40 were about jobs. Over those months, 580,000 people contracted the virus and 7,700 state residents died from it.

John Sellek, a consultant who once worked for Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, said Whitmer’s decision to de-emphasize COVID is fortuitous. 

He and others point to Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial election in November, which analysts say is largely because independents were upset over school closures from COVID.

“They (the Whitmer administration) look really smart from a political science perspective right now,” Sellek said. “She is making moves to the middle with every move she makes.”

Whitmer has not said that any of her decisions are politically motivated. 

As recently as December, Whitmer said she and her team “follow the science,” a phrase she has repeated often throughout the pandemic.

But it’s not as if the pandemic was over in September, though vaccines were widespread for everyone 12 and older. 

In fact, cases were steadily rising as the delta variant began to sweep the state, particularly among children

Since Sept. 1, Michigan has recorded nearly 11,000 COVID-19 deaths, a third of all deaths in the pandemic, and over 1 million confirmed cases, fully half of all confirmed cases. An estimated 82 percent of deaths occurred among the unvaccinated since January 2021.

All 13 Republican candidates for governor have blasted Whitmer for her COVID policies, including her statewide lockdown early in the pandemic and November 2020 decision to close indoor dining for nearly two months.

“That’s the side to be on,” said Mitchell, saying whoever wins the Republican Party’s nomination has to hammer on her pandemic performance. 

While Whitmer focuses on job creation and economic recovery, her opponent would be wise to tap into the residual anger over her earlier decisions, Mitchell said.

Studies add fuel to arguments?

Attacks from Republicans have gotten fuel from a recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University who concluded that lockdowns only “reduced COVID-19 deaths by 0.2 percent.”

That study, which analyzed about three dozen other studies, drew accolades from conservative media and scorn from fact-checkers who pointed out it was not peer-reviewed and selected just 34 studies from a pool of over 18,000. 

Yet it will be part of the debate over whether the lockdowns — Michigan’s stay-at-home order lasted 70 days beginning March 23 — worked.

A University of Michigan health economist, Olga Yakusheva, conducted a similar study, released in December. 

It concluded that the lockdowns saved lives, between 866,000 and 1.7 million in the United States alone. 

Her study compared the impact of lockdowns to a scenario of no interventions. She acknowledged that it does not consider whether people would have changed their behavior — like staying home, wearing a mask — without being told to do so as cases and deaths mounted.

Since the pandemic began, even with lockdowns in most states in the earliest days, an estimated 929,000 have died of COVID-19 in the United States, including more than 31,000 in Michigan.

But Yakusheva’s research team said there was still a high cost beyond the estimated $2.3 trillion in economic downturn: 58,000 to 245,000 people died when they could not get care in emergency rooms because of the lockdowns, or who put off necessary care.

Those people were typically younger and had more “quality of life” years left than those who died of COVID.

The median age of COVID-19 deaths is 77. Nationwide life expectancy in 2020 was 78.

But Yakusheva said Whitmer and other leaders were right to order lockdowns in March 2020 because there were no vaccines and health officials thought COVID was more contagious and deadlier.

In the first two months of the pandemic in 2020, over 4,200 people died of COVID-19 in Michigan. 

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Hospitals were full, doctors were unsure how best to treat patients and staff were getting sick in part because there was a lack of protective gear.

Now, however, Yakusheva said leaders should know that the overall costs are not just measured in dollars, but also in lives.

Initially, the dollar cost was offset by trillions of dollars for higher unemployment benefits, business grants and billions flowing into states, cities and schools.

“The point of our paper was to humanize the economic impact of the lockdown,” Yakusheva told Bridge. “Those (non-COVID) deaths aren’t visible and they are part of COVID…It’s not lives versus dollars. It’s lives versus lives.”

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