Michigan governor, GOP leader inflate the rhetoric in coronavirus fight

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun have been the faces of the state’s aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak.  (File photo courtesy of the governor's office)

Related: Michigan Gov. Whitmer: Trump ‘determined to sow the seeds of hatred’

Did you hear how Michigan’s rural hospitals are at capacity with coronavirus patients? Or that the state is likely to stay under an emergency declaration into 2021? Or that Republicans believe it’s “mission accomplished” on the deadly virus? 

So has Bridge Magazine. And it’s all misleading or untrue. 

Nuance has become another casualty of the coronavirus, as political fault lines deepen over the handling of the pandemic and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s restrictions to slow its spread.

In the past few weeks, elected officials, those who speak for them and partisan voices have made misstatements that inflame already heightened passions. And while some errors are inevitable in a fast-moving pandemic, the statements often have a way of confirming biases and taking on lives of their own.

But could the misstatements hurt the governor, Republican leaders or others during an outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 Michiganders and sickened 47,000?

“It only hurts if you get caught,” said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University.  

Here’s a look at a few assertions in the past few weeks that, at the very least, deserve some explanations.

Claim #1: “Many of the hospitals in our rural areas actually are at capacity.” 

Source: Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, on May 3 on NBC’s Meet the Press.

Truth: No hospital in Michigan, rural or otherwise, was at capacity when she said it, nor are any now, according to available state records.

In a May 11 update of hospital census data, the Detroit Medical Center had the highest occupancy, at 79 percent. Ascension health care system, which has both rural and urban hospitals, was at 63 percent, though the numbers are not broken down by individual hospitals.

Ascension's rural hospitals in Tawas City and Standish, just north of Bay City, are in a region that has reported 63 percent bed occupancy. That region also includes Genesee and Saginaw counties which had seen higher rates of the virus than other rural areas of Michigan.

Throughout the region that includes those two hospitals, there were 145 COVID-19 inpatients as of May 11.

The rural hospital system with the highest occupancy rate is UP Health, which has three hospitals in the Upper Peninsula. Yet those three are treating just one COVID-19 patient in hospitals that are at 56 percent of capacity on Monday. 

More common among rural Michigan hospitals are few to no COVID-19 patients and occupancy rates below 30 percent.

What gives: Bridge asked state officials via email to explain what hospitals Khaldun was referencing. On May 5, a spokeswoman said they would look into it but she did not subsequently provide an explanation.

Claim #2:  Khaldun said Michigan “will likely be restricted under Emergency Declarations well into 2021.”

Source: Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, mischaracterizing Dr. Khaldun in a May 1 Facebook message he posted criticizing Whitmer’s handling of the crisis. 

Truth: Here’s what Khaldun actually said at an April 28 briefing: “We can beat this disease, but it will really be a long-term effort that will likely go well into next year until we have a vaccine, or hopefully an antiviral treatment that works."

She did refer to 2021 (“next year”) but made no reference to emergency declarations. She was stating what almost every public health official has said for weeks: The coronavirus is going to require a change of behavior until there is a cure or a vaccine, which is expected to take a year to 18 months, at the earliest.

What gives: As of May 10, the post remained on Shirkey’s Facebook page. His office did not respond to a request for comment. 

Claim #3: The April 15 “Operation Gridlock” protest of Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders at the Michigan Capitol might have sparked COVID-19 outbreaks in rural areas.

Source: The Committee to Protect Medicare (CPM), which pushed out the story on Twitter, wrote: “Cell phone location data shows that after gathering with minimum protection, protesters fanned out to small communities and areas hard-hit by #COVID-19.” Left-of-center media outlets picked up the claim. 

Truth: CPM did not produce data to back the claims made in the analysis. 

The Committee to Protect Medicare is led by a West Michigan emergency room physician, Rob Davidson, a Democrat who lost a bid for Congress in 2018 and had a run-in with Vice President Mike Pence in Iowa in February.

In making the claim about the protest, Davidson’s group writes that a company called VoteMap “compiled the analysis by identifying smartphone devices seen in the immediate Michigan Capitol area during the day of the protest using advanced mobile geo-location technology.” 

Other tech companies offer phone location data and the New York Times and Washington Post have based stories on such analyses. But inferences drawn from those data points were more circumspect — generally limited to making comparisons from one day to the next on the volume of travel activity, rather than identifying particular groups or predicting where future COVID outbreaks would spread.  

CPM said the study was based on 300 cellphones in Lansing during the protest and then elsewhere the same day. If the data are accurate, it’s certainly possible some cellphones belonged to protesters, including those who clearly did not observe social distancing or wear a mask at the protest, making them more vulnerable to contracting or spreading the virus. 

But the limitations of such data are significant. Even if accurate, all it shows is that 300 cellphones were in Lansing that day and then somewhere else on that same day. It doesn’t compare the volume of mobility that day to any other day, as similar news articles have done. It also would not prove who these phones belonged to. Were all of these cell owners protesters? Could they be legislators? Legislative staff? State employees? Folks going to Lansing for official business?

Claim #4: On April 30, in extending the emergency through executive order, Whitmer wrote that coronavirus “remains present and pervasive” in Michigan, adding that “cases in some counties in western and northern Michigan are now doubling every 6 days or faster.”

True or false? Bridge updates county-level death and case counts on a daily basis. Only one county, Iosco, saw cases double in six days or less in late April, around the time Whitmer wrote the order.

What gives: Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for the governor, pointed to three counties that quickly doubled — Shiawassee, Iosco and Kent.

Iosco did indeed double within six days: from 21 cases on April 23 to 48 cases on April 28. But the two other counties cited took longer: Kent doubled over nine days (626 to 1,479) and Shiawassee over 13 days (86 to 180).

Claim #5: Gov. Whitmer, in an April 30 press release announcing a new executive order, said Republicans had declared “mission accomplished” in the fight against the coronavirus. 

Source: Whitmer was reacting to the GOP-controlled Legislature, on a party-line vote April 30, declining to extend her emergency powers.

In a press release and public comments, Whitmer and her communications staff said Republicans have declared “mission accomplished” in the fight against COVID-19 in Michigan. It was an obvious — mocking — reference to a sign behind President George W. Bush in 2003 when he said major operations in the war in Iraq were over. That war would continue for many more years.

House and Senate GOP leaders never declared “mission accomplished” on the virus as they fought Whitmer’s extension of her emergency powers. They have not said the battle was won, or that safeguards were no longer needed in Michigan.  

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has certainly challenged Whitmer’s handling of her emergency powers, arguing for a more regionally based approach. But he has also called the coronavirus an “unprecedented challenge that requires an unprecedented level of partnership.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has certainly had his moments of pique, suggesting at various times that Whitmer was acting like a dictator who was drunk on power during the state emergency. But regarding COVID-19, Shirkey has consistently acknowledged the threat it poses to Michiganders, the enormous battle waged by health care workers and the reality that “life is different and is likely to remain different for some time.” 

What gives: When asked for a response, the governor’s spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, did not explain the basis of the “mission accomplished” talking point. She said “Thousands of people have been killed by COVID-19. The governor’s number one priority is saving lives. She’s making decisions based on science and data, not political or legal pressure.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Mon, 05/11/2020 - 6:17pm

I like this article, we don't have the facts, so we'll assume they are false until we get an answer.

So true
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 7:13pm

If anything it goes to show that we are all just unwilling pawns in both the Democrats and Republicans political games, which is just sad. I wish our leaders were more concerned about the public's well-being than their approval ratings.

Mon, 05/11/2020 - 6:22pm

So does Bridge increase its creds as nonpartisan by hiring a partisan?

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 12:25pm

There is absolutely nothing nonpartisan about bridge - That should be quite obvious!

abe bubush
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 7:26pm

Nothingburger here, thanks.

Rick Raisen
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 7:32pm

This is getting a little ridiculous. Suicide rates skyrocketing, drug and alcohol related deaths up, vaccinations down (kids aren't getting measles or mumps vaccines any more), cancer screenings not happening for months on end, preventive medicine not taking place- the death toll from Governor Whitmer's orders will easily be double whatever the numbers who die from COVID. And she isn't "saving" anyone- the minute people emerge from their homes, their immune system badly weakened from the government imposed house arrest, they'll get sick of anything real easily. And our healthcare system is destroyed by the Governor's orders which caused them to lose all their customers and investments. And our welfare system is blown apart by the massive losses in sales and income taxes that resulted from the Governor's orders. One wonders now if she is doing all this damage to Michigan by accident or on purpose.

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:37am

This comment is one long [citation needed]. Wild, unfounded claims about people dying only increase the panic of the current situation. Bring some data, state some credentials, something. Ending your comment with an unfounded conspiracy theory of a question doesn't help much either. Please re-examine your statements and pause for a minute to realize just how deranged it sounds.

Tired of the BS
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:43am

Regardless of emerging facts you continue to peddle lies. Now we see more children are being affected by COVID 19 and people who "recover" are left just "alive" but with organ failures and other problems. Stop being a jerk. If crazy partisan hacks like you took this pandemic seriously, we could have our economy in much better shape while taking proper precautions, but instead you promote lies, take reckless opportunities to showcase your guns while probably spreading the virus and refusing to wear masks in confined areas, all for theatrics.

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 10:55am

Do yourself and your mental health a favor and stop speculating, be objective. Whitmer is not the first to use these emergency powers, Snyder did twice. No matter how some are trying to twist it to their own political motives, she is saving lives using limited information. Not even science has all the facts yet so we work with what we have. Some of the protests are purely mysogynist in nature. I didn't see armed white men carry guns and Nazi flags or issue death threats when Synder used the same powers during Flint and Frazer problems. Just be objective.

(Insert Epithet...
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 6:38pm

What you just did is called "Tu Quoque". It is a type of logical fallacy similar to a red herring. The Latin roughly translates to "You also". It means that instead of addressing the claim by the first party your response is to point out how other people have done the same thing. Simply put: two wrongs do not make a right. Ever.

None of the protests are "misogynist" in nature. That would be like me claiming your statements are "misandrist in nature". Neither statement is logical or true because neither can be proven by any qualitative or quantitative means. The governor has, indeed, done many things in order to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our state. However, many people believe she is wielding her authority as obnoxiously as possible. Disagreeing with her executive orders and protesting is not misogynist. It is a fundamental liberty afforded to all citizens of our great nation according to the bill of rights.

Please be more careful when using the phrase "Be more objective". It is very unhelpful to use it incorrectly and unwisely.

Wed, 05/13/2020 - 9:19am

Whoa, WHOA, did you just use italian?
You're not making my feels feel very warm and fuzzy, I think I am melting! This tells me that you MUST be a bigoted racist!
Just kidding. Excellent post ;)

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 2:49pm

Extremist Republicans refuse to wear face masks and social distance in closed spaces because they say the governor is a tyrant. Meanwhile President Donald Trump’s new spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany says we should wear masks in public. Is she a tyrant or just working for one? Serious question because we all want to reopen our economy in a way that encourages patronage to businesses with safety in mind for both employees and customers.

Mon, 05/11/2020 - 7:34pm

No one in that picture is wearing masks. And they are all back to work. She's still got a job, a paycheck, and food on the table. Lucky her- it must be nice to be in the right social class.

Karen Dunnam
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 11:29pm

The photo is from March 11.
Search terms "Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun," look for images. The same personnel appear in versions on MLive, WDIV, and the Detroit Metro Times.

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 3:24pm

Just like they are not six feet apart, they all clearly are getting their hair cut and colored and Whitmer hasn't missed a botox injection through this entire thing. The rules don't apply to them.

Maria Gershanwin
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 7:38pm

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.
-Joseph Goebbels

Lauren H
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 8:13pm

Articles like this are why I support Bridge. Who else fact-checks both sides in the political tribal war?

Thanks for the sanity.

Ben W. Washburn
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 10:44pm

Thanks Lauren. Ditto! However, with regard to the GOP law suit regarding the Governor's powers. Far too much of the commentary diminishes the importance of getting a clear-cut answer to these conflicting claims. That prevailing conflict undercuts the ability of any governor, now or in future crises, to effectively respond. It is the people themselves who must change their everyday behavior to blunt a pandemic. The ability to cast reasonable aspersions upon the Governor's authority simply undercuts this governor or any future governor to act in the best interest of us all. So, get a grip. No prior legislature has faced this kind of crisis over the past 80 years. It is time to first get a State Supreme Court decision ASAP as to the disputed powers of the governor. This is not a frivolous lawsuit. A clear-cut answer is important for us all. And it is time for a bi-partisan array of legislators to fine-tune the existing law with new legislation.
Secondly, deeply embedded in both state and federal constitutional law is a series of precedents called the Separation of Powers Doctrine. That doctrine is right now before both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals in this case. One facet of that doctrine is that there is no limit upon what documents or testimony the Congress can ask, so long as it is for a legitimate legislative purpose, either in exercising it's oversight powers, or to gather information for a pending piece of legislation. Going the other way, however, a legislative body can not invade the role of the executive, by requiring that acts authorized for the executive be brought back for explicit approval by the legislature. That is overreach. That facet of the doctrine seems to be at play in the current case.

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 10:53pm

Unfortunately the partisanship is to the point where even coming to agreement of a clear rationale of the purpose, procedure and place of emergency orders or is beyond our state or national government's abilities. My city's government is run on a nonpartisan basis (no political identification) seems to work very well. I'd love to see it tried on a bigger level.

C Meyer
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 12:36pm

Yes! I appreciate it as well!

Joe Green
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:29pm

Hear hear.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 05/11/2020 - 10:42pm

I'd love to find out exactly where Gov. Karen gets the "data" & "models" she loves to claim she bases her decision on?

She's not very forthcoming in that area.

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 7:55am

Fair article, gives some hope that Bridge is truly nonpartisan .

M. Brown
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:11am

Claim #2 is headlined inaccurately. The headline makes it look like Dr. Khaldun is at fault. The written text clearly attributes the mis-information to Rep. Shirkey. This is important as many readers scan bolded text and skip imbedded information.
Interesting to see that no claim is headlined to fault any GOP leaders/groups. Info pertaining to this side of the aisle is all imbedded in the text. Hmmm

M. Brown
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:24am

Correction: Senator Shirkey (Not Rep.)

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 10:13am

If Dr Khaldun lied on television about the available capacity in rural hospitals, she should resign or be fired. An ethics investigation may even be warranted. If she was simply mistaken, a front page retraction and apology would be in order. I don't know her motivation but her credibility is in serious doubt. Her position is too important to be held by a political hack.

A Yooper
Tue, 05/12/2020 - 11:33am

Great job Bridge.
I recall hospitals deferring elective surgeries in preparation for COVID-19.
So, it is safe to believe they would not necessarily be at capacity at any given time.
Just taking prudent measures.

Thu, 05/14/2020 - 8:53am

Maybe our Governor could use a mentor...like the Governor from FL. The death rate in MI is more than double than the death rate in FL, even with the higher population of elderly and vulnerable.