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‘A personal choice.’ Michigan GOP leaders balk at COVID vaccine incentives

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a new plan Thursday that would loosen state pandemic rules as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Republican legislative leaders who have spent months urging Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for a specific plan to ease COVID-19 restrictions said Friday that vaccine rates should not be the only metric the administration considers.

Whitmer on Thursday announced what she’s calling a “vacc to normal” plan that promises to relax restrictions based on vaccination rates. The tiered incentive plan would, for instance, end remote work requirements two weeks after 55 percent of eligible adults have received their first shot, and it would lift all orders two weeks after 70 percent have received at least one dose.

But House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Senate Majority Leader MIke Shirkey expressed concern with the plan, saying they fear inoculation rates may soon “plateau” given vaccine hesitancy among some segments of the population, including their fellow Republicans.

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“What if we don’t ever get to 70” percent, Wentworth, R-Clare, said Friday in a virtual roundtable hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber. “That’s a possibility, so how do we give some more sense of hope and certainty in that plan?”

Wentworth acknowledged polling that suggests Republican voters are less likely to get the vaccine, but he cautioned against “vaccine shaming,” arguing the state should stay focused on ensuring accessibility for those who choose to get the shots.

“I think as we do that that trust and confidence continues to build, and I think some groups that may be hesitant to get the vaccine would start getting that,” he said. “But if we just focus on these groups, and we just focus on separating us into camps, that creates a problem.”

Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he does not think COVID-19 vaccinations are a patriotic responsibility, but he “strongly” encouraged anyone who wants a shot to get one.

“It’s a personal choice to make,” he said. “We get up in the morning and we take risks for everything we do, so this is just another risk assessment for every single person.”

But with vaccine supply beginning to outpace demand, and same-day shots available in many parts of the state, Democratic leaders urged their GOP counterparts to do more to encourage hesitant residents to overcome their fears and get inoculated, which medical experts say is the safest way for the state to reach herd immunity and limit continued virus spread.

“This is about our collective responsibility,” said Michigan House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township. “The voices of leadership matter. We’re not just putting ourselves at risk when we choose not to be vaccinated. It’s like looking at a red light. The reason we have them is because we’re all better off when we all stop at red lights.”

Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, agreed.

“We’re in a moment here in our state and our country where inspiration, where encouraging folks to think about the we, not necessarily the me, is a much stronger way to do things,” he said. “I’m very confident we’re going to reach that 70 percent.”

As of Thursday, at least 55 percent of eligible adults had already received a first shot in 11 of Michigan’s 83 counties. But in 19 other counties, fewer than 40 percent of residents had received a first dose. (The vast majority of vaccines given in Michigan are the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, typically given three or four weeks apart.)

Michigan is sitting on more than $10 billion in unspent federal COVID-19 aid, and Lasinski urged Republicans to partner with Democrats on a plan to use some of that money to fund a public service announcement campaign or other commercials to encourage vaccinations.

The state’s GOP-led Legislature has approved several COVID spending plans with vaccine and test funding that Whitmer has signed into law, but leaders have refused to negotiate those bills with the governor, making clear they will not do so until she agrees to negotiate on COVID-19 restrictions.

That’s slowed the appropriations process, and Whitmer has vetoed some relief spending that Republicans made contingent upon her ceding pandemic authority. But with another surge of federal stimulus funding heading into the state, Wentworth signaled Friday that the GOP will continue to use the budget process as leverage to seek policy concessions.

“I want the administration at the table when we’re negotiating the budget,” he said. “At the same time, the Legislature has to be at the table” to help create the “path of how we’re going to get out of this pandemic.”

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