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Bridge Michigan
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Top Michigan Republican will skip Mackinac conference over vaccine mandate

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, objects to the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vaccine mandate for its annual gathering on Mackinac Island. (Bridge file art)

LANSING — One of Michigan’s most powerful Republican officials is poised to skip an annual gathering of state leaders because of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is "not planning on attending" the Mackinac Policy Conference in September because of "current protocol" requiring attendees to confirm they are vaccinated, spokesperson Abby Walls told Bridge Michigan. 

Shirkey tested positive for COVID-19 late last year and has argued that he now has "naturally acquired immunity," so he has chosen not to get a vaccine. 

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The Detroit Regional Chamber, which organizes the Mackinac Policy Conference and cancelled the event last year because of the pandemic, announced in May that it would require attendees to show proof of vaccination to attend this year's gathering, which was delayed until September.

The chamber confirmed that policy in a Tuesday guidance and said it will use a system called CLEAR Health Pass, which the business group described as a "best-in-class health screening platform … to confirm attendees' proof of vaccination."

Attendees will be asked to download a CLEAR app and enroll in a screening program, beginning next week. Those who refuse to complete the screening can request a full registration refund through Sept. 10. After that, late cancellations will result in a $500 processing fee.

In a Tuesday statement, Shirkey said he was "extremely disappointed" that the Detroit Regional Chamber "opted to rely on an invasive vaccine mandate while dismissing the scientifically proven robustness of naturally acquired immunity."

“It appears the chamber cowed to political science rather than embrace actual science," Shirkey said.

An Emory University study this year found that recovered COVID-19 patients retain "broad and effective longer-term immunity to the disease," but other studies have found that natural immunity may not be as effective against new variants.

The most recent study, based in Kentucky and published last week by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found unvaccinated individuals were more than twice as likely to be reinfected as those who were vaccinated. 

"These findings suggest that among persons with previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, full vaccination provides additional protection against reinfection," authors of that study wrote.

And that's why health officials continue to recommend vaccinations even for people who have already had COVID, said Linda Vail, Health Director for Ingham County. 

"There is some natural immunity after having had COVID, (but) we don't know how long it lasts, and we know that it's not as robust as getting the vaccine," she told Bridge Michigan.

Vaccines also appear to be more effective at combating variants like the Delta variant that is linked to COVID surges in several southern states, Vail added. 

"We will continue to see variants as long as this virus finds a host to replicate in," she said. "We eliminate that, and we are done with variants."

The Detroit Regional Chamber did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Shirkey’s statement or decision to skip the conference. 

In announcing the vaccine mandate in May, Chamber president and CEO Sandy Baruah said the group “takes its responsibility hosting Michigan’s top leadership seriously” and “has the responsibility to handle the event properly.”

The annual gathering typically draws more than 1,700 attendees, including top business and political leaders from both sides of the aisle. But the chamber is limiting attendance to 1,300 people this year and reducing meeting room capacity by 20 percent. 

Keynote speakers for the September conference include Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, General Motors Co. President Mark Reuss and Harvard economist Raj Chetty.

“Given the rise of the Delta variant and increasing COVID-19 case counts across the country and in our state, additional protocols may be necessary to ensure safety,” the chamber said in the Tuesday guidance. “The Chamber will communicate additional protocols and changes to the Conference experience as needed.”

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