The former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and four other health experts on Monday called on Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey to clarify comments that appear to ask Michigan to learn to live with COVID-19 through herd immunity.
“If ‘herd immunity’ were to begin after about 80 percent of the state’s population has been infected, as some believe, then 6.5 million more MIchiganders would still need to contract COVID-19,” according to the letter signed by Thomas Frieden, formerly of the CDC, Dr. Thomas File, Jr., president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and others.
“At the current mortality rate, this would mean more than 30,000 additional deaths.”
MLive quoted him as saying “nobody should be misled here or of the opinion that you can keep it from spreading — it’s going to spread, so we just do the best we can.” He told Bridge it’s time to “live with the virus.”
“He sounded like he was giving up against the virus,” letter author Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told Bridge.
“We don’t believe in giving up. We believe it’s still possible to fight back.”
He authored the letter after Michigan’s health director, Robert Gordon, forwarded him an MLive article about Shirkey’s comments.
Sharfstein said he’s consulted “two or three times” with Whitmer and Michigan officials about the virus. The letter was also signed by Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, and Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine.
“Herd immunity as a concept sounds good as long as it’s other people getting sick,” Sharfstein told Bridge.
The letter asks Shirkey to clarify his remarks “to avoid leaving the impression that a leader of your stature is supporting greater spread of coronavirus as public policy.” It also asked for a public hearing to explore the science behind the virus and the ability to curb its spread.
Shirkey “believes the concept of herd immunity should be part of the discussion moving forward on policies regarding COVID in the state,” his spokesperson, Amber McCann, told Bridge on Monday.
“He is not a medical expert and therefore is open to the research and expertise of professionals who are willing to weigh in on the topic,” McCann said. “I do expect the Senate to have several hearings in the coming days and weeks where medical professionals and others can offer their perspective on best practices."
The letter comes amid uncertainty in Michigan, following a recent state Supreme Court ruling that struck down dozens of executive orders from Whitmer, including some that shut businesses and required masks in public.
In recent weeks, cases and deaths have climbed as older residents are increasingly getting the virus, as hospitalizations have jumped from about 500 statewide to 900 in the past three weeks.
Sen. Curt VanderWall, a Ludington Republican who chairs the Committee on Health Policy and Human Services, said lawmakers are “digging in and trying to learn” about the science.
He echoed Shirkey’s comments on herd immunity and criticized what he called “rash statements” from experts who claim the approach will lead to more deaths.
“Show me where in the world those figures come from,” Vanderwall told Bridge.
Proponents of the herd immunity approach point to Sweden, which has discouraged the use of masks and encouraged residents to live as normal. The nation’s death rate of about 58 per 100,000 residents is less than the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy, but above that of France and Germany.
While the authors of the letter to Shirkey cited 80 percent for herd immunity, other experts have said it could be achieved with about 40 percent of the population.
Michigan has about 150,000 confirmed and suspected cases, less than 2 percent of the population.
VanderWall said Monday he expects his Committee on Health Policy and Human Services to “get more involved” in the pandemic response after the Supreme Court ruling. He noted the panel last week heard testimony on a House bill that would provide legal immunity for health care providers and facilities that perform pandemic-related services, similar to protections Whitmer had put in place through executive orders.
While Shirkey has already written off the possibility of a mask mandate passing the Senate, VanderWall told Bridge he would not rule out a hearing on “the benefits and the flaws” of the policy, which Gordon has continued through public health orders.
But VanderWall made clear he does not personally think a mask mandate “benefits” Michigan citizens.
“We have a constitution,” and government mandates “take citizens’ rights away,” he said.
Sen. Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids, ranking Democrat on the health committee, called Shirkey’s recent comments on COVID-19 “incredibly irresponsible.”
She said Republican leaders who “set the agenda” have not signaled plans to hold the kind of wide-ranging COVID response policy hearings requested by the public health experts.
Hearings would be “a really important step to take in terms of developing our policy and our response if indeed the Legislature’s going to take an active role in that,” she said.
— Bridge reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this article.