Michigan Republicans grill state health chief on COVID shutdown orders


Republican legislators and the state’s health department director agree that COVID orders are grinding down a weary state, even possibly driving up suicides. But they butted heads Thursday on a solution.

Anxiety, job loss, suicide and lost learning — Michigan’s pandemic orders are grinding down weary residents, a reality that must be more heavily factored into decisions about continued shutdowns, state Republican legislators argued Thursday.

Robert Gordon, the state’s top health official and the recipient of GOP complaints, acknowledged the widespread pain and anxiety caused by the coronavirus and the state’s aggressive restrictions to stop it. But in morning testimony in Lansing, Gordon argued that the key to returning students to classrooms, opening up more businesses and restoring the economy is controlling “the deadly disease that is rampant in our state.”

“The stress is from living with a virus that is out of control and that is causing our loved ones to end up in hospitals and lose their lives,” Gordon said. “The mental health challenge right now is a challenge that has persisted, and it’s gotten worse because the virus has gotten worse.”

“If we can get the virus under control, how much better will all of us feel? How much of a relief will it be not to worry about the safety of ourselves, our children, our parents?” Gordon said.

Trying to curb a surge in cases in mid-November, Gordon’s MDHHS ordered a three-week shutdown of indoor service at bars and restaurants, closed high school classrooms and reduced capacity at retail stores, among other actions. 

The order is effective through Tuesday.

Issuing statewide restrictions isn’t easy, he said; decisions are based on “multiple factors” such as case trends, positivity rates, hospital capacity, conversations with hospital leadership, measures of mobility and trends in other states.

Gordon declined to say whether the state will extend or change the order, but he made clear that virus concerns remain high.

“With the levels of spread that we have in Michigan right now, there is no way to make people sitting around the table, close together and with masks off for an extended period of time a safe activity,” Gordon said.

Still, decisions haven’t been made, Gordon said.

When pressed by Rep. Matt Hall, a Battle Creek Republican, Gordon said, “We will report decisions when we make decisions.”  

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the key to restoring the state’s economy, mental health, and schools is in getting COVID-19 under control. (House TV screenshot)

Republican lawmakers Thursday renewed arguments that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has not fairly balanced COVID case totals and related data against other critical variables that sometimes are less measurable, such as increased anxiety or lost learning as schools are closed to in-person classes.

The legislators, on the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, questioned Gordon Thursday on why some businesses were forced to close while others were not. And they wondered why — since children appear to be less vulnerable to severe COVID infections — in-person learning has been shut down in some schools.

The back-and-forth at times grew clipped and revealed rising frustrations. Gordon answered numerous questions on school orders. 

Under an earlier agreement between Whitmer and Republican lawmakers, decisions on whether to hold in-school classes or teach students remotely during the pandemic were generally left to local school districts. But in his three-week November order, Gordon temporarily closed high schools to in-school learning, citing a crushing wave of new infections.  

“I'm tired of you playing with our kids’ lives,” Sen. Kim LaSata, a Republican from Bainbridge Township, told Gordon. Decisions about in-person learning should be left up to local districts and parents, she said.

“Teachers, I know, are saying ‘Oh, we shouldn't be in school. We shouldn't be in school.’ Well if they don't want to be a school, then don't ... be in school,” she said. “Again, let it be up to the schools and the parents.” 

She asked Gordon how many children had died of COVID-19 in Michigan that were otherwise healthy. Gordon responded that the larger problem isn’t the health threat posed to children directly, but their capacity to spread the virus to more vulnerable adults. 

“Kids come home. They get their parents sick. They get their grandparents sick. And their parents and grandparents can die.” 

“Isn’t that the parents’ choice?” LaSata interjected.

Republican Kim LaSata said it should be up to parents and districts — not the state — whether children attend in-person learning. (Michigan House TV screenshot)

Gordon agreed with LaSata that “reopening schools should be our priority.” But he also challenged her — as Gov. Whitmer has challenged Republicans — to support a state mask mandate as a way to continue in-class learning more safely.

LaSata said she would not, arguing that the state shouldn’t police such efforts. 

State Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, questioned Gordon about suicides, noting that continued limitations under pandemic orders are driving up mental health issues across the state.

“When you are making your decisions on closings and all of that, do you factor in that information as to cause and reaction, cause and effect? Because it's there,” O’Malley said, adding later: “It is a terrible thing to lose someone from COVID, but it is also a terrible thing to lose someone because of the effects of lockdowns and isolation.”

Suicide data lag and up-to-date numbers aren’t yet available, Gordon said. 

“So you have lots of science and data, but you don't know how many people are killing themselves?” O’Malley said.

Gordon said the state is tracking other measures of mental health, such as visits to emergency rooms for opioid use. He did not elaborate on the data, but agreed that the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health.

Hall, the Battle Creek Republican, questioned Gordon on the legalities of his agency’s pandemic order — a line of questioning that prompted Gordon’s response: “It sounds like you’re preparing to bring a lawsuit, Representative.”

Hall also later pressed Gordon on the validity of the state’s death data, asking for a more rigorous review of cases that would discern how many deaths were from COVID-19 only and not complicated by underlying conditions. Doing so would build “more trust in the numbers,” Hall said.

But Gordon noted that the state is following CDC guidelines, and that staff who would be tasked with such a data query are the same staff now getting the state ready for vaccine distribution once it is approved.

Hall’s request not only would divert staff from other priorities, Gordon said, but is based on a misplaced distrust: “The premise of the question is that doctors and the CDC are wrong,” he said.

Under questioning by O’Malley, Gordon said the state is not considering making the vaccine mandatory, once one is approved.

“Is the state, are you, looking at or considering a vaccine mandate?” O’Malley asked.

“No,” Gordon said simply.

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Herd Mentality
Thu, 12/03/2020 - 9:02pm

The legislators, on the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, questioned Gordon Thursday on why some businesses were forced to close while others were not. And they wondered why — since children appear to be less vulnerable to severe COVID infections — in-person learning has been shut down in some schools.
Because that is where infections happen more often, and children may not be as susceptible, but they do pass it on. Hello?

“I'm tired of you playing with our kids’ lives,” Sen. Kim LaSata, a Republican from Bainbridge Township, told Gordon.

“Kids come home. They get their parents sick. They get their grandparents sick. And their parents and grandparents can die.”

“Isn’t that the parents’ choice?” LaSata interjected.
Is there any personal responsibility in that statement? Is there any concern or care for others? No. It is blatant apathy that parents decisions may cause their or their own parents or others death. There is NO looking out for your fellow family, let alone town member, city member, fellow American. They don't care. It's all about them. Welcome to .........the machine.

Pink Floyd- The Machine

There is no evidence, facts, statistics they will accept.....even when they die themselves.....they deny it.


The Division Bell has been rung

Who rang it first? Who has rung it louder? Who has rung it more often? Both sides?

Thu, 12/03/2020 - 9:04pm

Wow, Michigan Republican's have some gall. When I worked for the State, Governor Engler eliminated almost all the Mental Health Funding out of budgetary concerns. Just imagine, throwing mentally ill people back out on the streets because they cost too much. But look at todays Republicans showing "fake concern" for our mental health. Why don't they just go home and tell their friends and neighbors to put a mask on and shut the hell up. Stop fooling around. This pandemic hasn't even begun its devastation. This winter we will experience a COVID-19 Vortex not seen in the lifetime of the living. Good thing there is plenty of refrigerated semi-tractor trailers. Maybe call China and see if we can buy some cheap body bags.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 2:18am

I'm ashamed that LaSata is my senator. That line of questioning is ridiculous. If people were able to responsibly protect themselves from this disease, we wouldn't be in this situation. If people weren't more willing to believe anyone who tells them what they want to hear, rather than actual trained experts, we wouldn't be in this situation. If we had representatives who were more concerned about the public welfare, than politics, we wouldn't be in this situation. My friends working in the health care system are exhausted. They want to work normal hours again. They want to feel like they aren't on the verge of malpractice when they're treating their patients because they're so tired and stressed they're constantly worried they're going to make a mistake that costs someone their life. My mental health and my family's mental health has definitely been harmed by this situation, but it's more because I'm exhausted from dealing with my friends who barely graduated from high school trying to tell me that they know more than my friends who are doctors and nurses. I'm exhausted with people telling me that I don't understand the law and how illegal these shutdowns are when I've been an attorney for 20 years. And I'm even more exhausted by my friends who tell me they'd rather spend two hours driving their children to and from schools across the state line than just simply have them wear a darn mask as their local schools have demanded. Somehow, it's less of a burden to waste time and gas on the highways than it is to put a $2 cloth mask over their perfectly healthy kids' noses and mouths. It's all exhausting, and depressing to see so many people who are willing to exert so much energy to help themselves rather than the community as a whole.

Jennifer C
Fri, 12/04/2020 - 3:04pm

I completely share your view, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 4:27am

Ugh, Kim LaSata is such an embarrassment.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 6:42am

It's about time state Republicans started doing their jobs and holding the Whitmer administration accountable for their actions.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 3:09pm

Metaphorically Whitmer is the only adult in the room, a room full of legislators who seem like whiny toddlers.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 8:28am

When Republicans gather in the Michigan capitol and refuse to wear masks EVEN when there is a history of their gatherings as superspreader events, how can you take anything they say seriously, especially with respect to Covid-19-related matters????

Cue Anon Idgits
Fri, 12/04/2020 - 8:38am

It didn't have to be this way. Trumpers sabotaged both our health and our economy with ongoing crazy reckless conspiracy theories. Many people feel hopeless, depressed, and suicidal because of our failed GOP leadership that coddles the Trumpers. We all suffer unnecessarily because Trumpers are selfish and greedy. They are not ignorant. They are cunning, scheming, and lack scruples, morals.

Jerry A
Fri, 12/04/2020 - 3:11pm

But exposing their families seems ignorant, unless they really only care about themselves. Guess I see your point!

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 8:41am

How does lame Hall still have his committee position after the Giuliani farce? I thought Giuliani was given the job.

Herd thinning
Fri, 12/04/2020 - 8:44am

I'm glad the vaccine will not be mandatory. I think the majority are smart enough to want to get the vaccine. The others? Oh well.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 10:45am

And what happens when the staff gets sick and school has to be closed anyway (as has happened in my town)? Michigan Republicans have met the definition of insanity by continuing to bring impossible dreams to fruition regardless of the recklessness of their choices. It's so much easier to create deflection to avoid having to deal reasonable with the one thing that prevents us from getting back to "normal". It's the pandemic, sillies, not Whitmer, not the Democrats, not the scientists, not the doctors. When we are vaccinated things will return to normal. Meanwhile, why don't you generate some ideas to help the people who are suffering the most from this? I know why...because that would be HARD.
It's so much easier just to flap your gums and show your ignorance and refusal to deal with reality.

Just sayin'
Fri, 12/04/2020 - 3:14pm

It also costs money. Republicans think government should be free.

Fri, 12/04/2020 - 6:22pm

If they were honest the GOP legislature would admit they feel like the crazy pastor in Holland who advocates everyone getting COVID-19, just to "get it over with".

Holland pastor under fire after telling congregation to get COVID-19, 'get it over with'

With GOP politicians and GOP religious leaders like these reckless clowns, can anyone NOT be DEPRESSED and thinking about suicide? THEY are leading lambs to slaughter. Reminds me of Jim Jones.