Coronavirus cases climb to 45, casinos closing

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update, March 15, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

In a press conference with other state officials Sunday evening, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the total cases of COVID-19 has risen to 45 — and notably, one of the newest cases is a young person.

The updated number is 12 more cases than Saturday. The first two positive cases in Michigan were detected less than a week ago.

A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

Whitmer announced she is working with the state Gaming Control Board to temporarily close commercial casinos.

There are 26 casinos in Michigan, but 23 of those are Native American-owned and operated and are therefore regulated by their local tribal government and the National Indian Gaming Commission. This would ostensibly mean that casino closings ordered by the state would only apply to the three non-tribal casinos in Detroit.

“It’s my understanding that the Gaming Control Board is working diligently to put a policy together and to enforce it. … There’s a lot of close contact in the casino and I think that’s why it’s front and center in a lot of conversations that are happening across the country,” Whitmer said.

Noting that she has seen “incredibly disturbing” photos on social media of heavily crowded bars and restaurants over the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, Whitmer also alluded to possible statewide restrictions that could be implemented soon on that front.

Michigan now has 33 coronavirus cases, many bars still jammed for St. Patrick’s Day weekend

“Certainly at the local level, there are some decisions being made, but I think you’ll see some at the state level in short order,” Whitmer said.

Earlier on Sunday, the governors of two other Great Lakes states, Ohio and Illinois, moved to close down bars and restaurants entirely to prevent the spread of the disease.

Testing overload

According to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the 45 positive tests for COVID-19 so far are just the tip of the iceberg and many more results are forthcoming.

But the state lab is only able to run about 115 tests a day for the disease.

“There are far more than that that are being received by our facility every day, and so we do have a capacity challenge,” Khaldun said.

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She said that this overload has led to the state already having to prioritize who to test. People with symptoms and those who are at higher risk are tested first — and even then, results are generally not known until 48 to 72 hours later.

Khaldun also said there is evidence of community spread in Michigan, so the lab testing data can only reveal so much about how many people are actually carrying COVID-19 in Michigan.

“The number is growing every day. … We know that there are many people who still have not yet been tested and may be sick, which is why our hospitals and private labs are working fast to bring more testing capacity online,” Khaldun said. 

She added that Michigan is requesting testing supplies from the federal government on a “daily basis, and hospitals and private labs are starting to launch testing capabilities of their own to help keep up with the volume of tests.

Defending school closures

Whitmer took a moment to defend her earlier order for Michigan’s K-12 schools to close until April 5, something endorsed by state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), but has received some blowback.

As of Sunday, 27 states including Michigan have announced temporary school closures to some degree.

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Whitmer said that while she understands how hard it will be for school staff and families alike, she feels it was the right thing to do — especially since the latest round of testing saw a school-age child testing positive for COVID-19, and in recent days several individuals who work at schools were also found to have the disease.

“The matter is we’ve had a few people test positive for COVID-19 who were teaching or had some sort of a role in schools. In this group of 12 that have come back positive today, we know that there is a younger person in that group,” Whitmer said.

“And so it, I believe, is evidence that closing our schools in this moment was the right thing to do.”

Federal support

Whitmer also urged President Trump to take federal action in response to the COVID-19.

The governor noted that the U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation Friday to respond to the crisis, which means it’s now up to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to get the chamber back in session and make sure the bill makes it to Trump’s desk.

“I hope that [Trump] signs it immediately,” Whitmer said. “We are already planning to make use of the new law as soon as it is signed. This is an important first step to provide states like Michigan with badly needed relief. There is much more that we will need from the federal government, but this is an important start.”

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Whitmer also called on Trump to declare a federal disaster. This would trigger disaster unemployment assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for some Michigan workers, including those who are self-employed, independent contractors and work in the hospitality industry.

Responding to a question about whether there are any plans to restrict air travel to and from Michigan, Whitmer noted that any flight restrictions will also need to come from the federal government.

Whitmer suggested that the topic may be discussed when she and other governors speak with Vice President Mike Pence remotely on Monday for a COVID-19 update..

Changing knowledge

Whitmer and Khaldun urged Michiganders to take the outbreak seriously for the sake of public health. They advised everyone to assume they may be carrying the virus, even if they feel fine.

And with the research on COVID-19 and best practices on “flattening the curve” of the outbreak evolving rapidly, Whitmer also noted that rather than substituting handshakes for elbow bumps – like the state had encouraged just five days ago – the most recent science suggests that people should instead aim for no physical contact at all, and instead maintain a six-foot separation between them and others.

“… Proactive community mitigation and social distancing strategies are what is necessary to keep the spread of this disease in check,” Khaldun said. “The situation is rapidly evolving, and we will continue to monitor the situation so we can slow the spread of the disease in Michigan as much as possible.”

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Emergency measures for courts

Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack announced earlier on Sunday that trial courts around the state will now have the authority to implement emergency measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This adds on similar recommendations from McCormack earlier last week.

Those measures could include:

  • Adjourning civil and criminal matters where the defendant is not in custody
  • Maximizing the use of technology, videoconferencing, electronic filing and other remote forms of participation
  • Reducing the number of cases to be heard at any given time
  • Waiving strict adherence to adjournment rules and procedural time requirements
  • Coordinating with local probation departments for more discretion in monitoring probationers
  • Closing the court to the public entirely
  • Other measures they deem necessary to protect public health

The emergency measures will be effective through April 3.