Whitmer: Michigan could see 1,000 COVID-19 deaths a week without action*

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khladun give an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

As Michigan’s COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials on Sunday announced new restrictions that will go into effect on Wednesday for three weeks.

“So Dr. [Joneigh Khaldun] shared, and I think [DHHS] Director [Robert] Gordon did, as well, that we’ve got modeling that shows, if we don’t take aggressive action now we will get to 1,000 deaths a week,” Whitmer told reporters on Monday. “ … We have 8,000 deaths total for the last nine months. To think that we could be 1,000 deaths a week in the coming month, or months, is devastating.”

Whitmer added that there could be 20,000 more deaths between now and February. 

On Saturday, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported 7,072 new COVID-19 cases, following a sharp uptick in cases and hospitalizations this fall. Michigan has more than 251,000 cases and almost 8,000 deaths. There’s been a national explosion in cases, with more than 11 million people testing positive for COVID-19. There have been 246,000 deaths.

It’s not a sweeping stay-home order, which Whitmer instituted in March at the beginning of the pandemic in Michigan. But with an eye toward Thanksgiving and winter holidays, indoor residential gatherings will be restricted to two households.

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The order also will pause dine-in service at bars and restaurants, suspend in-person learning at high schools and colleges, halt non-professional sports and temporarily close movie theaters, bowling alleys, casinos and ice rinks. 

“As we’re thinking about gathering for Thanksgiving, those decisions will impact whether or not we lose 20,000 more Michiganders in the next couple of months,” she said. “And so, to pull people into a dinner celebration around this holiday, that’s going to really have a huge impact on whether that modeling becomes a reality or if we avoid it.”

Several national health experts praised Michigan’s actions, including Scott Gottlieb, who headed the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) for part of President Trump’s term.

“With much better testing, treatments, awareness; we can avert broad shutdowns by taking targeted steps now. Michigan went first. The best results will be by coordinating actions,” he wrote on Twitter.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Obama, tweeted, “Excellent, evidence-based, nuanced action from Michigan. This is exactly the kind of action that can best balance saving lives and preserving livelihoods. We know how to bring the economy back to life. We don’t know how to bring people back to life.”

However, Whitmer received criticism from GOP legislators, like Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), who wants to impeach the governor — something that’s very unlikely, as it would take a two-thirds of senators do remove her (which the GOP does not have).

She also was slammed by national figures like Scott Atlas, a fellow at the right-wing Hoover Institute and Trump’s top COVID-19 adviser who opposes restrictions and has pushed “herd immunity,” which is not backed by medical professionals. In response to Whitmer’s actions, he tweeted Sunday night, “The only way this stops is if people rise up. You get what you accept. #FreedomMatters #StepUp.”

Whitmer was the subject of a far-right assassination plot foiled last month by federal and state officials that was organized by opponents of her COVID-19 orders they considered to be “tyranny.”

During a CNN interview Sunday night, Whitmer said she wouldn’t be “bullied.”

“We know that the White House likes to single us out here in Michigan, me out in particular. I’m not going to be bullied into not following reputable scientists and medical professionals,” the governor told Wolf Blitzer.

During a call with reporters on Monday morning, Whitmer called Atlas’ statement “incredibly reckless.”

“You know, it’s just incredibly reckless, considering everything that has happened, everything that is going on,” she said. “We really all need to be focused on the public health crisis that is ravaging our country and that poses a very real threat to every one of us and so to see this as just really shocking, but I’m not going to dwell on it because I got a job to do.”

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The Advance asked Whitmer if she believes she has the legal authority to do another stay-home order after the October Supreme Court ruling that tossed the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act (EPGA), which she used to issue her emergency COVID-19 orders. Since then, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued epidemic orders re-instituting a mask order, restricting gathering sizes and closure of some businesses.

“Yes,” Whitmer said. “And in fact, I think it’s important to know that in Justice [David] Viviano owes opinion, he acknowledged that these epidemic powers are the correct source of executive authority around keeping people safe in the midst of this pandemic. So I read with interest, a tweet by the Senate GOP that says these efforts are in or not consistent with the Supreme Court when actually, the opposite is true. This is precisely the power that one of the justices pointed to in terms of actions we can and should be taken throughout this pandemic.

Whitmer was asked if there were any actions she could take if the Supreme Court hadn’t ruled the EPGA was unconstitutional.

Whitmer said that her administration has reviewed all the actions taken over the last eight months aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19. She said the Legislature’s action was needed to extend unemployment insurance and allow online meetings under the Open Meetings Act.

But she noted that she believes “that at this juncture, most of it can be done through these epidemic powers.”

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The Advance asked if the Legislature authorized another state of emergency if there anything more that she could do in terms of COVID-19 actions.

“I think the value in that would be that it would go a long way toward, I think, healing the political divide that has become so prevalent in the midst of this public health crisis,” Whitmer said.

“So I don’t know that there are specific powers that would become available that we’re not in a position to meet needs right now. But I do think that it would go a long way toward really getting people of different philosophies to rise to this challenge together.”

The governor said that while the state has a mask mandate and doesn’t legally need the Legislature to codify it, “it would be helpful if they did because we could say, ‘We’re all in this together; we’re all going to rise to this challenge; we all recognize that a mask is the most important tool we have. Let’s all do this together.’ I think there would be big value in that.” 

Whitmer added that “just like when the president or Scott Atlas continues to espouse theories that are not based in, in science and are not accurate and are not consistent, it undermines our ability to bring everyone to this.”

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She was asked about the impact of losing the misdemeanor penalty that came with executive orders issued under the EPGA has hurt compliance from the public.

“I think the biggest setback has been the confusion that was created by the Supreme Court weighing in,” she said. “The decision was, I mean, mind-boggling to be honest, and it came down on a party line, [which] I think, undermines all of our confidence in our institutions that should not be partisan in nature, which is the judiciary. It was really, I think, a moment that we are all paying a price for frankly.”

She noted there’s still a mask mandate, but “there’s confusion in the public. People are showing up in businesses and getting in fights with small business owners because they don’t think that they have to wear a mask anymore. 

“Now the worst part of it is that the virus has changed as a result of any of this. It is still potent, it is still almost omnipresent in Michigan, and it is still a very real threat to all of us,” Whitmer added. 

She said enforcement of orders needs to happen “largely at the local level, but it’s really on all of us that our strength and our response is individuals making choices that are informed by science and geared toward keeping themselves protected and their families protected and our small businesses open.” 

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Whitmer was asked how long it would take to see the impact of the new orders, which are set to be in place for three weeks.

The governor called it a “very targeted approach” and stressed that epidemiologists and public health experts were consulted, as they have been “every step of the way.” 

“If everyone does their part, we will see a benefit in the next few weeks,” Whitmer said. “If people are lax or have Thanksgiving events where they contribute to spread, our numbers will not change significantly or could continue on this terrible trajectory that they’ve been on for the last week or so. So this is what we’re hoping that if people rise to this challenge and meet it together and we push our numbers down, so we can avoid more aggressive measures.”

Whitmer was asked if it was a mistake to reopen casinos, gyms and other indoor activities and if her decision was influenced by the pressure from the business community or others. 

“No … we are navigating a novel virus. Nine months ago, we didn’t know how critical a simple face covering was. Nine months ago, we did not have PPE [personal protection equipment]. Nine months ago, we didn’t have therapeutics that have come online, like Remdesivir. Nine months ago, we were getting overwhelmed in our hospital systems. “We really successfully pushed our curve down; we saved thousands of lives. Our reengagement was one of the best ones in the country; our economic recovery was one of the strongest in the nation.” 

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Whitmer said that the actions the state took were “supported by the science and the testing available.” But she said that people are fatigued by “the longevity of this crisis” and more people being inside during colder weather, which has “combined to make this a much more dangerous moment.” 

She was asked about her level of interaction with GOP legislative leaders in the last couple of weeks and how engaged they have been in the process.

Whitmer said “a lot, actually,” adding that they’ve been included in the administration’s COVID-19 modeling calls with epidemiologists and health officials. She said those experts are available to Republicans for followups, as well. And she’s been doing quadrant calls with state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).

Whitmer was asked if she has a “wish list” besides a mask mandate for the Lame Duck legislative session that takes place after an election before the term ends on Dec. 31.

“You know what, I think one of the few things that Sen. Shirkey has said recently with which I agree is that it should be a lame lame duck,” she said.

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Whitmer added that she “would love to find some common ground with them. They have had eight months with which they could have been passing legislation geared toward addressing the public health crisis that we have. They haven’t done anything.”

Whitmer said she asked leaders again to codify the mask mandate, but they declined and “offered nothing else up in terms of actions that they might take other than doing some public service announcements. So that’s why I think when I see the criticisms, it just doesn’t seem particularly serious, because they haven’t done anything and they haven’t offered up anything.” 

There’s been another outbreak of COVID-19 in the Legislature, with three lawmakers confirming last week they tested positive: Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Twp.), Rep. Ann Bolin (R-Brighton) and Rep. Scott VanSingel (R-Grant). Some lawmakers, staff and reporters were in contact with Bollin and LaSata while they had COVID-19. There may be more lawmakers with coronavirus, but no other cases have been publicly disclosed.

“I think that they’ve recklessly endangered their colleagues and all of you,” she said. “If I were a member of the press, I would be furious, because they recklessly endangered all of you by showing up, not observing the best protocols not even wearing their masks correctly and then ultimately finding out that, whether it’s because there’s some election night party or because some senator doesn’t want to tell you, that they have COVID — possibly exposing you all to COVID. It’s outrageous and dangerous.”

Correction: The headline has been updated with the accurate timeframe.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.