Whitmer: COVID-19 cases surging due to sports, young people

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Friday that student athletes will be required to be tested before practices and competitions due to the latest surge in Michigan’s COVID-19 cases largely associated with sports teams. 

Case rates across the board have been increasing in Michigan for the last four weeks, but the 10 to 19 age group has seen the largest increase.

“Those in K-12 settings exceeded the number in long term care facilities,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) chief deputy for health. “Now this is a testament to how well we have done with vaccinating our staff in our residents and long term care facilities, but it also speaks to the risk we see with some of the activities children in this age group are engaging in.”

Under a recent update to the state’s gathering and mask mandate order, there will be an increase in testing for athletes ages 13 to 19 in order to participate in sports.

In January and February, local health department’s identified 315 outbreaks associated with different sports teams, including clubs, schools and recreational sports.  Whitmer has estimated that about 97% of schools were offering in-person learning at the beginning of March.

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“Let Them Play,” a Michigan group advocating to put an end to COVID-19 restrictions against high school sports, filed a lawsuit against the state in February aimed at reopening contact sports for students. 

Days later, Whitmer announced that because of the decrease in COVID-19 cases the state was seeing at that time sports teams could resume their seasons. 

Whitmer said Friday the state doesn’t have any plans to roll out any other restrictions for sports teams at this time.

“We knew when we did [allow contact sports] we would increase the risk of spread and that’s what we’re seeing,” Whitmer said. “The difference is right now we know a lot more about this virus and we are ramping up our vaccinations, but we are going to watch it closely because these variants are very concerning.”

Michigan has the second-most confirmed cases of the more infectious B-117 variant, only behind Florida, with 756 cases. There are also two cases of the B-1351 variant in Michigan. 

In total, Michigan reports 618,421 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 15,835 related deaths. About 2.1 million Michigan residents have now been vaccinated, accounting for 25.6% of the state’s population 16 and older.

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In the past four weeks, the COVID-19 positivity rate has continually increased and is now at 6.2%. This metric is up 177% from the mid-February low but remains below the December high of 19.4%.  

The state’s case rate is also up 77% since mid-February and hospital capacity is up 25% from the end of February.

“We could potentially be at the beginning of another surge in Michigan,” Khaldun said. 

The state has a goal to get 70% of Michigander ages 16 years and older vaccinated. Currently, more than  3.3 million doses of vaccines have been administered to Michiganders so far, and over 26% of people ages 16 and up have had their first dose.

Whitmer announced earlier this month that any Michigander over the age of 16 will be able to get the vaccine by April 5.

Springtime events create concern about COVID-19 outbreaks

Much like this time last year, the springtime and warm weather brings with it the concern that Michigander will feel compelled to travel, gather in group settings and ignore safety protocols. 

“We’re always concerned when there are events that attract lots of people together, where perhaps masks are not worn throughout the whole gathering,” Whitmer said. “This is what happens around St Patrick’s Day, it’s what happens during March Madness and it’s what happens during spring break. And so we are concerned because this uptick in our numbers is something that’s very serious, and we all have to take this seriously.”

Khaldun said the state is working with schools to increase testing after spring break.

The DHHS announced Friday it is allowing up to 20% capacity in outdoor stadiums and arenas that establish infection control plans. 

Stadiums and areas must also post mitigation plans publicly, send infection control plans to the local health department and the DHHS at least seven days before scheduled events and administer a testing program for all players. 

The changes to the order go into effect Monday and will remain in effect through  April 19.    

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Questions remain around former DHHS director resignation

In January, former DHHS Director Robert Gordon abruptly resigned from the position, and state leaders were tight-lipped about the reasoning for his departure. He received a severance of more than $155,000.

On Thursday, the Whitmer administration and Gordon announced they had agreed to drop the confidentiality clause in their separation agreement, but Gordon hasn’t agreed to testify in front of the House Oversight Committee.

Whitmer said the reasoning behind dropping the confidentiality clause was that she believes “conversation around transparency is important, and you know, we don’t have anything to hide.”

When asked further about the former director’s resignation, Whitmer said she has “said all I’m going to say about director Gordon’s departure.”