Whitmer calls for voluntary 2-week pause for schools, sports, as COVID-19 cases continue to surge

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a press conference | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Michigan has reached the milestone of 5 million vaccinations administered, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expressed concern Friday that the state is now experiencing its largest surge of COVID-19 cases yet and has become a “national hotspot” — fueled in part by the newer, more contagious B-1.1.7. variant of the disease.

However, Whitmer did not announce new health restrictions as a result of the surge at her first COVID press update since March 19. As of Thursday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reports a total of 723,297 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 16,400 total deaths in the state.

Instead, Whitmer asked that all Michiganders voluntarily do their part to control further spread, including an ask for all high schools to voluntarily go remote for two weeks past spring break, and for youth sports to voluntarily suspend games and practices for two weeks.

“This is my ask to you, the people of Michigan. Please redouble your efforts on these fronts for the next couple of weeks,” Whitmer said during a press conference. “… We cannot afford a strikeout, miss the shot or fumble the ball now. It’s everybody against COVID, but we have to keep going until we win. That’s the nature of this virus: The second we let our guard down, it comes roaring back.”

Many health officials, including those at the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have recently urged new, stronger health restrictions in Michigan including restrictions in youth contact sports. Since winter, Whitmer and DHHS officials have largely stuck instead to a strategy of ramping up vaccines instead of imposing new restrictions.

CDC urges new health restrictions in Michigan amid surge

The Democratic governor also called on residents to exercise personal responsibility by opting for takeout, rather than dining in at restaurants, and other choices that are less at-risk for COVID-19 spread. Whitmer said she is not codifying these recommendations into policy or mandates because unlike the beginning of the pandemic when not much was known, Michiganders now have the knowledge and guidelines available to stay safe.

“It is less of a policy problem that we have and more of a compliance and variance issue that we are confronting as a state,” Whitmer said. “Policy change alone won’t change the tide. We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.”

She added, however, that she is “not taking any actions off the table.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who among other GOP state lawmakers have opposed the Whitmer administration’s health orders for more than a year, said in a tweet Friday that he is encouraged by Whitmer’s new strategy.

“For the better part of a year, Republicans have insisted this would be more effective than trying to mandate healthy behaviors. I’m encouraged that the governor seems to have come to this realization as well,” Shirkey said.

Whitmer also said the state has asked the federal government for more vaccines, and specifically for President Joe Biden’s administration to create a vaccine surge program that sends more vaccine supplies to states experiencing serious outbreaks.

The Biden administration has so far not taken up Whitmer’s request, even after she asked the president about it directly on a phone call Thursday night with other governors.

“The Biden administration does have a strategy,” Whitmer said, especially compared to the “lack of national strategy” from former President Donald Trump. “And, by and large, it is working. As should be expected, though, in an undertaking of this magnitude, there are shortcomings and different points of view.”

Whitmer said that Michigan needs more of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine especially, since it is single-dose which is ideal for vaccinating both younger people and individuals who may have difficulties traveling back for a second dose.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical officer and chief deputy director for health for the DHHS, said that Michigan is now on track to see a greater surge in COVID-19 cases than the spike in fall 2020.

“We are now at 515 cases per million people. That’s four times where we were in the middle of February,” Khaldun said, adding that the percentage of positive tests are also four times higher than mid-February rates.

While COVID cases, deaths, hospitalizations rise, state sticks with vaccination strategy, not new restrictions

Because of this, many hospitals are considering canceling elective surgeries and implementing other plans to prepare for a surge.

With plenty of new outbreaks across the state that DHHS is monitoring, Khaldun said that the new variants of COVID-19 are becoming more and more plentiful.

“Our lab has identified 2,262 of these variant cases in 60 counties across the state. And there are likely many more that we don’t even know about. … What we do know is likely an undercount,” Khaldun.

She stressed that the latest surge is serious and a cause for concern, but there is no need to panic as Michiganders already know how to best control the spread. Khaldun urged everyone 16 and older to get vaccinated as soon as possible, and to get tested before and after traveling anywhere.

Whitmer noted that if all goes to plan and there are no setbacks along the way, Michigan could theoretically reach its goal of vaccinating 70% of its population 16 and older by mid-May.

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