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No new restrictions from Whitmer, as state on track to hit record hospitalizations this month

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer standing at a podium, wearing a mask, in front of a TV screen

Governor Gretchen Whitmer did not announce any new COVID-19 restrictions at a press conference Thursday, and instead repeated previous pleas for personal responsibility, even as the CEOs of several of Michigan’s major health systems say the state is on track to break hospitalization records before the end of the month.  

“We are in the worst part of this pandemic to date,” Whitmer said. “This is the moment that medical experts have been warning us about and dreading since the beginning of this pandemic. Here's what we are up against: Our case numbers are skyrocketing here in Michigan. The curve that we had flattened? Right now, this curve is a straight line. And it is straight up.”

While Whitmer says her administration is having “ongoing discussions” and “considering all actions that we can take to keep Michiganders safe,” she didn’t mention any specific measures under consideration. Asked by reporters why she wasn’t issuing further restrictions immediately, such as a stay at home order or tightening the size of social gatherings allowed, Whitmer said she was “watching the numbers.”

“If these numbers continue on the trajectory we're on, we will be having to take additional steps,” the governor said. “There's no question...it may be necessary for us to take some quick action here.”

But Whitmer said she’d seen little indication Republican leaders in the Legislature are willing to take new actions, or even offer a plan of their own, despite public statements about bipartisanship. 

“With COVID cases on the rise in MI, we clearly need a more effective strategy to combat the virus,” Michigan House Republicans’ Twitter account said Wednesday. “Our highest court, and the millions who voted last week, want the gov and Legislature at the same table. So let's find sensible solutions. Together.”

So far, Republicans have rejected Whitmer’s requests for legislation requiring masks. While the current state health department orders already mandate masks, the governor says such legislation would show “bipartisan support” and boost compliance. And Republican lawmakers canceled their Thursday session, the Detroit Free Press reports, saying there were no “time sensitive” issues that needed to be addressed

“If you want to ask the Legislature if they've got some additional actions they're willing or interested in taking, I too would be interested in the answer,” Whitmer told reporters Thursday. “Because I've not gotten one when I've asked the question.”

What’s at stake

If nothing changes, another 5,000 people will die in Michigan before the end of December, according to a model developed by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Georgia Tech. The governor referred to this model in her previous COVID press conference. Since then, Michigan’s death rates have outpaced what the model predicted for the last several days.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s Chief Medical Executive, said at the Thursday press conference that the “virus is out of control” in Michigan, with more than 10% of tests coming back positive.

Earlier on Thursday, leaders from Spectrum, Beaumont, Henry Ford Health System, and Munson Healthcare, as well as others, said the state’s hospitals are in crisis. Some are nearing capacity, while others are concerned about increasing staffing shortages, new issues getting testing supplies, and potentially having to stop elective procedures.

“None of us want to go through the shutdown and the brute force of what happened in the spring,” said Beaumont CEO John Fox. “I don’t think we don't need to do that. But I do think that government and frankly, all of our communities, play a critical role in reinforcing the way that we can control this virus.”

Henry Ford Health System’s CEO, Wright Lassiter III, said “it remains to be seen” whether asking people to adhere to public health guidance, despite increasing pandemic fatigue and deep political polarization of actions around the virus, will reverse the current trend.

“[If not] then there may be other steps that end up being necessary,” Lassiter said. “But I would agree with John that those steps would likely would not be...simply to have a broad based shutdown, but to look very specifically at where cases may be happening, and are there measures that could be taken in very specific places?”

What can Whitmer actually do?

More than 1,500 Michigan lives could be saved by the end of December if an eight-week stay-at-home order were issued today, according to estimates from the Massachusetts General Hospital’s model.

But that appears unlikely, if not impossible, given the current political gridlock in Lansing. And Whitmer’s own emergency powers wererestricted by the Michigan Supreme Court last month.

“I think it seems unlikely that things are going to continue at the same level of restrictions we have now,” says Zach Gorchow, executive editor and publisher of Gongwer News Service. “I don't have any insight into what the governor's thinking, or what legal mechanisms she might be able to use following the Supreme Court ruling that she can't unilaterally keep Michigan under a state of emergency.”

But Gorchow says Whitmer could still issue a state of emergency; albeit a short lived one.

“It would only last for 28 days because the Legislature would have to agree to an extension. And I think it's pretty clear they will not...I’m sure the Republicans would try to march right back into court [and] claim this is an end run around the previous decision.

“But by the time it worked its way through the courts, maybe a couple, two, three weeks have gone by. The governor would probably say, ‘That's fine. I was able to do three weeks of restriction.’ The question is, would the public sector adhere to it or would they not? I don’t know.”

In Massachusetts earlier this month, Governor Charlie Baker instituted a stay-at-home order from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., as well as additional restrictions on restaurants, liquor stores, and social gatherings.

On Thursday, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot imposed a “10-person limit on weddings, funerals and other events,” and urged people to stay home.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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