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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Whitmer may reevaluate vaccine benchmarks, if other factors improve

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This week, Michigan passed the first of the COVID-19 vaccination benchmarks set by the Whitmer administration. Now that 55% of eligible Michiganders have had at least one shot, the state will lift in-person workplace restrictions on May 24.

And, the company that operates the Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac is rejecting Whitmer's demand to shut it down. Whitmer had set a deadline of Wednesday, but Enbridge Energy says only the federal government has authority to order a shutdown.

For more, Morning Edition host Doug Tribou talked to Governor Gretchen Whitmer about the rest of the state's COVID benchmarks, and how Michigan is responding to Enbridge's refusal to shut down Line 5.

DOUG TRIBOU: In your update Wednesday on the state's response to COVID-19, you acknowledged that it's going to be harder to reach that next 60% benchmark. What happens if we do not reach 60% or 70%? What is your plan?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: We always knew our modeling told us that at some point the supply would eclipse demand, and that's where we are. And now our work is really to make sure that we educate the public, answer questions, and ensure people know how easy it is to get access to one of these vaccines, and how important it really is. And that's why we've enlisted the help of the private sector and the public sector. This has to be all hands on deck to educate and facilitate more people getting access to vaccines. And with the 12 to 15 year olds being able to come online we're going to have even more that we can get vaccinated, and that would be good for everyone.

DT: Well, I want to get back to the 12 to 15 year olds in a moment. But I do want to ask you more specifically, what will move the needle from 55 to 60%? What is the most key driver there?

GW: Well, I think it is continuing to do the hard work that our incredible public health team has been doing. And I'm talking about local public health departments, health systems, our doctors. So there's no question that people have some questions. People want to understand a little bit more. And oftentimes that means a conversation directly with their own physician, someone that they trust. And that's why this work is a little slower. But it's absolutely essential that we answer everyone's questions. We share the data so that people understand when you get these vaccines, you've got immunity. You've got the ability to protect yourself and your family and to do a lot of things that we've all been missing out on the last year and a half.

DT: What happens if we don't ever get to that top percentage in the benchmarks of 70%? Do you have to then rethink benchmarks and openings?

GW: Of course, we'll make adjustments if necessary. If we see our positivity rate plummet and our hospitalizations plummet as well and things continue to fall on the vaccination front, we may reevaluate, but at this point, it's too early to say that that's something we'll need to do. We can get to 70%. We've got the supply now, thanks to the Biden administration. We all got to be focused on and trying to get to that mark, because that's really where we have the greatest protection as a community, as a state, and it's really the best thing we can do for our economy as well.

DT: As we touched on a little bit earlier, the CDC has approved the Pfizer vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds. How will making that age group eligible for vaccines affect the reopening plans here in Michigan? And will you adjust benchmarks to factor in those kids?

GW: We know that where we're still seeing spread is in youth sports, amongst younger individuals. And so the more people that are eligible, the better our ability to prevent community spread. And that's ultimately, you know, got to be our mutual goal here. So we want parents to bring their kids in, ask the questions and make sure that they protect their young people in their households because this is really a great opportunity to stay engaged in schools and youth sports, but to do it in the smartest way possible.

As for adjusting the "Vacc to Normal" plan, we're measuring 16 year olds and up. We set these goals early on, and we didn't want to inflate or deflate what we're doing on that front. However, we will be tracking 12 to 15 year olds and sharing that information, and perhaps when those numbers are commensurate with 16 and up, we can roll them in.

DT: You mentioned schools. Would you support adding COVID vaccines to the list of mandatory vaccines for students 12 and older to attend school?

"It's important that we take this time to educate and encourage without trying to force [vaccine] mandates at school." -Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

GW: Well, I think it's important to acknowledge there's not a conversation in Lansing about mandates around the vaccine at this juncture. I know that local districts are having a lot of conversations. We know that our best ability to encourage people availing themselves of these miracles of modern medicine is to educate and to persuade and for people to know that they've got neighbors and loved ones and family members who have gotten the shot. And, the high efficacy is reason enough to push forward and try to get more people vaccinated.

DT: How do you see a difference, though, between the COVID vaccine and the many other vaccines that are already required for kids in schools? What difference do you see there?

GW: Well, I think right now that conversation has got to be between parents and their pediatricians. I support vaccines, and I absolutely know that this is the right thing to do for me and my family. And we've all been vaccinated and I'm so grateful for it. Today is my two weeks out from my second shot. That being said, I think it's important that we take this time to educate and encourage without trying to force mandates at school, at the school level. I think ultimately maybe that's something that down the road, perhaps there's a conversation to be had. But at this juncture, I don't think it's the right step to take because people do have a lot of legitimate questions.

DT: The deadline you set for Enbridge Energy to shut down line five passed at midnight. Enbridge did not comply. You said the state will try to collect any profits from the line starting today. What is the next step for Michigan here?

GW: This line has been in the water long, long beyond what the original easement contemplated. This is a ticking time bomb. And this is the same company that was responsible for one of the largest inland oil spills in the country, and that was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. They've been out of compliance with the easement for a long period of time. And so we've revoked the easement at this point in time. They've signaled they are not going to abide by the law and the court ultimately will make the determination. But we intend to seek disgorgement of profits for trespass.

DT: The pipeline is very much top of mind right now with the Colonial Pipeline hack and shut down. Do you have President Biden's support in the goal of shutting down Line 5?

GW: Well, President Biden and I have had a conversation about this. I can tell you that I have conversations with a lot of different heads of departments and the Biden administration as well to make sure they understand the seriousness of this pipeline. We have to have a backup plan. And right now in Michigan, the pipeline underneath in the Great Lakes is the only plan. And that's why it's so important that we do this work of ensuring that we've got resilience as the backup. And that's precisely what we're doing by getting this line out of the water and building up access to energy for Michiganders in alternative ways as well, because we should learn the lesson of Colonial, and that is we cannot have complete reliance on one source of energy.

Editor's note: Transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview near the top of the page.

Enbridge is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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