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Governor Whitmer Provides Updates On The COVID-19 Pandemic And Response

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Governor Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference Friday morning providing updates on the State's response to COVID-19.

Video Transcript

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Good morning. Today is March 19th. It is Friday. I'm here with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, and wanted to wish you all a happy Friday. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about what life's going to look like as we keep ramping up vaccination and following through on our plan to rebuild and renew our economy.

Michigan's path forward out of the COVID pandemic is clear. We have to keep masking up. We've got to ramp up testing, and we're going to invest billions in federal funds from the Biden administration to help small businesses, support working families, and get our kids back in school, and we got to get vaccinated as soon as it's available to you. These safe, effective vaccines are the key to putting this pandemic behind us, to protecting our families and getting back to normal.

I remain eager to work with everyone who is serious about getting these things done. Once we vaccinate enough Michiganders, we can get back to the pieces of our lives that we miss and treasure most like birthdays and barbecues, family reunions, graduations and proms, pool parties, and family dinners, nights in and nights out, life's biggest milestones and most mundane joys. These are almost within reach. We're getting there, Michigan.

I want to give you a brief update on vaccinations. To date, Michigan has administered 3,310,162 doses of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines, and that number is growing as we speak. And so far, over one in four Michiganders over the age of 16 have gotten their shots. Our goal remains to equitably vaccinate 70% of Michiganders 16 and up.

Just yesterday, I was at Ford Field federal community vaccination site which will administer thousands of additional doses a day for the next eight weeks. These are all great signs of progress. As I've said before, the vaccination process is like a locomotive. It will start slow and cumbersome and frustrating, but it's going to get faster and smoother over time, and we are seeing that because we are rolling here in Michigan now.

So let's talk about cases and variants. My administration and MDHHS, in partnership with local health departments, we're closely monitoring all the data. While we can count up increasing vaccine metrics, we must continue to be wary of the climbing of COVID numbers, too. Cases have been rising since late February. Thankfully, deaths have remained low. And on Wednesday, we had zero new reported deaths for the first time in months, which is excellent news.

A significant number of the recent cases have been attributed to high school athletics. Michigan now has at least 756 cases of the B.1.1.7, or UK variant, the second most confirmed cases of any state behind Florida. We also have two cases of the South African B.1.351 variant. Now we can precisely track these variance because we in Michigan are doing more genetic sequencing than just about any other state, which helps us better monitor outbreaks of the COVID variants. Now I know Dr. J will have more to say on this soon.

I'd also like to announce steps we are taking to respond to rising high school sports outbreaks and some additional re-engagements that we are prepared to move forward with today. First, high school student athletics will now be required to get tested before all sports practices and competitions. Outdoor stadiums can now go up to 20% capacity with certain COVID mitigations in place. And finally, vaccinated people can remove their masks in residential gatherings if all participants have been vaccinated.

This tracks with the CDC's latest guidance, and we can take these steps because we know what it takes to bring cases down and to stay safe, but the path forward and further re-engagement depends on increasing rapid testing and continuing to ramp up vaccinations. We must also provide businesses, schools, and communities the resources they need to keep people safe as they return to normal day to day activities.

Now, the American Rescue Plan will send Michigan $10 billion to do precisely that control COVID and provide aid to schools, small businesses, and families. Already, millions of Michiganders have gotten money in their pockets. Businesses and restaurants have gotten some critical support they need, and parents have gotten a much needed boost because of this legislation.

Last week's numbers are a reality check that COVID-19 is not yet behind us. We may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we're still in the tunnel, and the only way out is to move forward and to do it together. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread and eliminate the virus as quickly as possible. We want to continue taking steps forward. We need to make smart choices to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

To get these variants under control, we've got to keep tracking them and following basic public health measures that we know work. Wear your mask, socially distance, wash your hands, stay home if you're not feeling well. The most critical thing you can do to help Michigan get back to normal is to get vaccinated. That means, as soon as you're eligible, sign up to get your shot.

On April 5th, all Michiganders 16 and up will be eligible to get vaccinated. The safe vaccines are the most effective way to protect you, your family, and others from the virus. We keep ramping up vaccinations. We will be able to celebrate our Independence Day together this year, as President Biden said last week, hosting a small gathering in your backyard, hugging your loved ones, cracking jokes with your friends, throwing hot dogs on the grill, tossing a football, and opening up a beer. You'll have a summer, a summer of fun ahead if we all can get vaccinated. We can do this.

I spoke to you last week on the one year anniversary of COVID. We heard stories of Michiganders from across our state and how they've gotten through this extraordinary year. We've been getting through this pandemic. We're surviving, but soon we'll be getting back to living. We'll come out of this crisis stronger than ever and continue building our economy back better.

In the words of then Vice President Biden in 2016, we do not scare easily. We never bow. We never bend. We never break when confronted with a crisis. We endure. We overcome, and we always, always, always move forward. We're America, second to none, and we own the finish line. Don't forget it. Now I'd like to turn it over to Dr. J for a few remarks as well.

JONEIGH KHALDUN: Good morning governor, and thank you. As I've said many times before, our progress with COVID-19 is fragile. And while we're making great progress with our vaccination efforts, and many people are doing the right thing by wearing masks and not gathering in large groups, what we are seeing now is very concerning data that shows that we are going in the wrong direction with the key metrics that we are tracking for COVID-19.

Case rates are now at 173 cases per million and have been increasing for the past four weeks. Case rates have increased 77% since mid-February, and cases are increasing in all age groups, but the 10 to 19-year-old age group has seen the largest increase. Our percent of tests that are positive has also increased for the past four weeks And. Is now at 6.2%, that is up 177% since mid-February.

We are also seeing increases in our hospitalization rates for the past two weeks. 4.9% of available inpatient beds are being used to take care of patients who have COVID-19. Many of the cases we are saying are related to outbreaks. The number of outbreaks in the state increased 9% from the previous week to 645. Last week, for the first time since we started tracking outbreaks, those in K through 12 settings exceeded the number in long-term care facilities.

Now, this is a testament to how well we have done with vaccinating our staff and our residents in 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. Many of the outbreaks are related to sports. In January and February, local health departments identified 315 outbreaks associated with different sports teams related to clubs, schools, and recreational sports.

This is concerning. Outbreaks in this age group can have an impact on our children's education. The most important thing we all want for our children is to have in-person learning and not have school closures or children out of school because of having COVID-19 or needing to quarantine because they have been exposed. I also want to remind people that while children are less likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, they still can, or they can pass it on to people in their household or their communities who can get very sick.

We are still tracking cases of multi-system inflammatory syndrome, otherwise known as MIS-C in children in Michigan. This is a syndrome associated with COVID-19 in children that can cause multiple organs to become inflamed and potentially cause long-term damage and even death. So far, 89 cases of MIS-C have been identified in children in Michigan. This is a reminder that we still need to protect our children from this terrible virus, and protecting our children also protects our broader community.

As the governor mentioned, we also know that new, more easily transmitted variants of the virus are very present in the state. This is likely contributing to our increase in cases. When someone is infected with one of these variants, it's more likely to spread to more people, which can cause an exponential increase in cases. Our state lab is one of the best in the country for sequencing samples and identifying these variants.

We've identified 756 cases of the b117 variant and also, as the governor mentioned, the South African variant in the state across 31 counties. The majority of the B.1.1.7 variant cases we have identified have been associated with outbreaks in congregate settings, but we also know that the variant is spreading in the community. So the bottom line is that we all have a responsibility to slow the spread of COVID 19, and I'm concerned about our current numbers.

It's imperative that we protect each other by doing things like wearing masks and practicing social distancing. I know it's getting warmer, vaccines are rolling out, and people are tired of this pandemic, but we're not out of the woods yet, and we could potentially be at the beginning of another surge in Michigan. How this plays out depends on what we all do collectively to protect ourselves and our families. Let's not give up our fight. Wear your mask. Wash your hands frequently. Do not gather in large groups. And please, sign up to get a vaccine.

Now remember that just because something may be legal, it does not mean that you have to do it or that it is safe to do so. Every time you are at a gathering or around other people outside of your household, especially if it is a large gathering or in a place where people are not wearing masks all of the time, there is a risk that someone there will have the virus and spread it to you. So please remain vigilant.

Now, while we are seeing some concerning trends with our data, we also continue to evaluate the MDHHS order for ways to move forward in our fight against this pandemic. Today, MDHHS director, Elizabeth Hertel, issued an updated gatherings and mask epidemic order that is effective Monday, March 22nd and will remain in effect through Monday, April 19th.

So the following items are in the new order. Gatherings may be permitted in outdoor stadiums or arenas with fixed seating at up to 20% of capacity if they establish an appropriate infection control point. Due to the many outbreaks linked to sports, this new order requires youth athletes aged 13 to 19 years old to take part in a weekly testing program to participate in athletic practices or competitions. This is important because we've seen so many outbreaks associated with sports teams, and we want to identify any cases as soon as possible and prevent spread.

The order is also updated to align with recent CDC guidance allowing mask removal at residential gatherings where everyone is fully vaccinated, and that means at least two weeks after receiving the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. So information about the revised order and all related guidance, including on sports testing, will be posted on our website, www.michigan.gov/coronavirus.

So we're pleased with our progress that we're making towards our goal of vaccinating 70% of Michigan under age 16 up as quickly as possible. Over 3.3 million doses of the safe and effective vaccines have been administered to Michiganders so far. Over 26% of people aged 16 and up have had their first dose. Over 61% of people over the age of 65 have had their first dose, and almost 15% of Michiganders age 16 and up are fully vaccinated, meaning having at least two of those doses of the safe and effective vaccine.

Next week, we will start vaccinating at our female-supported Ford Field site in Detroit in partnership with Meijer, Henry Ford Health System, the city of Detroit, Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. We are truly grateful for these partnerships that will help bring us even closer to our goal. This site will provide 6,000 doses of vaccine per day for eight weeks.

To schedule an appointment at the Ford Field site, you can text end COVID to 75049, or you can go to our website, michigan.gov/covidvaccine to find out more information on how to schedule an appointment at Ford Field or other sites across the state. And if you don't have internet access or want help with scheduling an appointment, you can also dial 211 to get assistance.

Because we're getting so much additional vaccine into Michigan, we have also been able to expand our eligibility groups. So starting Monday, every person age 50 and up as well as all Michiganders age 16 and up with underlying medical conditions or disabilities will be eligible to get vaccinated. And on April 5th, all Michiganders age 16 and up will be eligible. Now, it may take several weeks for everyone who wants an appointment to receive one, so please continue to be patient, but everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one.

We are so close. Soon, all adults in Michigan will be eligible for the vaccine. We know what to do to stop this virus. Please wear your mask, wash your hands, and continue to avoid large gatherings with people outside of your household, and please continue to get tested if you've been exposed to the virus, if you have symptoms, or if you've traveled outside of the state in the past two weeks.

We've come so far, but our battle is not yet won. Please, everyone continue to do your part not just for yourselves, but for your family and your community. And with that, I'll turn it back over to Governor Whitmer.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Thank you, Dr. J. I shared yesterday when I was at Ford Field that I had gone on to the Meijer text system and registered my asthmatic child who will be eligible starting next week. So it's very easy to do, and I think we also want to make sure that we thank the Alliance Franchise who is hosting and doing so much work with Ford Field and all the partners that Dr. J identified.

So with that, happy to open it up for a few questions.

- Thank you, governor. Our first question will come from Rick Alban of WOOD-TV.

RICK ALBAN: Governor, we've covered this subject before, so I apologize if I'm redundant. You and the former director Gordon did away with your confidentiality agreement, But. He will not testify, or at least he says he won't testify to the Oversight Committee. What was the reasoning in doing away with that confidentiality agreement?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, I think, you know, the conversation around transparency is important. And, you know, we don't have anything to hide. We released the, you know, we released former director from the agreement and waived the agreement in the interests of greater transparency. So I think what people have been able to ascertain is exactly what we've been saying throughout is that director Gordon resigned, and I accepted the resignation and thanked him for his service and appointed a new director.

And I know that there are some people on the other side of the aisle in particular who would rather spend their time talking about personnel issues which, you know, that's their choice. They can continue looking backward, but we are going to stay focused on moving forward because we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. As Dr. J and I just walked through, we are not out of the woods yet.

We're making huge progress. We've got-- you know, we are so close to the end, but we've got to stay focused on the job at hand and keeping people safe and resuming safely and getting the tools we need to do that successfully. And I think I would welcome legislators to spend some energy in this space because we're deploying these dollars right now to ramp up our antigen testing, which is now necessary for our kids who want to participate in sports and necessary for a resumption of normal activities and normalcy. We need to deploy these resources, and that, I think, is the most pressing issue that we hopefully can find some common ground on because the people in Michigan need us to.

- The next question will come from Allison with the Michigan Advance.

ALLISON DONAHUE: Hi. Thanks, governor. I was wondering, how concerned are you about St. Patrick's Day events or spring break coming out for many schools and how that might add to the current surge in coronavirus cases?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: I appreciate the question. I mean, we're always concerned when there are events that attract lots of people together where perhaps masks are not worn throughout the whole gathering. This is what happens around St. Patrick's day. It's what happens during March Madness. 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.

We are so close. Our vaccination efforts have been incredible with the partnerships that we have from the Biden White House to people on the front and local departments of public health. We are really moving swiftly, but the big unknown factor here is, can we, 10 million Michiganders, continue to take this seriously until we get to that 70% number? And that's what's so crucial, and that's why, whether it's St. Patrick's Day, or its gatherings around the tournament, or it is spring break, is concerning for us all. Do you want to add anything, Dr. J? OK.

JONEIGH KHALDUN: Yeah. I'd also say we obviously are very concerned about spring break and people traveling, but we're also working very closely with our school systems under the leadership of one of our senior physicians at the department, Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian. We're also working with schools to be able to get testing out after spring break and making sure that people understand what they need to do after they return from spring break. So we're really proud of that program as well.

- We'll turn over to Eric Lloyd with 9 & 10 News.

ERIC LLOYD: Good morning, governor. Given that we are in the middle of a global pandemic and the state health director did resign, it was a bit surprising. What were some of the reasons given or kind of the situation around that resignation that led to it?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Eric, I have said-- all I'm going to say about director Gordon's departure, we have to stay focused on the task at hand. We're very fortunate that we've got Elizabeth Hertel who was in the department who has got extensive experience and has really been able, I think, to work well with both sides of the aisle. That's really important. We got to get the politics out of the public health. So we're continuing to move forward. We've shared a lot of information, and I think it's time for us to stay focused on the next task at hand which is continuing to battle this virus.

- We'll take a few more questions. I'll turn it over to Emily Lawler with MLive.

EMILY LAWLER: Governor, it sounds like from what Dr. Khaldun was saying that you've established that outbreaks in high school athletics are costing kids seat time for classroom time, I suppose. Is there any thought at this point of curbing athletics to the extent that you had at previous points in the pandemic?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, you know, at this point in time, we're not announcing any restrictions. So we don't have plans to do that at this juncture. I do need to say, though, we now we've got the tools needed to fight this virus. A mask, social distancing, hand-washing, vaccinations. These are the tools that will help us be successful. I know it feels like, universally, people wanted to re-engage a lot of the things that have come online in the last few weeks.

We also knew when we did that, we would increase the risk of spread, and that's what we're seeing. 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. If we all take our own personal responsibility here, we can keep these things reengaged, and do it safely, and make progress toward ultimate, you know, the ultimate, which would be spending 4th of July together and enjoying it.

But what we really need is everyone to do their part and to continue taking it seriously, not quit now because we're so close, but also need the legislature to deploy the resources that have been allocated to Michigan to bolster our efforts to fight the vaccine. Now, there are billions that have been sent that still haven't been deployed. There is 10 billion more coming from the Biden administration that we are going to need to deploy quickly into our economy to help businesses that were left out of other relief over the course of the last year, to help people who've been unemployed throughout this pandemic, to help make sure that our schools have the supports they need to re-engage and to keep kids in person.

These antigen tests that are the key to staying engaged, we need to buy them. And frankly, these are resources that are really important toward our effort to do all of these things, and that's why we don't want any more delay. We can have our political arguments about, you know, whatever issues we all know where we're not going to find common ground.

But on this one, this is billions, billions of dollars that are coming to Michigan to help Michiganders. Not about one party or another, but helping our businesses and our people and our kids and our vaccines. Let's find some common ground here and move swiftly. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to do some real incredible things here in a state that desperately needs to do that, and that's why I'm continuing to welcome the legislature to partner with me, and let's get it done.

- I'll turn it over to Jonathan Oosting with Bridge.

JONATHAN OOSTING: Yeah. Governor, thank you. Regarding your new high school athletics testing regimen, what are the current availability of the tests right now? Are these rapid tests? And is it feasible to actually pull this off, and how long will it take?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: It's feasible. We need to have the resources, but I'm going to ask Dr. J to give you a little more insight into that one.

JONEIGH KHALDUN: Right. So the testing regimen isn't in effect for another two weeks, so April 2nd. And in that time frame, we will be working with not just our schools, but the clubs and others to make sure they know what to do. We're already actually testing many sports teams and working with schools to test, so it is feasible. We do have many antigen tests. We have the ability to purchase more if we have the funding, but I do think it's feasible, and it's a way that we will be able to identify cases as quickly as possible and not have more outbreaks come amongst our sports teams.

- Our last question, we'll turn it over to Tim Skubick.

TIM SKUBICK: Governor, do you believe that when COVID senior citizens were moved from the hospitals into nursing homes that that resulted in the deaths of residents that did not have the disease?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: I had a hard time hearing him. Did you hear the last part of his question?

TIM SKUBICK: Want me to try it again? Governor, do you believe that when a senior citizens that had COVID were moved back into the nursing home, that that resulted in the deaths of other residents that didn't have the disease?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: So let me start with this. So, first and foremost, the nature of this virus, sadly, is that it targets people who are older and is easily spread in congregate care settings. This is the opposite of the influenza. That was the last big pandemic of 1918. We, of course, as a society, as a world, have learned a lot about COVID-19 in the last year.

We, at the beginning, had no idea that a mass was going to be the most important tool that every one of us could easily adorn to protect ourselves and our communities from COVID. We've learned a lot. Now, our nursing home policy, I know that a lot of people have tried to rewrite it. But in fact, the nursing home policy was this. We followed the CDC guidelines.

We never mandated a nursing home take a patient back into their care. But if they did, we made sure that they followed the protocols that modeled after the CDC so that we could keep people safe. We worked incredibly hard to support our nursing homes through PPE, through testing, and now through vaccinations. Michigan's experience in this space is better than most states.

You can look at a U of M study that bears that out and says our policies saved many lives in nursing homes. You can also look to the former president of AARP who weighed in on this and acknowledged that our work saved a lot of lives as well. So I know a lot of people want to go back and rewrite what our policies were, or mischaracterize them, or try to make a political football out of this and liken it to what's happened in other states. I can tell you, in Michigan, we followed the CDC, and it's a tragedy any life that was lost due to this virus, but I just laid out precisely what our experience was and why following the science and doing everything we could to protect people and to help our nursing homes, keep people safe, was really important to protecting lives.

TIM SKUBICK: --lost as a result of the transfer of those patients into the nursing homes?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: I didn't-- I couldn't hear that last part, and I thought that was the last--

TIM SKUBICK: Were lives lost as a result of transferring those patients into nursing homes?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Tim, all I can say is that if nursing homes brought patients back from the hospital, that was an educated choice that they made individually with all of the protocols in place to keep them separate from the rest of the nursing home residents. So that is as as much as I can tell you about how that worked. I can tell you we followed the CDC.

Our experience in the space was more, I think, aggressive than others to protect lives, and that's been borne out in the U of M study, and I point you to that to see that our experience was better, but this has been one aspect of this virus that is uniquely cruel and that we've all been trying to combat. Thank you, everybody. Have a great day. Have a good weekend. Stay safe, wear your mask, and make your vaccination appointment. Thank you.