Michigan's Virus Cases Are Out of Control, Putting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a Bind

Julie Bosman and Mitch Smith
·9 min read
Medical staff at a vaccination site at Greater Emmanuel Institutional church in Detroit, on March 27, 2021. (Cydni Elledge/The New York Times)
Medical staff at a vaccination site at Greater Emmanuel Institutional church in Detroit, on March 27, 2021. (Cydni Elledge/The New York Times)

Nowhere in America is the coronavirus pandemic more out of control than in Michigan.

Outbreaks are ripping through workplaces, restaurants, churches and family weddings. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients. Officials are reporting more than 7,000 new infections each day, a sevenfold increase from late February. And Michigan is home to nine of the 10 metro areas with the country’s highest recent case rates.

During previous surges in Michigan, a resolute Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shut down businesses and schools as she saw fit — over the din of both praise and protests. But this time, Whitmer has stopped far short of the sweeping shutdowns that made her a lightning rod.

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“Policy change alone won’t change the tide,” Whitmer said on Friday, as she asked — but did not order — that the public take a two-week break from indoor dining, in-person high school and youth sports. “We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility here.”

It is a rare moment in the pandemic: a high-profile Democratic governor bucking the pleas of doctors and public health researchers in her state and instead asking for voluntary actions from the public to control the virus’ spread. Restaurants and bars remain open at a reduced capacity, Detroit Tigers fans are back at the stadium and most schools have welcomed students into the classroom.

Whitmer’s new position reflects the shifting politics of the pandemic, shaped more by growing public impatience with restrictions and the hope offered by vaccines than by any reassessment among public health authorities of how best to contain the virus.

Her approach, calling for individual responsibility over statewide restrictions, might have been lifted from the playbook of a Republican elected official, and on Friday she seemed to try to shift attention to the Biden administration for turning down her request to send extra vaccine doses to her beleaguered state.

That approach prompted an unexpected uttering of approval from Republicans in Michigan, who control the state Legislature and until now have fought Whitmer’s decisions at every turn.

State Rep. Beau LaFave, a Republican from the Upper Peninsula, said that patience for the governor’s rules had evaporated long ago in his district and that Whitmer was correct to not impose additional restrictions, even as reports of new cases approached their late-fall peak and deaths continued to increase.

“She should have been doing that this whole time,” LaFave said, “allowing individuals to do risk assessments on their own health.”

Even many Democrats in Michigan seem to concur that the time for shutting things down might have passed.

Mayor Sheldon Neeley of Flint said he was worried about the steep rise in new cases but for now did not favor sweeping restrictions from Whitmer. Neeley, a Democrat, issued a strict curfew for his own city earlier in the pandemic, but said he doubted whether such measures would have the same impact now.

“Those things were effective,” he said. “I think they would be less effective if you tried to use the same tools and tactics as you did once before.”

There is also reelection looming in the background. Michigan is a closely divided state, Whitmer’s office will be on the ballot next year and Republicans sense an opportunity.

“This is the biggest thing in 100 years,” Jack O’Malley, a Republican member of the Michigan House, said of the pandemic. “I would say it’s got to be 80% of why somebody’s going to vote or not vote for her.”

Still, a small but growing number of doctors and public health officials are calling on Whitmer to take much more aggressive action as cases worsen by the day.

There is no single reason Michigan has been hit so hard in recent weeks, though the latest surge has been partly attributed to the B.1.1.7 variant that was originally identified in Britain and is widespread in the state. Recent infections suggest that small social gatherings were driving case increases, events that are hard to target with government restrictions. Children are also accounting for a higher percentage of cases, with spring break trips and youth sporting events emerging as points of concern.

Several hospitals in Michigan delayed some elective procedures this past week because a wave of coronavirus patients has stressed their resources. Smaller, rural hospitals struggled to find urban hospitals that could accept their coronavirus patients who needed intensive-care beds. One doctor in Lansing, the state capital, described admitting five such patients in a five-hour period.

“It’s hard for me to have hope when I don’t see the basic public health precautions being implemented and sustained,” said Debra Furr-Holden, a Michigan State University public health researcher whom Whitmer appointed to the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. “If we continue the way we’ve been going, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve been getting, which is these ebbs and flows and these spikes. It will be a vicious cycle and the vaccines will not be able to keep pace.”

The balance between politics and public health, never simple, has become even more volatile as the pandemic enters a second year. Residents are exhausted, business owners are reeling and, unlike last year, no other state is seeing a similar surge.

There is also reason for optimism that distinguishes this virus surge from those that came before: One in three Michigan residents has started the vaccination process, and one in five is fully immunized. With older residents swiftly getting vaccines, health officials say that most of the people who are infected with the coronavirus now are younger than 65, a less vulnerable population. And so Whitmer, who received her first shot on Tuesday, has pointed to vaccines — rather than new lockdowns — as the way out of this moment.

“I want to get back to normal as much as everyone else. I’m tired of this,” Whitmer said in a news conference on Friday where she defended her strategy for the weeks ahead. “But the variants in Michigan that we are facing right now won’t be contained if we don’t ramp up vaccinations as soon as possible.”

Whitmer, whose administration rolled back restrictions last month when virus cases were relatively low, pressed President Joe Biden in a Thursday night phone call for extra vaccines to address the surge. Biden declined, and the administration said on Friday that it would continue allocating vaccines based on adult population.

A state official with knowledge of the call, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation, said the president expressed concern about loosened restrictions in Michigan but seemed to have inaccurate information about what restrictions remained in place. The official said Whitmer explained to Biden that capacity remained limited at restaurants, gyms and social gatherings, and masks were still required.

Still, the Whitmer administration is not ruling out a more stringent approach. Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said she was optimistic that the continued rollout of vaccines and the governor’s new recommendations would help bring case numbers down. But if that did not happen, she said, more restrictions were possible.

“If we were to get to a point where the health care system says, ‘We are overwhelmed and we cannot take care of COVID patients in addition to our regular patients that we see,’ then we may have to talk about further restrictions,” Hertel said in an interview.

Yet even county health officials, who have been pleading for more than a year that the public wear masks and practice social distancing, have not been pushing Whitmer to institute new restrictions.

Linda Vail, the health officer in Ingham County, which includes most of Lansing, said some residents had grown lax about masking and other prevention measures just as cases had started spiking again. Vail recommended that schools in her county pause in-person instruction after spring break. And she has an order in place limiting outdoor gatherings in an area near Michigan State University’s campus.

But she senses little appetite for the sort of sweeping restrictions seen at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I think we’re so at a point where people are just going to ignore restrictions,” said Vail, who recounted a recent trip to a gym whose once-diligent patrons were now using treadmills without masks. “And quite honestly, statewide restrictions are going to cause significant pushback.”

Dr. Mark Hamed, the medical director for several rural counties in Michigan, said he had lost sleep in recent days, worrying about how to get the surge in his region under control.

On Thursday, he spent 90 minutes on a brainstorming call with his counterparts from across the state. Not once did the group discuss whether the governor should start to close down businesses and schools again, he said.

“I think people are definitely COVID fatigued,” he said, adding that he has noticed more people choosing on their own to wear masks since the latest surge began. “They’re seeing their neighbors affected and their loved ones affected, and they’re starting to change behaviors.”

In Port Huron, a particularly hard-hit region northeast of Detroit, cases are spiking and hospitals filling, Mayor Pauline Repp said.

Repp said she sympathized with the position the governor and health department were put in last year, when Michigan hospitals were overflowing and strict rules on movements were imposed. But she said some people lost patience as the months wore on and Michigan’s rules remained firm even when cases dropped.

“I almost think in some respects it had a little bit of a backfire,” Repp said.

The latest surge has complicated life in Port Huron. Public schools have gone back to online instruction. City Hall closed this past week after too many workers tested positive. Still, she said, it is common to see shoppers at Walmart or the Meijer grocery store refuse to wear face coverings.

“It’s been a long time,” Repp said. “It’s a long time to be restrictive and you get to the point where you kind of think, ‘Will life ever go back to normal?’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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