Whitmer defends lack of new restrictions as top doctor issues warning

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, described the state's COVID-19 situation as "very serious" Wednesday as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vehemently defended her approach to the third surge of infections.

During a press conference, Khaldun said she personally worked in a hospital emergency department over the weekend and it was "exhausting" as more and more patients with COVID-19 needed care. As of Wednesday, there were 3,998 adults hospitalized with the virus, the second highest total the state has reported. The highest total, 4,011, came a day earlier.

"It is really putting a strain on our staff and our resources and our bed space," Khaldun said. "All of which are spread way too thin. Patients are again lining our hallways like they were last spring. This situation is very serious."

But Whitmer didn't announce new restrictions on gatherings or schools to stem the spread of COVID-19 as some public health experts have called for. Instead, she said her administration is working to expand the use of medical interventions designed to reduce hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. The efforts include making additional doses of monoclonal antibodies available to health providers and requesting providers expand the number of infusion sites in the state. 

Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cells, according to a press release from the governor's office.

The Democratic governor pushed back on the idea that new government mandates limiting indoor dining at restaurants or school functions were the right way to combat the ongoing surge. Whitmer continued to urge people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

"That’s precisely why instead of mandating that we’re closing things down, we are encouraging people to do what we know works," she said. "That’s the most important thing that we can do. It’s not the policy problem. It’s a variant and compliance problem."

For the first 11 months of the pandemic, Whitmer's administration used executive or epidemic orders to place limitations on public gatherings and schools when cases increased.

That often left her at odds with Republican lawmakers who control the state Legislature. This time around, however, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is backing the governor's approach.

"I applaud @GovWhitmer for resisting the tremendous pressure to lock our state down and trusting Michiganders to do the right thing," Shirkey tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

Some public health experts — including Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have called for Michigan to impose new restrictions to combat COVID-19 infection rates that have been climbing for seven weeks.

The top organization that represents Michigan hospitals is currently not recommending that Whitmer's administration change the state's COVID-19 orders amid a surge in cases and hospitalizations.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, April 14, 2021.

John Karasinski, a spokesperson for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said the group is evaluating hospital capacity and in close communication with the administration about hospitals' needs. But "at this time," the association has not made any recommendations for altering current restrictions, he said Wednesday morning.

The comments came before Whitmer's press conference. Michigan has led the nation in new cases per population for about two weeks, according to tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Currently in place are requirements that individuals wear masks, which we know mitigate spread, and limit exposure to large numbers of people outside their household," Karasinski said Wednesday morning. "We also know that the social distancing the state has been requesting works.

"These things together — improved prevention compliance and vaccination — will stop this surge of the highly contagious and deadly variants widespread in Michigan."

The current epidemic order from the Department of Health and Human Services, which expires on Monday night, requires masks be worn in crowded spaces, limits restaurant capacity to 50% and restricts residential indoor gatherings to 15 people.

Last week, there were 45,817 new infections reported in Michigan, a 19-week high.

So far, Whitmer's administration has focused on pushing more residents to get vaccinated instead of instituting new restrictions on sports, schools, indoor dining at restaurants or other gatherings. On Friday, she recommended that residents voluntarily take a two-week break from youth sports, in-person high school classes and in-door dining.

On Wednesday, Whitmer described vaccines as the No. 1 tool the state has to fight the pandemic.

Through Monday, 2.2 million Michigan residents or 27.5% of the adult population had received their complete vaccination against COVID-19. The governor's goal is for 70% of the adult population 16 years and older to be vaccinated.

But, in recent days, some public health experts have spoken out against the idea that a vaccine rush will defeat Michigan's escalation of cases.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who ran against Whitmer in the 2018 Democratic primary, posted an article Tuesday titled, "Michigan needs to lock down."

"Certainly, over the long term, vaccines are key to getting us past this pandemic once and for all. But vaccines are a tool for preventing major surges; they’re less effective in responding to them," wrote El-Sayed, who is an epidemiologist and the former leader of the Detroit Health Department.

Similarly, Dr. Céline Gounder, who served on President Joe Biden's COVID-19 Advisory Board for his transition into office, wrote in The Washington Post Tuesday that vaccines alone "are not going to save" Michigan.

Gounder said vaccines are "great at preventing outbreaks from taking off" but they are "not so great at slowing a surge once it’s happening."


Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Melissa Nann Burke contributed.