Michigan House Republicans: Let counties that hit benchmarks set COVID-19 policies

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan counties that hit certain thresholds for COVID-19 testing, cases and hospital capacity could set their own policies for stemming the spread of the virus under a plan unveiled Tuesday by state House Republicans.

The proposal diverges from the statewide and regional restrictions on masks, public gatherings and business capacity that have been imposed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration during the pandemic. It also would set definitive benchmarks that counties must reach to begin lifting mandates within their own borders.

"It offers certainty and hope to move Michigan through the stress and the confusion of this pandemic," said state Rep. Sarah Lightner, R-Jackson. "When the data is available, you should have access to it. And when decisions are being made, you’ll know why."

State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, presents the Michigan House Republican plan for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

The plan, which would require Whitmer's signature to become law, comes 18 days after the Michigan Supreme Court struck down a 75-year-old law that provided ongoing, unilateral emergency powers to the governor to respond to the virus.

While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has since issued its own orders on masks and gathering limits, Whitmer and lawmakers have both acknowledged that they'll have to work together after the court ruling.

Under the new House GOP plan, counties would be able to set their own policies if the average daily number of confirmed cases over a 14-day period was below 55 cases per 1 million residents and if the rate of positive tests was below 5%.

Their health care facilities would have to be able to manage a 20% surge in hospital admissions and have at least a two-week supply of personal protective equipment. Plus, local health departments would be required to have the ability to test 15 people per 10,000 residents per day and turn around test results within three days or less.

If a county meets the benchmarks, the county's public health director could change statewide restrictions. If the county's data moved above the standards, "intervention strategies" would go into effect, according to the plan.

"All data involved in decision-making would be reported daily in each county and made available to the public to provide clarity and certainty," the plan says.

The specific bills that would put such a proposal into place have not yet been introduced or released. They would have to pass the GOP-controlled House and the Senate and gain Whitmer's approval. The administration will review the proposal, Whitmer's spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

The governor's administration has previously imposed restrictions regionally. The eight "economic recovery" regions were divided up based on labor sheds — how people travel to work and then back home again — the status of the epidemic and the geography of health care systems — which hospitals systems serve which areas.

Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, said "not a very large number" of Michigan's 83 counties could hit the proposed benchmarks to set their own policies. He said that fact speaks to the need to establish goals and move toward them in a transparent way.

"The biggest impediment to county qualification would be testing capacity," Frederick said.

Asked if a county could essentially drop all COVID-19 restrictions if they hit the benchmarks, Frederick responded that it would be a "very reckless decision." He said the proposal would require a collaborative approach to making decisions with input from local health experts.

Dr. Justin Grill, chief medical officer at Mercy Health Muskegon, and Brian Long, president and CEO of Memorial Healthcare in Shiawassee County, spoke in support of the plan.

"Transparency is critical, building trust in the guidelines," Long said Tuesday.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, blasted the proposal.

"Republican lawmakers have had seven months to prepare for this and are choosing to replace Gov. Whitmer’s robust, responsible public health policies with a weak approach that will lead to more illnesses and more deaths," Scott said. "The best thing I can say about it is that in the grand scheme of Republican approaches to COVID-19, this is slightly better than injecting bleach."

Overall, Michigan had reported 149,392 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 7,053 deaths linked to the virus. As of Friday, 109,539 people were considered "recovered."

But the rate of new coronavirus cases in the state has been trending upward for weeks. Last week, the state reported 10,241 new cases, the largest weekly total since the beginning of the pandemic.

"It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave," Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said last week.