Michigan health director: Strong reason to believe COVID-19 'pause' worked

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan is in a "far better place" in its fight against COVID-19 than it was two months ago when the state first imposed new restrictions on businesses and schools, according to the leader of Michigan's health department.

In a Tuesday interview, Robert Gordon, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state remains on a path toward reopening indoor dining at restaurants on Feb. 1 and has gone from having one of the highest coronavirus case rates in the nation to one of the lowest.

"Are we out of the woods? Absolutely not. I couldn’t say that more strongly," Gordon said. "But we should feel good about the path that we traveled."

Robert Gordon, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

In recent weeks, Michigan has reported significant drops in COVID-19 infection rates, deaths and hospitalizations linked to the virus and the rate of tests bringing positive results — metrics that have been included in decision-making on when to strengthen or lift restrictions.

Over the last seven days, Michigan has had the seventh-lowest rate of new cases per population nationally, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All of Michigan's neighboring states had higher rates.

Ohio and Indiana each reported about 60 new cases per day per 100,000 residents while Michigan reported about 27, according to the data.

Last week, Michigan reported 12-week lows for new cases and the percentage of tests bringing positive results. The positivity rate dropped to 6.7%. It was 14.2% the week of Nov. 29 through Dec. 5. The state reported 450 new deaths linked to the virus last week, the lowest weekly total since mid-November.

No one can say with certainty what caused the decreases, Gordon said Tuesday.

“I think there is strong reason to believe the pause has worked and has mattered," he said.

In a series of tweets earlier Tuesday, he asked if people could find another state with similar results but without similar actions to what Michigan implemented.

"I don't think you can," Gordon said.

Amid surging COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations, the Whitmer administration imposed its "pause to save lives" on Nov. 18. The order, signed by Gordon, halted in-person instruction at high schools and colleges, indoor dine-in service at restaurants and bars, and high school athletics as well as closed some businesses, including movie theaters, bowling alleys and casinos. The restrictions were initially scheduled to be in place for three weeks.

High schools and many of the businesses have been allowed to reopen since the pause took effect, but indoor dining at restaurants has remained suspended, drawing criticism from eatery owners and Republican lawmakers. Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, recently called the governor's continuation of the indoor dining closure "without parallel in the nation."

The Whitmer administration's plan is to allow restaurants to reopen indoor dining with capacity limits on Feb. 1. On Tuesday, Gordon said the state remains on a path of gradual reopening.

Still, Gordon said officials are closely watching a new COVID-19 variant that is believed to be more contagious. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services identified the state's first case of the new variant, B.1.1.7., on Saturday in an adult female living in Washtenaw County.

There have been many twists and turns in the pandemic, Gordon said, adding, "I am sure there will be more."