Michigan in 'good spot' in COVID-19 fight, health director tells lawmakers
Lansing — Michigan is in a "really good spot" in its ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the new director of the state Department of Health and Human Services told lawmakers Thursday.
During an hour-long committee hearing on her appointment, Elizabeth Hertel highlighted the state's declining infection rates and ballooning vaccination numbers. She also described what it will take for the administration to eventually drop restrictions on gatherings and mask requirements and defended Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's overall response to the virus.
"In the instance of a public health crisis or a public health emergency, it’s absolutely the responsibility of the state health department to take action and have that authority," Hertel said of the Democratic administration's working outside of the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who chairs the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, which is examining Hertel's appointment, then asked if the administration's unilateral orders should last for more than a year.
Michigan confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 on March 10, and the one-year anniversary is less than two weeks away.
"Potentially, if the public health emergency crisis lasts more than year," Hertel replied.
"Could it be forever?" Nesbitt then asked.
"I certainly hope not," Hertel said, adding that she wouldn't anticipate a pandemic lasting into perpetuity.
The exchange underscored the ongoing feud in Lansing between the GOP-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor over the state's response the virus. Republican lawmakers want restrictions on businesses and gatherings lifted more quickly, and they want more influence over the decisions. But Whitmer has generally resisted their requests and used administrative powers to issue orders to combat COVID-19.
Now, Republicans have the power to potentially block her pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, the position that has the ability to impose unilateral public health orders, such as those that have limited capacity at restaurants and required masks be worn in public spaces.
The state's former health director, Robert Gordon, abruptly resigned without an explanation on Jan. 22. Whitmer quickly elevated Hertel, who had been the senior chief deputy director for administration.
Hertel's appointment is subject to the advice and consent of the Michigan Senate, a process that formally began with the Thursday afternoon committee hearing.
Nesbitt said he's already planning another hearing on Hertel's appointment for next week. Hertel seems qualified for the position in terms of history, the chairman said, but he added that he's concerned about the department's handling of the pandemic.
"I find it a little troubling that they seem to believe that they can go on forever with some of these pandemic orders,” Nesbitt said after the hearing.
The Michigan Senate had already blocked 18 of Whitmer's recent appointments as Republicans have clashed with her over restrictions tied to the virus. On Thursday, Republicans on the Advice and Consent Committee floated ideas for a regional approach for restrictions and setting specific metrics that would trigger easing policies.
“We’re looking at things that don’t have a trigger. We’re really looking at things that have a dial,” Hertel said.
She said the department is monitoring multiple factors, including case rates, the rates of tests bringing positive results, testing totals, hospital capacity and vaccination rates.
On setting restrictions by region instead of statewide, she said, "I don’t think it’s necessary right now. We’re doing very well statewide."
Michigan reported 5,695 new COVID-19 infections last week, the lowest weekly total for new infections since Sept. 20-26. Hospitalizations and the rate of tests bringing positive results also continued to decrease. There were 714 individuals hospitalized with confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Monday, a 52% drop from four weeks earlier.
As of Wednesday, the state reported 2 million administered doses of the vaccine, including 1.3 million first doses across Michigan.
Nesbitt pressed Hertel on what it would take to lift all mandates on social distancing and mask wearing.
Hertel said that would come when "we’ve reached herd immunity with our vaccination rates, and we can ensure that we have the testing capacity in place and we are seeing no evidence of potential community spread and we’re only seeing occasional outbreaks."
Herd immunity would be reached when about 80% to 85% of Michigan's population is immune or has been vaccinated, she said.
Hertel worked for the state health department from 2013-2016. In October 2016, she became director of Michigan advocacy for Trinity Health before returning to the health department in February 2019 under Whitmer's administration.
She is married to Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-East Lansing, one of the 16 Democrats serving in the GOP-controlled Senate.