CDC director: Answer to Michigan surge is to 'close things down'

Washington — The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contradicted the Whitmer administration Monday, saying the answer to Michigan's "acute situation" with COVID-19 is not to surge vaccines but to shut down the state and "flatten the curve." 

"Really what we need to do in those situations is shut things down," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a Monday briefing. 

"I think if we tried to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan, we will be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work — to actually have the impact." 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has called on the administration of President Joe Biden to surge vaccines to Michigan, particularly the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Whitmer last year co-chaired Biden's presidential campaign. 

But she has declined to have her state health department director issue epidemic orders to shutter indoor dining, in-person high school classes or to end youth sports, deciding on Friday to recommend a voluntary two-week pause in these areas. Several restaurants and schools indicated they wouldn't make changes to their operations.

"Michigan has been following best practices when it comes to combating COVID-19, including implementing CDC standards," Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said.  "As our nation’s top health experts have said, this is not a failure of policy, but rather a compliance, variant and mobility issue, which is why it’s important for us to ramp up vaccinations as quickly as possible.

"While Gov. Whitmer appreciates the help we have received from the federal government, she will not stop fighting to get more vaccines for the people of Michigan."

The CDC leader's comments came on the same day that Whitmer said the state plans to extend COVID-19 emergency business place rules that expire Wednesday, but she said the extension does not mean six more months of prohibitions on in-office work. Whitmer said her administration is working with businesses, labor and public health experts "to promulgate what that back-to-work cadence looks like."

Michigan had vaccinated 27% of its adult population 16 years and older through Sunday. 

The state has been leading the nation with higher COVID case rates than other states, while its deaths and hospitalizations have been on the rise. Michigan reported 9,674 new cases and 12 deaths linked to the virus Monday — totals that included counts for both Sunday and Monday.  

Michigan has surpassed its fall peak for hospitalized adults with 3,918 confirmed cases and about 800 in critical care, according to the latest state data.

Walensky's comments about shutting down Michigan were in response to a question Monday about remarks made Sunday by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration. Gottlieb criticized the Biden administration for refusing to boost vaccine doses to Michigan as the state combats a surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. 

"It's a request that's been made for weeks now, and I think we should have done it weeks ago," Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."

But Walensky said the effect of vaccines is delayed, with the results not seen for somewhere between two to six weeks, depending on the vaccine.

"So when you have an acute situation — extraordinary number of cases like we have in Michigan — the answer is not necessarily to give vaccine," Walensky said.

"The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down, to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another to test to the extent that we have available, to contact trace." 

Walensky added other states also need vaccines, "and we don't know where the next place is going to be that it's going to surge."

Whitmer on restriction triggers

Whitmer said Monday her administration would continue to work with the federal government "to make sure we’ve got everything we need to take care of Michiganders."

“Because we know this: What’s happening in Michigan today can be happening in other states or other parts of the country tomorrow," she said following a tour of an Eastern Michigan University vaccine clinic. "And that’s why it’s important to squash this and use everything at our disposal to do that.”

Asked whether there was a “trigger” that would require reinstatement of restrictions — such as those imposed on restaurants, schools and youth sports last spring and fall — Whitmer said her administration relies both on data and “public health context” to discern the need for new epidemic orders.

“Here’s where we are: Instead of a year ago where this was a novel virus, where we didn’t even know that a mask was going to give us 97% protection, we had to take strong actions to keep people safe,” she said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Michigan is maintaining some COVID-19 epidemic order, including the state’s mask mandate and the 50% capacity restrictions at restaurants. She made the comments on Monday, April 12, 2021, after touring a vaccination clinic at the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center in Ypsilanti.

“We now know a lot more about this. We now have PPE. We now have testing. We now have vaccines. We each have enough information to do our part. And that’s what we’re calling on people to do.”

Whitmer emphasized there are still some epidemic orders in place, including the state’s mask mandate and the 50% capacity restrictions at restaurants.

“I believe government’s role is, when we can’t take action to protect ourselves, the government must step in,” the Democratic governor said. “That’s where we were a year ago. That’s where we were four months ago. We’re in a different moment. Every one of us has the ability and knowledge to do what it takes.”

State health officials later Monday reported 51 new COVID-19 outbreaks at Michigan preschools, schools and colleges, with 20 new outbreaks at high schools alone across the state. Outbreaks are defined as two or more COVID-19 cases among people who may have shared exposure on school grounds and are from different households.

Despite Whitmer's vaccine surge request, White House officials say they are sticking to allocating doses to states based on population.

"It's done with equity in mind. It's done with the adult population in mind," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. "We don't pick by our friends, we don't pick through a political prism. We pick through what is most effective to be fair and equitable around the country."

The federal government has pledged more therapeutics, mobile units, testing supplies and vaccinators for Michigan to help with the hot spots.

Andy Slavitt, White House COVID-19 adviser, said Monday that officials have to "follow the science," noting the troublesome virus variants seen in Michigan are also present in other states. Michigan had the second-highest number of more contagious United Kingdom variant cases at 2,630 through Saturday. 

"Our ability to vaccinate people quickly in all of each of those states — rather than taking vaccines and shifting it to playing Whack-a-Mole — isn't the strategy that public health leaders and scientists have laid out," Slavitt said at a briefing by the White House COVID Response Team.

'Vaccinate out of pandemic'

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on Sunday told CNN the state can “vaccinate our way out of the pandemic” with the help of an increase or “surge” of vaccine allotments from the federal government. 

“What’s happening in Michigan can spread through the Midwest, it can spread through the rest of the country. But if we increase rapidly vaccinations coming into the state of Michigan now, we can get it out quickly and we can slow this before it spreads to other parts of the country,” Gilchrist said.

The lieutenant governor also defended Whitmer's Friday request — instead of having her state health director issuing new epidemic orders.

“April 2021 is different from where were a year ago in April 2020,” Gilchrist said.

“We had a lot of different tools at our disposal to be able to implement those policies to the best extent of our ability to be able to keep the spread down. Those were fought politically tooth and nail here by the Republican Party in the state of Michigan.”

“Nevertheless, we still have smart policies in place,” he added, noting the state’s remaining mask mandate and capacity limits in restaurants.

As for vaccine supply, the Biden administration is working with states to ensure that they're ordering the full amount of vaccine available to them and distributing those vaccines to the places that need them, Slavitt said.

“We want states to be ordering and administering shots as soon as doses are made available from the start,” Slavitt said during Monday’s briefing.

“The states like Michigan, where we are seeing troubling metrics, we are taking action by deploying resources in four critical areas: Shots in arms, personnel, testing and therapeutics.”

Part of that strategy is ensuring states are ordering up to their cap of vaccines and using best practices to “meet the goals of speed and equity,” he said.

The government has also offered “a surge” of federal personnel including CDC response teams to help with case investigations and contact tracing and sent more Federal Emergency Management Agency staff to administer shots across the state, Slavitt added.

Federal officials have increased the number of diagnostic tests sent to the state and helped with setting up more testing sites, he said, and is prepared to send additional therapeutic capacity to the state as well.

Staff Writers Riley Beggin and Craig Mauger contributed.