Michigan health director's trip amid COVID surge sparks controversy
Lansing — Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, was in Alabama last week for a family trip as her home state continues to battle a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
The trip came days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration levied public warnings about out-of-state travel. On April 2, Hertel was quoted in a press release that encouraged "spring break travelers" to get tested for the virus.
"Students and families traveling across Michigan, to other states or out of the country risk being exposed to and carrying COVID-19 with them," the press release said. "This in turn could fuel outbreaks within their households and the communities where they live or visit."
The release also linked to a page of "travel tips" that encouraged people to "delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19."
Michigan Information & Research Service News (MIRS News) first reported Hertel's trip, which was confirmed by The Detroit News. Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, declined to provide any information Wednesday afternoon.
"We do not discuss the director’s personal schedule," Wheaton said.
He later referred a reporter to an interview Hertel gave MIRS News. The newsletter reported that Hertel had received her second vaccine dose Wednesday, meaning she wasn't fully vaccinated before her trip.
Hertel also told MIRS News that her family wore masks and stayed in their own condominium unit and her family "separated at least six feet from others while at the beach."
Asked about the trip Wednesday, Whitmer said she wouldn't be distracted by "partisan hit jobs on my team."
"What directors do on their personal time is their business, so long as they are safe, which is what we are asking everyone in the state to do," the Democratic governor said.
But Ted Goodman, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, connected Hertel's trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama, with Tricia Foster, the governor’s chief operating officer, vacationing in Florida last week.
"The sheer brazenness of Gov. Whitmer and her staff is truly something else," Goodman said. "The fact that Whitmer and her top staff think it’s appropriate to travel out of state on vacation as Michigan faces the worst COVID numbers of any state in the country just reveals the arrogance and condescending nature of this administration."
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, was less than critical of Hertel's trip, saying the governor had asked for a "little grace" for her staff traveling and that request seemed fair.
"I'd venture that the director was both very disciplined about safety protocols while trying to get some much needed family vacation and working very hard remotely," Shirkey said.
Alabama ranks 48th out of the 50 states for new COVID-19 cases over the last seven days, according to tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michigan has been No. 1 in the rankings for about two weeks.
On Tuesday, Michigan reported 4,011 adults were hospitalized in Michigan with confirmed COVID-19 cases, a record high. Last week, there were 45,817 new infections reported, a 19-week high.
On April 2, the CDC updated its guidance to say fully vaccinated people can travel within the United States without getting tested for the coronavirus or going into quarantine afterward. Still, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said she would “advocate against general travel overall" given the rising number of infections.
Hertel, who had been a deputy within the Department of Health and Human Services, became the director on Jan. 22 when Robert Gordon abruptly resigned.