Whitmer says she has fewer 'tools' to respond to COVID surge; some go unused

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer defended her approach to a third wave of COVID-19 during an appearance on "Meet the Press" Sunday, contending that her administration has "a smaller set of tools" to use.

Host Chuck Todd asked the Democratic governor what had changed from the previous surges in the state when Whitmer's administration issued orders that restricted gatherings and businesses and touted the policies as successful at bringing numbers down.

Michigan has led the nation in new cases per population for more than 15 days. Last week, the state reported record levels of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 47,284 new infections, a 20-week high.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appears on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, April 18, 2021.

On Sunday, the governor said health officials now know more about how mask use combats the spread of the virus, have wider access to protective equipment and testing and have launched a vaccination campaign.

"We're now in a much different position," Whitmer said. "On top of that, in the waning months, I have been sued by my Legislature. I have lost in a Republican-controlled Supreme Court. And I don't have all of the exact same tools.

"Despite those things, we still have some of the strongest mitigation measures in the country."

Whitmer was referring to the Oct. 2 ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court that a state law allowing the governor to declare emergencies and keep them in place without legislative input — the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act — was unconstitutional. The governor had used the law to issue stay-at-home orders and other restrictions to stem the spread of the virus.

After the ruling, Whitmer's administration began instituting restrictions under the public health code, which allows the state health director to issue epidemic orders that "prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose" or "establish procedures to be followed during the epidemic to insure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws."

Whitmer-appointee Elizabeth Hertel, who became the health director on Jan. 22, still has those powers.

In November, amid a fall surge in cases, Robert Gordon, who was then health director, used the authority to suspend indoor dining and in-person classes at high schools and colleges. He later said there was strong reason to believe the so-called "pause" had worked and had mattered in bringing down the numbers.

Some public health experts, including Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former Detroit health director, and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have called for Michigan to impose new restrictions on gatherings.

El-Sayed, an epidemiologist who ran against Whitmer in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, said he was proud of the governor's leadership to reduce cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the spring and fall of last year.

"We need that action again," El-Sayed said Sunday. "Though the GOP Legislature and Supreme Court conspired to take away the governor's powers, she used an alternative mechanism working through MDHHS, to pause in the fall. She retains those same powers now — and she needs to use them."

On Friday, Hertel extended the state's current restrictions on restaurants and gatherings, adding only a new mask requirement for children 2 years old to 4 years old.

At a Wednesday press conference, Whitmer said her administration is working to expand the use of medical interventions designed to reduce hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19. She continued to urge people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

"That’s precisely why instead of mandating that we’re closing things down, we are encouraging people to do what we know works," the governor said. "That’s the most important thing that we can do. It’s not the policy problem. It’s a variant and compliance problem."

During a Thursday appearance on WDET's "Detroit Today," Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, avoided detailing specifically what advice she had given the governor but said that stronger restrictions are a "policy option" that "would be effective" if people followed them.

"But we also have … therapeutics now. We have vaccines now," Khaldun said. "I don’t believe we need to do the type of restrictions that we did last April, just because we have learned so much more about this virus and we can be much more targeted and strategic in our efforts."