Gov. Whitmer plan ties lifting COVID-19 restrictions to vaccination rates

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan Thursday to tie the future of COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan to the percentage of residents who get their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

The Democratic governor described the "MI Vacc to Normal" plan as the state's way out of the pandemic, which has been tied to more than 17,400 deaths in Michigan and spurred limitations on gatherings and businesses for more than a year.

Under the new four-phase plan, the Whitmer administration will begin easing restrictions two weeks after 4.5 million residents, or 55% of the adult population, receive their first dose. She said her administration will lift a requirement for remote work when it's feasible.

The 55% threshold could be reached in the next seven to 10 days, Whitmer said. The change in policies would occur 14 days later, potentially by the end of May.

“The MI Vacc to Normal challenge outlines steps we can take to emerge from this pandemic as we hit our vaccination targets together,” Whitmer said. “On our path to vaccinating 70% of Michiganders 16 and up, we can take steps to gradually get back to normal while keeping people safe. 

"If you haven’t already, I encourage you to rise to the challenge and be a part of the solution, so we can continue our economic recovery and have the summer we all crave.” 

The second step in the plan happens two weeks after 4.9 million residents, or 60% of the adult population, receive their first vaccine dose. The administration will increase indoor capacity limits on stadiums, gyms, banquet centers and funeral homes to 25% and lift the current 11 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants. The capacity limit at gyms would go from the current 30% to 50%.

The third step comes two weeks after 5.3 million residents, or 65% of the adult population, get their first dose. The administration will lift all indoor capacity restrictions and relax limits on residential social gatherings. Restaurants are currently limited to 50% capacity.

For the second and third steps, Whitmer said the state health department might delay implementation in a certain region of the state if the seven-day average of new cases there is greater than 250 a day per million residents.

"We believe this is unlikely, but it's an important safety valve if something unexpected were to happen," Whitmer said.

The final and fourth step would occur two weeks after 5.7 million residents, or 70% of the adult population, get their first dose. Then, the state will lift its gathering and face mask orders.

Whitmer said for her new plan, she took input from members of the Republican-controlled Legislature who have often clashed with her during the pandemic.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said in a statement that "it took 400 days too long for the governor to be straightforward about how she will navigate this disease."

About 4 million Michigan residents, about 50% of the adult population, have now received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to data on the state's website. About 3 million residents, 37% of the adult population, are completely vaccinated.

Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan, agrees the 55% threshold could be reached by next week and “realistically, 70% could be mid-to-late June.”

"We’re going to move away from these mass vaccination sites to being able to have conversations and counseling," Malani said. "I don’t think we’re done with the people who want to be vaccinated, and we assume that people haven’t gotten vaccinated because they’re not interested, but they are also people, a lot of young people especially who had COVID recently, that are waiting to get vaccinated because it’s not clear how long after they should wait.

"Especially because if you look at the dashboard, the younger people ... their vaccination rates are still pretty small.”

For teenagers ages 16-19, 25% have at least one dose of vaccine. For adults ages 20-29, 29% have at least one shot.

The Small Business Association of Michigan applauded Thursday's plan.

"For months, small businesses have sought metrics for reopening our economy and the ‘MI Vacc to Normal’ plan does exactly that," association President Brian Calley said. “Widespread vaccinations are the way out of this pandemic, and we urge Michiganders who have not gotten a vaccine yet to do so.”

Asked why she was changing her strategy after previously resisting tying reopening to specific metrics in the past, Whitmer said the difference is the state now has access to vaccines.

"For 11 out of the last 15 months, we didn't have vaccines, and so we couldn't tie something to a metric that really is the best tool that we have to get back to normal," she said.

"I think you're going to see this is a creative way of challenging us to rise to this moment and to meet it, and every one of us can play a part in doing that, and it benefits the whole state when we do so."

Other pandemic restrictions, related to outdoor gatherings, could be lifted in the coming days.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said her department is exploring options to ease limitations for summer events such as festivals, fairs and golf tournaments.

She said official changes to the current epidemic order are also coming soon "to reflect and align" with the new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC issued guidance Tuesday that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks outdoors unless they are in a large crowd of strangers, and those who are unvaccinated can go without a face covering outside in some instances.

Michigan's current epidemic order broadly requires residents, whether vaccinated, to wear masks while participating in gatherings.

Public health leaders stressed Michigan is still emerging from its third surge of COVID-19 cases in which the state has led the nation in new cases per population for nearly a month. But Michigan is in a better position than two weeks ago.

"The data still indicates that we have broad community spread," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive. "This includes spread of the more easily transmitted variants that have been identified across the entire state."

Michigan this week has 493 cases per million people, which is 30% lower than it was two weeks ago, but still four times where the state was in mid-February, Khaldun said.

The percent of tests that are returning positive is about 13.2% — nearly three times where the state was in the middle of February, but down by 4.3% from two weeks ago, she said.

Outbreaks are continuing with 1,272 being tracked in counties across the state — a figure that is "holding steady," she said. Statewide, 19% of hospital beds are being used for COVID-19 patients, and the total number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is trending down, she added.

"This is better, but this is still not where we want to be. These are good trends in the right direction," Khaldun said. "And I want to thank all of the Michiganders who are doing the right thing, wearing masks socially distancing and getting tested."

She said the state health department has posted updated guidance online for year-end school activities such as graduations and proms.

"We don't want any of these events to cause outbreaks and undo the great progress that we are making," she said. "Things like testing, masking and doing activities in smaller cohorts can make these activities much safer."

During Thursday's press conference, the governor addressed people who are hesitant about getting the vaccine and urged those with lingering questions to talk to their family doctor.

"To those family, friends and neighbors who still have questions about the vaccine, let me answer some of them and speak directly to you: The vaccine is safe. It'll protect you, your family and other people from getting COVID. It has gone through rigorous testing and over 140 million Americans have taken it," Whitmer said.

"The COVID vaccine, like others before it for polio and smallpox, is trusted by doctors. Vaccines are our best chance of putting this pandemic behind us, and returning to normal. They represent hope and healing."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who heads a state task force on COVID-19 racial disparities, said he's launching a tour across the state to address the disparities in vaccine adoption in communities of color. He plans stops in cities such as Flint, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and Detroit. About 30% of residents in Detroit have received at least one dose of vaccine, 20 percentage points lower than the state average.

"Even now, I am still having conversations, every day with family, with friends, with neighbors about the vaccine, its safety and its effectiveness," he said. "People have questions, and that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is OK to ask questions. It's also important to note that those questions have answers."

Public health experts say a key to preventing another surge of the virus in Michigan is to ensure more residents get vaccinated. Whitmer's goal continues to be for 70% of the adult population to be vaccinated.

Whitmer received her second Pfizer shot Thursday in Grand Rapids, and in two weeks, she plans to have a small gathering with a handful of close friends who she hasn't seen in months, she said.

"We're going to have a few Oberons, we're gonna share some laughs and share strategies on how to best embarrass our children," Whitmer said. "It's gonna be terrific. It's what moms do."