Gov. Whitmer wants free college for front-line virus workers

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LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday proposed free college for health care workers and others involved in the COVID-19 fight, likening their service during the pandemic to soldiers who got a free education after returning home from World War II.

The program would require approval from the Legislature and begin by January 2021. Whitmer did not disclose the cost during a briefing with reporters but said the money would come from the federal government.

“It’s the right thing to do for those who have served on the front lines of this crisis,” said Whitmer, who mentioned child care workers, grocery store employees and nursing home staff.

Separately, the governor said the state will spend $130 million to help child care providers stay afloat, including those serving essential workers. Those getting a grant must reduce their weekly rates by at least 10% and care for children of essential workers regardless of where parents work.

Grants start at $1,500 for home-based providers and $3,000 for child care centers but could be higher.

Whitmer, who is gradually easing stay-at-home restrictions on businesses, said residential and commercial construction can resume May 7.

Tension under the dome

Whitmer, a Democrat, spoke to the media shortly before Republican lawmakers adjourned until Thursday without extending the state’s emergency. It is the cornerstone of her stay-home order and other directives aimed at managing the new coronavirus.

Whitmer wants legislators to stretch her emergency declaration by 28 days to ensure that health care workers continue to have special legal protections. It expires late Thursday. At the same time, she believes she has other independent powers to respond to the crisis and does not technically need the Legislature’s consent.

An email released by Whitmer’s office shows Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey proposed a pair of one-week extensions of the emergency in exchange for giving lawmakers a say in any future stay-at-home restrictions. Republicans complain that the rules are excessive and confusing.

“I am not going to engage in political negotiations with anybody,” Whitmer said. “We don’t have time for politics and games when people’s lives are on the line.”

Shirkey was disappointed after learning via Twitter that Whitmer had rejected his proposal, spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

Any interest among Republicans to try to work with Whitmer “has evaporated,” McCann said. Gideon D’Assandro, spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, said the chamber will return Thursday to negotiate for “common-sense changes.”

The numbers

Deaths attributed to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, rose by 103 to 3,670. The number includes 1,008 deaths in Detroit. Confirmed virus cases rose about 3% statewide to nearly 40,400.

“More and more it is our elders who are bearing the brunt of this,” Mayor Mike Duggan said of deaths in the city.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

Major health care providers in southeastern Michigan continued to report a drop in COVID-19 patients. Five hospitals in the Henry Ford Health System had 377 patients, below 400 for the first time since late March.

Beaumont Health said it had 554 patients, plus 45 with virus tests pending, down more than 30% since April 15.

Whitmer said temporary hospitals with 1,250 beds in Detroit and Novi will not be needed as patient loads ease.

“They’re not filled, thank God,” she said of the alternative sites.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, cautioned that some counties, particularly in West Michigan, are seeing cases grow at a faster rate than before.

Lawsuit

State Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray rejected a lawsuit filed by residents and a business owner who said Whitmer’s stay-home orders violated their constitutional rights. Issuing an injunction, he ruled, would not serve the public interest.

“Although the Court is painfully aware of the difficulties of living under the restrictions of these executive orders, those difficulties are temporary, while to those who contract the virus and cannot recover (and to their family members and friends), it is all too permanent,” Murray wrote.

Separate lawsuits against the governor are pending in other courts. State Attorney General Dana Nessel, who was pleased by the ruling, said it was the first substantive one on the constitutionality of Whitmer’s orders.

Nonvirus care

Whitmer, who is being urged to reverse a ban on elective medical and dental procedures, said she will announce “something in the coming days on that front.” Khaldun said many hospitals are starting to stabilize and do more time-sensitive and urgent procedures.

“People should not delay seeking medical care if they need it,” she said.

AP reporter Corey Williams contributed to this story.

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