LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday that her administration may extend portions of a three-week partial shutdown of schools and businesses next week because of the “sheer volume” of coronavirus cases in Michigan.
The Democratic governor said no decision had been made, but that hospitals can’t be overrun with COVID-19 patients. Although the infection curve has leveled off, it is a “dangerous moment,” she said. The state reported 175 additional deaths, including 63 in the most recent 24-hour period and 112 from a records review. That total was the fifth-most during the pandemic, Whitmer said.
“As we get a few more days of information under our belts, we’ll be in a much stronger position to really assess if there are some things that maybe are safer to do,” Whitmer said during a news conference in which she reported continued progress addressing virus-related racial disparities. “But if we have to make some extensions of the current pause in some realms, that is sadly possible because of just the sheer volume of COVID” cases.
The state health department’s order — aimed at indoor gatherings — closed high schools to in-person instruction, stopped organized sports, prohibited indoor restaurant dining and closed various entertainment businesses such as movie theaters and bowling alleys. It will end late Tuesday unless extended, which was commonplace for stay-at-home and other restrictions earlier in the pandemic.
A governor-created task force on COVID-19 racial disparities released an interim report showing that Black residents continue to no longer be disproportionately infected and killed by the virus like they were in the spring. It confirms preliminary findings from late September.
The case rate per 1 million Black residents was 59 in September and October, down from 176 in March and April. The death rate dropped substantially, from 21.7 per 1 million to one per 1 million.
The next steps include tackling disparities in internet access, increasing enrollment in health insurance plans, expanding mobile testing sites in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint and Muskegon, and sending a letter to medical providers about disparities affecting patients. The testing sites will be able to offer other health services, including vaccine distribution.
“The work is not done,” said the task force’s chairman, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II.
A Republican lawmaker pressed a top state official to lift the order closing all high schools to in-person instruction, saying she thinks the decision should be made at the local level.
“Let the parents decide. Let the school systems decide whether they’re open or whether they’re closed,” Sen. Kim LaSata, of Berrien County’s Bainbridge Township, told Robert Gordon, the director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, during a joint House-Senate hearing. She said teachers who fear catching the potentially deadly disease should be replaced and she claimed that teens “might not be around each other in school now, but they’re around each other elsewhere.”
High schools and colleges are two weeks into a minimum three-week period in which they can only provide virtual classes. Before then, they had the option of on-site or remote instruction similar to K-8 schools, which are not covered by the directive.
Gordon said there is significantly more risk of the virus spreading in high schools than in lower grades, and the educational loss from online learning is more detrimental to younger students than high schoolers.
“I fully agree with you that reopening schools should be our priority, and we are eager to do all we can to reopen schools,” he said, urging GOP legislators to reverse course and codify a mask requirement into law. Earlier in the meeting, he said: “The only way we will get folks comfortable statewide with reopening schools is if we get the virus under better control.”
One in every 198 people in Michigan tested positive in the past week. The seven-day average of new daily cases, 7,208, was down slightly from the 7,312 two weeks ago. The positivity rate, 13.7%, was up from 11.6% on Nov. 18. The death rate was 96 per day, an increase from 62.4 over the same period.
Nearly 4,300 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms Thursday, including about 500 on ventilators, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
A top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, said the governor should release virus metrics Michigan must reach so restaurants know when to start preparing to reopen for dine-in customers. He urged her to “focus on addressing the bad actors” — businesses violating health and safety requirements — “rather than continue to impose mandates that threaten the livelihood of an entire industry.”
Whitmer has said the two most important metrics are the positivity rate and hospital capacity but has not specified specific targets, frustrating the business community.
Gordon said the administration was actively discussing specific metrics but added that other states like Illinois have abandoned the approach. “It’s very hard to predict the course of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s very hard to know how different variables will combine.”