More than 140,000 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1,277 people have died from it since the Michigan Supreme Court struck down the law underpinning Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency authority on Oct. 2.
But 46 days after the legal win for legislative Republicans earned them a seat at the table, House and Senate leaders have yet to offer a comprehensive public health plan to stop the virus’s spread as it surges in Michigan. At the same time, they have publicly criticized efforts from the Gov. Gretchen Whitmer administration to do so.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon on Sunday issued an emergency order under the public health code stopping activities like indoor dining and in-person high school instruction for three weeks in an effort to control the spread.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, criticized the move. Shirkey slammed Whitmer for deciding to “go it alone,” and Chatfield said the legislature was ready to work in a bipartisan way “when the governor decides it is worth her time.”
But in the medical community, people were grateful to see the order and disappointed to see Republican leaders criticism.
Rob Casalou, CEO of Trinity Health, said he and his colleagues in the medical community have watched the virus become a “political circus.”
“Our leadership in the House and Senate have a choice to make, a very deliberate choice, to either come together in a unified front with the rest of their colleagues and the governor,” Casalou said. “If they don’t, and if they choose to continue what they’re doing, then I asked that they step aside, so that those of us who want to deal with this can get the work done. And that’s a choice that only they can make.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has Michigan thoroughly in its grip.
The seven-day case average is 6,825 per day, more than four times what it was at the state’s previous case peak in April.
Hospitalizations — a lagging indicator, since those can come days or weeks after an initial diagnosis — have increased nearly five-fold since October 1. Hospitals are running up against capacity limits as cases surge, and don’t have the staff to support many additional beds.
Both Shirkey and Chatfield declined interviews via their spokespeople, who also did not respond to questions on if any statewide plan to control the virus’s spread was forthcoming.
With no plan of their own and no state of emergency allowing Whitmer to issue orders herself, the MDHHS is the only obvious source of authority to address the immediate problem of surging cases.
House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, wonders if her Republican colleagues are effectively deferring to the agency because making these decisions is difficult.
“They don’t want to take the heat. Here they wanted the responsibility, right? They fought and spent taxpayer dollars fighting this in court, and they get their victory, and then what do they do? Nothing. And they rely on the experts at the Department of Health and Human Services… but then yet, they still continue to attack those,” Greig said.
Whitmer acted largely alone to curb the virus by issuing executive orders this spring. She met with harsh criticism in the form of rallies outside her office and home, but also won support. In the State of the State Survey through Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, her approval rating soared from 36.6% pre-pandemic to 51.9% in May.
In statements following Sunday night’s announcement of new restrictions, Shirkey and Chatfield pointed to a number of legislative responses to the coronavirus crisis.
But those responses have largely addressed specific populations — like nursing homes and schools — or been logistical responses, such as allowing for remote public meetings or channeling coronavirus relief funds.
House Republicans have introduced a data-driven plan that allows some restrictions to be loosened regionally as key metrics improve, but it doesn’t address the immediate crisis, according to sponsor Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso. Instead, he described it as a mid- to long-range plan in an interview last week.
“I would love to see additional engagement between the administration and the legislature on the ongoing COVID response strategy. But I also want to see constructive engagement on the things that we need to do in the immediate term for the increased hospitalizations, the increased positivity rate, and not find out about it after decisions are made,” Frederick said.
Where the legislature sees Whitmer as being unwilling to engage, Whitmer sees the opposite.
In a call with reporters on Monday, Whitmer said the legislature has dismissed her call for them to codify the current mask mandate and put forward other ideas.
“So, that’s why I think when I see the criticisms it just doesn’t seem particularly serious because they haven’t done anything and they haven’t offered up anything,” Whitmer said.
It’s also not clear the legislature could act quickly. The chambers have a meeting scheduled for Wednesday but it’s their only one slated until December due to a traditional two-week hunting break. Last week, three lawmakers were diagnosed with the coronavirus, and two had been in contact with other members.
Vanguard Public Affairs President and Managing Partner TJ Bucholz, whose background is in public health communications, said, “I think that this Michigan legislature has the same take on COVID as Donald Trump does, which is, if we wish it, it will go away. If we just don’t think about it, or if we just ignore it, it will go away.”
Greig said she expected the resistance from Republican leadership to decrease after the election, but it hasn’t.
“I was like, oh, we’ve got to just get past this election and we can… work on some great bipartisan bills and we can, you know, get some more stuff done and it just seems like the partisanship has continued to ramp up,” she said.
Public health experts are lining up squarely behind the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, with the heads of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association as well as individual hospital systems issuing statements of support.
“The MHA and our member hospitals appreciate Governor Whitmer’s strong and swift response to the current surge in COVID-19 cases,” MHA chief executive officer Brian Peters said in a statement that urged public compliance with the orders. “Hospitals are asking for all of Michigan to unite against COVID-19.”
The MDHHS orders are a science-based, absolutely necessary approach to the current situation, said James Dover, CEO of Sparrow Health System in Lansing.
“The reality is if we don’t stop (the current surge), Michigan is headed toward a cliff,” he said.
On Oct. 15, his system had 35 coronavirus patients; 55 on Oct. 30 and “today it’s 117,” Dover said Monday. “So it’s doubling every 15 days or so.”
Other hospitals are reporting the same trend, which Dover called “unsustainable.”
“What we’re looking at for future cases coming down the pike will overrun our entire health system across entire state,” he said.
With coronavirus transmission rates so high, dramatic action is needed to change individual behavior, he said. From the standpoint of the health-care community, he said, the MDHHS order provides “an initial shock to the system, just to put a pause” on “this snowball coming down the mountain.”
Ingham County Public Health Director Linda Vail concurred, saying European countries with dramatic surges in coronavirus are seeing success in bringing numbers down through various closures.
Less dramatic strategies such as calling for personal responsibility haven’t worked in Michigan or anywhere else, Vail said, “so it calls for action.”
She added that MDHHS used data to target the closures. Restaurants and bars, where people are indoors without masks, have been shown to be high-risk environments, Vail said. Other establishments, such as hair salons, where outbreaks have been few, are being allowed to stay open.
“Data is being used to identify where all of these cases are being derived from, and that data points to the places that we just issued further restrictions on,” Vail said. “There’s just no doubt about that data.”
Rhetoric from President Trump and other political leaders who downplay coronavirus “do not help at all,” Vail said.
“It would help if we could get support from both parties, so the message is unified on both sides of the political spectrum,” she said. “We need to get at the hearts and minds of leaders who are sending out messages to people. We need to get them to say, ‘We support this.’”
Casalou, the Trinity Health CEO, said this shouldn’t be a political issue. Things like a lack of legislative support for wearing masks are reflected in the state’s current crisis, he said.
“For those of us on the inside watching this play out in our hospitals, with people dying, with people having avoidable deaths and avoidable infections,” it’s heartbreaking and frustrating, he said. “All because of personal decisions by people that weren’t going to follow guidelines, all because their legislators said it was OK.”
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