8 takeaways from Whitmer's briefing: Michigan health director resigns, contact sports, COVID variant

LANSING, Mich. – Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provided an update on COVID-19 in the state, including the future of contact sports, the spread of a new COVID variant and more about the resignation of Michigan’s health director.

Here are our seven takeaways from Monday afternoon’s briefing.

Vaccine distribution

Whitmer reported progress in the state’s distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, comparing the current numbers to those of two weeks ago.

Michigan had administered just 44% of state-controlled vaccines as of two weeks ago, though the rest were scheduled to be administered, she said.

Now, 67% of the state’s supply of vaccines have gone into arms, Whitmer said.

“This is good news, and I am proud, as we all should be, of the progress that we’ve made,” Whitmer said.

Michiganders who want vaccine will get one

While the state is reporting progress in its vaccine distribution efforts, there are still thousands of eligible residents trying to make appointments.

State officials said they’re still working to get enough vaccines for everyone in phases 1A and 1B to get their first doses.

“I know that people are anxious and ready to get the vaccine, and frankly, that’s a good thing,” Whitmer said. “The fact of the matter is, we don’t yet have the kind of supply that we need.”

She said Michigan officials have a plan to vaccinate 50,000 people per day.

“Once we have the vaccines that we need, every eligible Michigander who wants a vaccine will get the vaccine,” Whitmer said.

‘Still in the tunnel’

The governor talked about vaccinations, food assistance and job loss while highlighting actions her administration has taken to help Michiganders through the pandemic.

She said nearly 900,000 children in the state received food assistance through a partnership between MDHHS and the Michigan Department of Education.

But Whitmer also highlighted some of the issues still plaguing the state. She said there are college students losing their jobs due to the pandemic and some having to choose between college and food.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, however, we are still in the tunnel,” Whitmer said.

She asked the Michigan Legislature to pass her COVID recovery plan, which includes a boost to vaccine distribution, support for small businesses and further direction for schools.

COVID-19 metrics

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive for MDHHS, provided updated COVID-19 metrics for the state.

Michigan’s case rate is at 203 cases per million people, she said. That’s down 72% since the November peak.

The state’s percentage of tests coming back positive is also coming down. It currently sits at 6.2%, according to Khaldun.

The percentage of inpatient beds currently occupied by COVID-19 patients is at 9.2%, she said.

New variant

The new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.7, continues to spread in Michigan, Khaldun said.

As of Monday, the state has identified at least 13 confirmed cases in Washtenaw County and four confirmed cases in Wayne County.

“There are likely more cases that we have not yet identified, and there’s possibly spread of the variant that is happening right now,” Khaldun said.

She said the variant is more easily spread from person to person, but it doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease. Current tests can identify the variant, and the vaccine appears to work against it, she said.

But because it is more contagious, officials worry about the variant causing a dramatic spike in Michigan’s case and positivity rates.

“We do not want to have to go backwards to slow the great progress we’ve already made,” Khaldun said.

New health director speaks

MDHHS Director Robert Gordon abruptly resigned Friday, and Whitmer quickly appointed Elizabeth Hertel to fill the role.

Hertel joined Whitmer for Monday’s briefing, and offered her first comments since taking over as Michigan’s health director.

“I am honored to be here for the first time as the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services,” Hertel said.

She thanked Gordon for “his service and support of our mission, and his service to our state and its residents.”

Hertel talked about the actions taken to make sure Michigan families have access to food during the pandemic.

“I am proud to lead this department, where I can see evidence of the differences made every day, whether it’s ensuring Michiganders have access to benefits or food during difficult times, or protecting Michiganders’ public health during times of crisis,” Hertel said. “I look forward to continuing this great work alongside my colleagues at MDHHS.”

Whitmer on Gordon’s resignation

When Whitmer issued a release announcing Hertel’s appointment as the new Michigan health director on Friday, the only mention of Gordon was a single sentence at the very end of the release:

“Robert Gordon has resigned from his position, and the governor has accepted his resignation.”

Whitmer was asked about Gordon’s resignation during the question and answer portion of Monday’s briefing.

“I want to thank Robert Gordon, and Director Hertel did, as well,” Whitmer said. “To lead this department in unimaginable circumstances, it has been grueling, and on behalf of all the people in Michigan, I want to thank him for his service to our state. He worked hard to protect our public.”

Whitmer left it at that, and said she’s glad there was “another incredibly qualified person” to run the department.

She was asked specifically about her relationship with Gordon.

“I don’t think I have anything to add with regard to my comments about the former director,” Whitmer said. “I’ve shared with you that I wish him well. I’m grateful for his leadership, and we’ve got a wonderful new director at the apartment, so we’re going to continue to forge ahead here.”

Two questions later, Whitmer was pressed once more about whether she asked for Gordon’s resignation and if the news was expected.

“I think I’ve answered that question,” Whitmer said. “I think the only thing that I would say is it’s been a grueling couple of years, and changes in administrations happen. I wish Robert Gordon the very best. I truly do, and I am incredible grateful for the hard work and the way that he showed up every single day over these last few years. It has been a long, impossible-to-imagine experience, and I’m grateful that we had his leadership for two years and I’m wishing him very best-of-luck as he moves forward.”

Contact sports

The ban on certain winter contact sports has become a controversial topic in Michigan, especially since the high school football finals were allowed to continue over the weekend.

Dr. Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of Detroit schools, sent a letter to Whitmer on Monday saying it’s inconsistent to push for a return to in-person learning by March 1 but refuse to restart contact sports.

“The continuing suspension of winter ‘contact’ sports contradicts the message that it is safe to return to in-person learning,” Vitti wrote. “One only needs to ask any winter ‘contact’ sport athlete and they will tell you we are sending mixed and contradictory messages to them.”

Whitmer said officials are watching the numbers closely with regard to contact sports.

“I think it’s important to point out (the variant) and the seriousness and the high contagious aspects of this variant,” Whitmer said. “I understand the concern that parents and athletes have and their desire to re-engage, but also point to some events that just happened in the last couple of days.”

The governor was referring to an outbreak at the University of Michigan that forced the athletic department to completely shut down for two weeks.

“Our job is to try to curtail the spread of this new virus, this new variant in Michigan, and we’ve got to not let our guard down,” Whitmer said.

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