Feds coming to Grand Rapids area to monitor coronavirus, Whitmer says

By: - July 14, 2020 12:34 pm

The Kent County COVID-19 memorial in Grand Rapids created by Karen Dunnam

Updated 5:06 p.m. 7/14/20 with comments from HHS

As Michigan’s coronavirus numbers have generally been ticking up, the Grand Rapids region has caught the eye of federal officials.

Kent County, home to Grand Rapids and much of the surrounding area, has 5,399 cases and 142 deaths, as of Monday — the fourth-most cases and deaths of Michigan’s 83 counties. Only Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties have more cases and deaths.

MI Safe Start Plan regions, as of July 14, 2020

Michigan has almost 70,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths.

The Grand Rapids region, along with Lansing, is at “high risk” for COVID-19, per Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s reopening plan. The Upper Peninsula and Traverse City areas are in Phase 5, where most businesses and functions are open, including theaters and gyms. The rest of the state in Phase 4, where retail and schools are permitted to operate. If regions go back to Phase 3, schools cannot reopen for in-person learning.

Whitmer said that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told her on Monday that a COVID-19 Response Assistance Field Team (CRAFT) will be coming to the Grand Rapids region. Teams have been on the ground in other areas with high case counts to try and tamp down the virus as cases have spiked across the country, particularly in Florida, Texas, California and Arizona.

In a phone interview Monday, the Advance asked Whitmer if there are any regions that are at risk for slipping back into Phase 3 soon.

“We’re watching very closely the Grand Rapids region,” she said, echoing statements she made at a press conference last week. “In fact, I was on the phone with Secretary Azar this morning. They’re sending in a CRAFT team into the Grand Rapids region. It’s an effort of Dr. [Deborah] Birx’s in conjunction with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and a number of other agencies. They have Grand Rapids on their radar as a place that they want to come in for a few days and study and understand what’s happening and try to be of assistance. It’s not just on my radar, obviously; it’s on the national radar too.”

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“Throughout the pandemic, interagency efforts have been deployed to support state and local governments’ COVID response,” an HHS spokesperson told the Advance. “Teams of top experts continue to visit emerging hotspots to support local and state efforts to identify the root cause of infection spread at the community level, identify best practices and put forth broader efforts to stop the spread. They have been deployed to locations across the U.S. to provide guidance and assistance to state and local stakeholders on the ground  – to listen, learn and support. Some of things the teams are looking at include: helping states and localities to address the need for adequate data, assess testing capabilities and plans, and protect the most vulnerable populations, particularly seniors.”*

The Advance asked Whitmer what health experts are telling her about why cases are rising again in Michigan, if it’s less adherence to health guidelines, people traveling in and out of the state or something else.

Whitmer said both are factors.

“People are dropping their guard. We’ve seen the Diamond Lake footage, that was a little bit of both, people dropping their guard and people coming in from Indiana and Illinois for that party,” she said. “We saw an outbreak in Midland where someone came in to help after the flood. They came from out of state to help and they brought COVID-19 with them. We saw a traveler to Traverse City bring COVID with them and infect all of the people they were coming to visit. So it’s a mixture of these — the Torch Lake sandbar party, we’re now seeing COVID cases coming from that and a house party in Saline.”

Nearly 70K Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19

Michigan had flattened the curve after being one of the top five states for coronavirus cases and deaths this spring. But cases have been on the rise in recent weeks, including in regions that weren’t initially hit hard, like northern Michigan and West Michigan.

Last week, Whitmer announced a stricter mask mandate in which businesses, as of Monday, can’t allow people indoors without face coverings, with limited exceptions for individuals and houses of worship, in order to stop COVID-19’s spread.

“I don’t think anyone wants to be ground zero for a COVID outbreak,” she told the Advance. “And that’s why business groups and individuals alike, all got to do their part. … Because it’s it’s devastating for people, for people’s lives, for our health care system, and for our economy.”

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.