Breaking: Hertel takes helm at state health dept.

By: - January 22, 2021 3:15 pm

DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel (left) and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (right)

Updated, 3:26 p.m., 1/22/21

Elizabeth Hertel, who previously served as senior chief deputy director for administration for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), will be leading the 14,000-employee department as the director starting Friday.

Hertel told the Advance in an exclusive interview Friday afternoon that she is optimistic about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s goal to administer 50,000 COVID-19 vaccines per day. 

I absolutely think that’s a feasible goal, and the only barrier standing in between us and achieving that goal right now is getting the appropriate number of allocations into the state of Michigan, although I know that Gov. Whitmer is working very closely with the Biden administration to increase the number of vaccinations that are going into state into the next couple of weeks.”

Michigan is currently behind schedule to hit this big goal, as it’s only been receiving about 60,000 vaccine doses per week. Whitmer has said she would like to get 70% of Michiganders above the age of 16 vaccinated by the end of 2021.

Hertel is married to Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) and has worked for DHHS since 2013. She oversees external relations and communications, finance and administration, legislative services, legal affairs, policy and planning, strategic integration, organizational services, workforce engagement and community and faith engagement.

“Elizabeth Hertel has dedicated her career to protecting Michiganders’ public health, and she is uniquely prepared to lead MDHHS as we continue working together to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

She previously has worked for Michigan House Republicans and served under administrations from both parties. Hertel told the Advance she is hopeful her relationships across the aisle will help “the department be successful with the goals that we have set in the next couple years.”

“I think it’s really important that we remain civil with the people that we work with and understand that sometimes we have differences of opinion. But in general, we are working toward many of the same goals, and that is especially true when it comes to health care, making sure that people have access to coverage, and that they’re getting the health care that they need,” Hertel said. “And so I think it’s a field where there are a number of different ideas about how to get things done, but people mostly share the same goal and that makes it easier to work toward that goal.”

Whitmer has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism from GOP leaders of the Legislature over the administration’s aggressive COVID-19 response since April and restrictions — including Republicans on Friday slamming DHHS’ most recent order on indoor dining for not going far enough. Republican leaders this month also have threatened not to approve her appointments and more COVID-19 federal relief unless she lifts more restrictions.

Whitmer notably highlighted Hertel’s bipartisan credentials.

“She has served across multiple administrations from both parties, and knows how to bring people together to get things done. In her service to the state, she has proven time and again that she will do everything in her power to ensure the health and safety of Michigan families everywhere. Ending the COVID-19 pandemic is going to take hard work and partnership between state government, businesses, and organizations across the state. I know that Elizabeth is ready and eager to start working with partners everywhere to get it done.” 

Hertel replaces Robert Gordon, a former Obama administration official who Whitmer appointed in 2019 at the beginning of her term and was a leading voice throughout the state’s fight against COVID-19. 

Gordon was not at Whitmer’s press conference Friday morning announcing that indoor dining would resume at bars and restaurants on Feb. 1 as long as social distancing is maintained and there is a 25% capacity limit, but issued a statement.* 

He also served as a volunteer lead on Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services transition team.

“Today, I am resigning from the Whitmer Administration. It’s been an honor to serve alongside wonderful colleagues. I look forward to the next chapter,” Gordon said on Twitter.

Hertel said that having followed the case rates, positivity data and hospitalization data across the state, which has all seen improvement in recent weeks, “we can start opening things up in a safe manner while we continue to watch the case numbers very, very closely.”

The Advance asked Hertel about how the state is responding to the new variant of COVID detected in Michigan and other states.

“The new variant … was originally identified in the United Kingdom. The major difference between the original variant COVID and this one is that it is significantly more transmissible. So if you test positive for the new variant, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be sicker or that the symptoms are more severe; it just means that it’s more easily transmissible to other people,” she said.

“So the important thing knowing that is that we continue with our mitigation efforts, mask wearing, social distancing and in trying to ensure, of course, that we’re getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible. And that’s going to be our best course of action to try to stave off the transmission of this variant of COVID.”

Asked what the department’s top priority was after COVID, Hertel said it “would be hard to say because we have so many different programs, but continuing to look toward ensuring that we have adequate health care coverage for those most vulnerable in the state, making sure that our children live and are growing up in safe environments, that families who are experiencing economic hardship have access to the support that they need through food assistance and other assistance programs and ensuring that we are treating people who have behavioral health or substance use disorders in a way that they also have access to the services that they’re looking for around the state.

“So I think we have a number of  big jobs ahead of us, but there’s a really great team at the department to be able to meet those goals and so I’m really excited about it,” she added.

Hertel has worked as a senior advisor for Health Policy in the state House Republican Policy Office and as a legislative assistant to state Rep. Bruce Caswell. She began her tenure in the House in 2005. In 2010, she worked as a consultant with Public Sector Consultants and then as a policy analyst at Blue Cross Blue Shield. She returned to the House in 2011.

Hertel joined the Michigan Department of Community Health, which was a forerunner in DHHS, eight years ago as the senior assistant for policy and planning, during the former Gov. Rick Snyder administration. In February 2014, Hertel was appointed director of policy and planning. 

Following the merger of the departments of Community Health and Human Services into DHHS in 2015, Hertel served as senior deputy director for policy, planning and legislative services. 

In October 2016, she left that position to serve as director of Michigan Advocacy for Trinity Health and returned to DHHS and her current position in February 2019. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Grand Valley State University and an MBA at Michigan State University. 

Correction: The story has been updated that Gordon issued a statement on indoor dining restrictions.

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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.