Whitmer backs Oakland University’s January virtual learning plan amid omicron

Says health care workers facing violence have been ‘breaking their backs to take care of all of us for two years’

By: - December 22, 2021 3:41 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

After schools fought to have in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Oakland University this week joined colleges like Harvard and Stanford in announcing that classes will begin virtually next month due to the fast-spreading omicron variant.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Michigan Advance in a phone interview Wednesday that she supports the university’s move and other schools in Michigan may do the same — although she’s not aware of any.

Oakland University photo

“I do support that, and I do think that other schools may follow suit,” she said. “I don’t have knowledge that they are. I’ve not had those one-on-one conversations, but I know that a number of our larger public institutions are headed by people who are medical doctors and they’re epidemiologists. I know they’re looking; they’re doing the best they can to keep their student body and their educators on campus safe.”

Michigan’s three largest universities — Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan — last week announced requirements for students, faculty and staff to get booster shots by next term.

Children as young as 5 are now eligible for free COVID vaccines. But Michigan continues to lag most states, with only 63% of the total population getting one dose and 56% fully vaccinated. (Vermont, for instance, boasts 88% of residents with one dose and 81% with two). While many leaders, like Whitmer, set an initial goal of getting 70% of those 16 and older vaccinated, many experts now say hitting 90% is critical for herd immunity with more contagious variants circulating.

The Advance last interviewed Whitmer before Thanksgiving, as the delta-fueled fourth wave was crashing across Michigan before omicron had been detected here. For a time last month, Michigan had the most cases in the country, with mostly unvaccinated patients jamming hospitals. 

Cases have been dropping overall in the last two weeks, as they’ve been sharply rising in states including Florida, New York and Hawaii — but experts are concerned about the coming impacts of omicron and holiday gatherings. Deaths — which are a lagging indicator — have remained high. As of Wednesday, Michigan had 13,686 new COVID cases since Monday and 392 new deaths for a total of 1,448,523 cases and 26,376 deaths in the last 21 months.

Echoing her message at a Tuesday COVID briefing in Grand Rapids, Whitmer said, “I think that acknowledging the next four to six weeks, especially here in Michigan, are going to be really tough with this virus. And it’s not just Michigan, obviously Minnesota and our fellow states here in the Midwest, and states in the Northeast, are all really struggling right now. And decisions made on campuses like that will go a long way to keeping people safe.”

However, the state has not announced new health mandates since they ended in July. While the Legislature stripped the governor’s emergency powers by approving a right-wing ballot measure over the summer, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) still has the ability to issue orders. 

Whitmer confirmed to the Advance Wednesday she has never tested positive for COVID and her last negative test was that morning. She received her booster shot on Nov. 5.

But several leaders have disclosed recent breakthrough COVID infections, including Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The Advance asked Whitmer if she has increased her personal testing regimen.

“I test twice a week. I actually did my test this morning,” she said. “I do think that at this stage in the virus and the variants, that it’s likely that every one of us is going to get exposed to COVID at some point. I’m going to do everything I can to avoid that from happening, but this omicron variant is just that contagious.”

New: Whitmer says May CDC mask guidance was ‘infuriating’ and a mistake

Whitmer stressed, as she did at her last news conference, that we’re in a different place with the pandemic now than when it first slammed Michigan in March 2020. 

“In the early days we said, ‘Don’t come into contact with it,’ because of course, we didn’t have vaccines. We didn’t know a lot about the virus, it was so deadly,” she said. “At this juncture, we do have vaccines. We know that being vaccinated and boosted is the best way to stay safe from omicron, but that it is so incredibly contagious that each of us may come into contact with it. So the goal is to stay alive and it’s to stay out of the hospital, and the best way to achieve that is by being vaccinated and boosted.

“But I do observe the protocols, but I recognize that, like Gov. Hogan or [Minnesota] Gov. [Tim] Walz, who yesterday announced that he had been exposed, I think it’s important to be realistic that the goal is really to stay safe and to stay out of the hospital,” Whitmer added.

The Advance also talked to Whitmer about why she did her first COVID briefing since June, what can be done at the state level about violence against health care workers, and what she thinks of vaccination mandates at the city, state and federal levels.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: You did your first COVID briefing since June on Tuesday. Why did you stop doing those, and are you planning to hold more because of omicron?

Whitmer: I think we’ll have to see the turns that this virus takes. Elizabeth Hertel, our director of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and Dr. [Natasha] Bagdasarian, our chief medical executive, have continued to do briefings and share information. But we thought because of the holidays, because of how highly contagious this variant is, and considering the burden in all of our health care workers, that it was important that we bring everyone’s attention to the uniqueness of this variant, the importance of a higher-quality mask to stay safe, and reinforce that being boosted is the best way to stay safe from this particular variant.

Michigan Advance: Violence against health care workers, especially from COVID patients and their families, is up. What action can the state take to stop this?

Whitmer: Well, it’s not acceptable. I’m just absolutely beside myself that someone who chose not to avail themselves of a vaccine so they could stay out of the hospital, when they need help, [would] go and then treat our hospital workers with not just disrespect, but threats of violence. It’s not acceptable. There are laws that people will be punished for doing that, and I expect that they will be enforced.

These hospital workers are … they’ve been breaking their backs to take care of all of us for two years; they’re exhausted. Their ranks are thinning because people are burnt out. Each of them is at risk every day. They show up on the job to take care of the rest of us. If we have to go to the hospital, we better treat them with respect and gratitude, and anything short of that is unacceptable.

John Moore | Getty Images

Michigan Advance: But is there anything that you can do at the state level or that the Legislature can? [Ed. note: Sen. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) this month introduced bills increasing penalties for threatening or assaulting health care officials].

Whitmer: There are laws on the books that I anticipate will be enforced. We are working hard to give our hospital teams some support. We’ve gotten some additional supports from the Department of Defense, and the National Guard is assisting as they have throughout the pandemic. But we have laws on the books that if you assault or threaten a worker, you’re going to be held accountable, and you can bet that’s the case.

Michigan Advance: So you’ve said that the state isn’t looking to do any more COVID mandates, but do you support Michigan cities requiring vaccinations for things like gyms and restaurants, like Chicago is implementing?

Whitmer: Yeah. I know that the mayor of Chicago, and certainly in New York City, that at the local level, there have been these requirements. And I support local leaders making that determination. I think they’re watching the science; they’re seeing how devastating this is. And I think we all share the goal that, No. 1, is to keep people alive. No. 2 is to keep them out of the hospital. Three, it’s to keep our kids in school, and four is to keep our businesses open. And these types of requirements at the local level, I think can help toward all those goals.

I'm just absolutely beside myself that someone who chose not to avail themselves of a vaccine so they could stay out of the hospital, when they need help, (would) go and then treat our hospital workers with not just disrespect, but threats of violence. It's not acceptable. There are laws that people will be punished for doing that, and I expect that they will be enforced.

– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan Advance: A couple weeks ago in Howard City, you were critical of the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate, because it could mean the state will lose workers. What do you say to health experts who say that the only way to reach herd immunity is through vaccine mandates?

Whitmer: Well, I think it’s important to know and to acknowledge, I actually wasn’t criticizing the Biden administration. What I was doing was acknowledging that as an employer, the state will confront a lot of the same challenges that private employers will in terms of what it’s going to mean for a workforce that won’t get vaccinated — they’ll leave. And we already have a lot of positions that we need yet to fill, similar to the private sector.

I think it was just important to acknowledge I get it, and I think it’s going to be a challenge, but the fact of the matter is we are digesting the guidance from the federal government. We will be required and will move forward with employing that here in Michigan, at the timeline that they’ve set for, and we’ll do our best to encourage people to get vaccinated. That’s what we’ve always been focused on, and that won’t change. We’ll continue to push on that front.

Michigan Advance: Do you think that mandates are the way that we’ll finally reach herd immunity?

Whitmer: Yes, I think that they can be an important part of getting there. The population that is still not vaccinated and that is filling up our hospital beds, we’ve seen that mandates haven’t changed their behavior. This is who we are really focused on trying to reach. Perhaps some will get vaccinated because of it and that would be a good thing. But I still remain concerned about the politicization of this health care crisis; this health crisis that has pushed people to political corners, and we have to address that.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

And that’s why I think when [former President] Donald Trump says publicly, just this week, that he’s gotten the booster and he encourages people to get vaccinated, that’s important. And I hope people are listening because it really is the key. We’ve got to get the politics out of this public health crisis.

Michigan Advance: You said that the mandates aren’t changing behavior, but at workplaces like United Airlines and in the military where they do have mandates, you’re seeing like 95%, 97% compliance. So you don’t think they’re working?

Whitmer: I think mandates do. Some people will change their mind because of a mandate, but not everyone. And that’s part of the concern is we want to get to everyone. We want to encourage people to do this, whether it’s to hold onto their job or it is because they understand the severity of the moment, and the way this virus is mutating. All of these things are going to be important to getting us to a high level of folks vaccinated and boosted.

The Advance will have more from the interview with Whitmer in future editions.

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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.

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