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April 2 | This Week in Government: COVID-19 Restrictions Discussed Amid Third Wave; State Receives Accountability Waiver on M-STEP

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, will provide members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

  1. ‘Robust Conversations’ on Restrictions, Whitmer Says, Amid Third Wave
  2. State Receives Accountability Waiver on M-STEP, Test Still Could Be Given
  3. Counties Declare Emergency Status As Virtual Meetings Clause Ends
  4. Ebersole Discusses Mass Vax Site As Gov Pledges 100K Shots Per Day
  5. James Launches Leadership PAC

‘Robust Conversations’ on Restrictions, Whitmer Says, Amid Third Wave

A week after saying that reimposing restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus was not under active consideration, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that her administration is having “robust conversations” on that topic as Michigan COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations soar to the worst numbers in the nation.

In the span of five weeks, Michigan has gone from one of the states in the best shape with COVID-19 to the worst.

In the past seven days, Michigan has seen 379.2 newly confirmed cases of the virus per 100,000 people, worst among the 50 states. Only New Jersey and New York state come close. Meanwhile, neighboring states, while starting to trend up after flattening in March, remain in much better shape with Illinois 20th at 134.8, Ohio 27th at 109.1, Wisconsin 29th at 94.9, and Indiana 30th at 94.7.

It was not clear when exactly the Whitmer administration went from treating the reimposition of restrictions as “not something that we’re actively considering,” as Gov. Whitmer told the Michigan Chronicle’s “Pancakes and Politics” forum on March 25, to “continuing to have robust conversations” as she told CNN during a Wednesday interview. Press Secretary Bobby Leddy, asked about the change in tenor, said he had nothing to add to Gov. Whitmer’s comments.

The Governor struggled to find an answer when the host of the CNN program pressed her on why Michigan’s numbers have worsened so rapidly. Gov. Whitmer had cited the more transmissible variants of the disease and COVID-19 fatigue among residents, but the host noted that is true of many states on the variant and all states on fatigue with the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does indicate Michigan (along with more populous California and Florida) have the most confirmed cases of variants in the nation.

Gov. Whitmer repeated one of her frequent recent talking points, that it looked bad when Michigan went from a 3% to 6% positivity rate but it should be kept in mind that Michigan had started out with one of the lowest positivity rates. The Governor, however, said nothing of Michigan’s seven-day positivity rate now standing at 13.29%, one of the two worst rates in the nation.

There has been considerable discussion about whether the Whitmer administration’s relaxation of restrictions that began in January with the reopening of in-person learning in high schools and continued with the resumption of high school contact sports and dine-in service at bars and restaurants as well as permission of larger gatherings caused the surge in cases. Michigan’s seven-day average for newly confirmed virus cases hit 4,945 Wednesday, six times where it stood on Feb. 20.

Gov. Whitmer herself has said more activity means more spread.

But other states, particularly Indiana, have had looser restrictions.

More people in Michigan have been tested in Michigan than in Ohio and Indiana in the past seven days, but it’s about the same as Wisconsin and less than Illinois.

And that doesn’t explain the sky-high seven-day average positivity rate of 13.29% in Michigan, which along with South Dakota, is the highest in the nation. On Tuesday, Michigan had its third consecutive day where the percentage of people tested for the virus testing positive exceeded 15%.

Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state epidemiologist, said one possible explanation is that some of Michigan’s neighboring states have greater percentages of what is called seroprevalence, meaning testing showing residents with COVID-19 antibodies, signaling they have already had the disease and thus have some level of resistance to reinfection.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 18.9% of Michigan’s population has had the virus. That compares to 31.6% in Ohio, 33.3% in Illinois, 28.4% in Wisconsin, and 20.8% in Indiana. Lyon-Callo cautioned about drawing too sharp a conclusion, noting that the percentages between Indiana and Michigan are not that far apart.

Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and especially Illinois in the past week have begun trending up. They perhaps might be where Michigan was in late February when cases slowly began rising before accelerating in March.

“I don’t know whether Michigan is sort of first in to this increase,” Lyon-Callo said.

Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease physician and professor at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, said Michigan’s lower infection rate after the first wave ended is a likely culprit in why Michigan is seeing so many more cases now. Fewer people in Michigan have had the virus, so fewer have the antibodies people in other states have to prevent infection, Gulick said.

When combining that with Michigan having greater prevalence of the variant and the lifting of restrictions creating an ability and desire to resume normalcy, that’s the mix of ingredients fueling the third wave, he said.

Lyon-Callo said she attributed Michigan’s case surge to the spread of variants to the return to in-person learning, high school sports, and activities related to those events and more people going back to work in person.

The state’s weekly data modeling showed some notable trends. Hospitalizations have increased the most among those 50 to 59 years old, a sign of the vaccine focus on older residents for the past two months.

The percentage of inpatient beds occupied by people with the virus has risen to 8.1% after falling to a low of 2.6% on Feb. 28.

The counties in the worst shape based on the percentage testing positive between March 19-25 are Huron (30%), Sanilac (24%), St. Clair (23%), Lapeer and Otsego (22%), Missaukee and Tuscola (21%) and Oscoda and Wexford (20%). Close behind are Macomb and Roscommon (17%) and Antrim and Crawford (16%).

New cases are rising the fastest among those 0-9 years old (230% increase) and 10-19 (227% increase).

Gov. Whitmer and her administration continue to beseech residents to wear face coverings.

“It’s spring. We all want to get out, get back to normalcy,” Lyon-Callo said. “But we still need to hold the line here.”


State Receives Accountability Waiver on M-STEP, Test Still Could Be Given

While the federal government is still considering the Department of Education’s request to waive its requirement the state give a summative assessment, it did approve a waiver for school accountability related to the test due to the coronavirus.

The U.S. Department of Education approved the accountability waiver on Friday. The Michigan Department of Education said Monday the federal government has yet to rule on the assessment waiver request, so it is informing local school districts that the statewide summative assessment – M-STEP in Michigan’s case – will be administered in the spring.

“This has been an extremely challenging year for students and educators,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said. “USED’s waiver of federal accountability requirements recognizes that our schools are still navigating their way through a deadly pandemic that continues to grip our state and nation.”

The accountability waiver means the state will not have to use M-STEP scores to:

  • Measure progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress;
  • Meaningfully differentiate, on an annual basis, all public schools; and
  • Identify schools for comprehensive, targeted, and additional targeted support and improvement based on data from the 2020-2021 school year.

MDE has been working with the Legislature to set aside state laws for high-stakes accountability tied to testing, including education evaluations and the requirements of the third grade reading law.

If the federal government does waive the requirement that the state give the M-STEP, it will ask the Legislature to waive state law requirements for the test as well.

Schools still must give benchmark assessments to students – though the test can be chosen locally – to provide parents and educators with the knowledge on where students are academically and to help target resources and support as a result.

“This has been an extremely challenging year for students and educators,” Rice said. “USED’s waiver of federal accountability requirements recognizes that our schools are still navigating their way through a deadly pandemic that continues to grip our state and nation.”


Counties Declare Emergency Status As Virtual Meetings Clause Ends

Many counties are turning to declaring states of emergency so that they may continue to meet virtually as the blanket ability for public bodies to hold virtual meetings for any reason will sunset effective March 31.

Under PA 254 of 2020, localities were given the ability to host virtual meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Act for any reason until the end of March as a measure to ensure county boards of commissioners, school boards, city councils, township boards, and other public bodies could meet without risking the spread of COVID-19. After Wednesday, however, virtual meetings could only be utilized should an individual be serving active military duty, have a medical condition, or if the locality or Michigan itself had declared a state of emergency.

Following Jan. 1, 2022, the statute would only allow for virtual meetings accommodation for members absent for military duty.

Derek Melot, spokesperson for the Michigan Association of Counties, said Tuesday that the group has sent a yes-no survey to all 83 counties in the state asking them to indicate if they will be declaring a state of emergency for their jurisdiction.

Of the 55 counties that have responded thus far, 37 have indicated that they either have a state of emergency already in place or are expecting to have one in place by Wednesday. A majority of the non-responders are located in northern Michigan or in the Thumb. But their unresponsiveness should not be viewed as an indication as to whether they are or are not adopting a state of emergency, Melot said, simply that they have not responded to the survey as of Tuesday afternoon.

There are both pros and cons of returning to holding in-person meetings, as there is with keeping meetings mostly virtual, said MAC Governmental Affairs Associate Meghann Keit-Corrion.

“There are likely parts of the state that want to return to in-person, and that’s fine if they observe state health requirements before returning to in-person,” Keit-Corrion said. “I think it’s about wanting to get back to a sense of normalcy, but we’ve seen our members really evolve and adapt, and we’ve seen an increase in participation (in virtual meetings). We may see that continue, to really increase transparency and engage with the community.”

In Wayne County, a state of emergency has been declared through May 31. County officials noted in a statement that it has seen a 235% increase in COVID-19 cases since mid-February, with Wayne County Public Health Officer Carol Austerberry saying the jurisdiction “cannot yet afford to let our guard down.”

For some however, especially regarding connectivity issues in the more rural and northern parts of the state, the drawbacks outweigh the positives. Mike Selden, director of member information services at the Michigan Townships Association, said that he believes several rural townships might begin to hold in-person meetings mostly out of ease of access for their membership.

As some of these township meetings are already quite small in the first place, the ability for these bodies to comply with state guidelines – which currently limit gatherings to no more than 25 people, while socially distanced – is easier to comply with when compared to the hardship of accessing a steady internet connection or having clear cell phone service.

But, Selden acknowledged, that may not be the case for townships with larger jurisdictions that know their body, aides and possible meeting attendees could surpass that allowance threshold, especially on the chance an association is discussing a particularly heated topic.

Because townships would be covered under a county’s jurisdiction should it decide to declare a state of emergency, Selden said the association did not have clear data on how many townships specifically have enacted emergency status. Townships would still have the option, however, of choosing to host an in-person public meeting even if their county decided to declare a state of emergency.

“As long as precautions are taken into account to the current restrictions, I think for most townships there’s not as much fear there for them having spread at their meetings,” Selden said, of the coronavirus. “The makeup is going to be different across the board, but hopefully, even with cases going up, we’re on the downhill slide for everything, and after a meeting or two things will get better as people are able to get vaccinated and work through this more.”

There are, however, some who are choosing to issue states of emergency out of fear of the recent COVID-19 uptick across the state.

In Detroit – which was hit early and hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – officials have declared a state of emergency through May 31 as it continues to battle not just a general uptick in cases but a rise in B.1.1.7 variants as well.

Denise Fair, the city’s chief public health officer, noted that COVID-19 cases have more than doubled from Feb. 7 through Feb. 13 when compared to March 14 through March 20, jumping from 302 last month to 804 cases as of last week. The positivity rate in the city has also risen from 3.2% to 7% over that same six-week period.

“A number of public bodies in Detroit that are subject to the Open Meetings Act will find it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct live meetings open to the public without violating CDC safety guidelines, so we needed to act now,” Fair said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of conducting open and transparent government meetings, but we need to do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the public’s health and safety.”

Michigan is currently experiencing a third wave of COVID-19 cases.


Ebersole Discusses Mass Vax Site As Gov Pledges 100K Shots Per Day

A leader from the state’s Protect Michigan Commission on coronavirus vaccine distribution said Wednesday that the state is doing all it can to reach vaccine-aided herd immunity by July 4, which falls in line with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s latest pledge to administer 100,000 shots to residents per day.

The assertion came from Kerry Ebersole, a Whitmer-appointed leader of the commission that formed in December 2020, during a livestreamed forum hosted Wednesday by the Detroit Regional Chamber through its COVID-19 Business Restart Center.

Ebersole also discussed issues surrounding the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mass vaccination site at Detroit’s Ford Field and other topics relating to vaccine distribution in Michigan.

Prior to the forum, Gov. Whitmer announced in a news release that the state would be raising its vaccination goal from 50,000 to 100,000 shots per day, based on Michigan’s effort to expand access by partnering with private and public organizations across the state.

The release also noted that Michigan is seeing week-over-week increases in the number of vaccine doses allocated to the state. For at least 38 days, it has also met or exceeded its original goal of 50,000 shots and to date, the release added, has administered more than 4.2 million COVID-19 vaccines (of that group, about 1.5 million have received both their first and second doses or the single-dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine).

“Michigan is making great strides as our rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines continues ramping up. The safe, effective vaccines are one of the best ways to protect you and your family from coronavirus, and they are essential to getting our country back to normal so we can hug our families, get back to work, send our kids to school, and get together again,” Gov. Whitmer said. “These new, higher vaccine targets are a testament to what we can do together, and we need to meet them so we can keep rebuilding our economy. Thanks to capable leadership at the national level, heroic efforts by frontline workers who are working around the clock, and the dedication of millions of Michiganders, we will put this pandemic behind us.”

Further evidence that Michigan – which finds itself again in one of the top spots for surging COVID-19 cases in the nation – can reach that goal is the administration of President Joe Biden’s latest increase in direct vaccine allocations to the state by 66,020 doses – a total of 620,040 vaccines.

The release from Gov. Whitmer’s office notes that figure is a weekly record high for the state. The allocation also includes 147,800 doses of the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine, the latest to hit the American market after the more widely available Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health with the Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement that Michigan is working “hand-in-hand” with health care systems and local health departments, federally qualified health centers, and primary care providers to get as many residents vaccinated and as quickly as possible.

News of the expanding daily vaccination goal was a positive step forward in the vaccine distribution process, Ebersole said during the Detroit Regional Chamber forum.

She also lauded data disseminated this week by the Michigan Health and Hospital Association that provides evidence that the vaccines are working as COVID-related hospitalizations of older residents and those living in long-term care or skilled nursing facilities, who were among the first to be vaccinated, have fallen.

However, cases among young people and in pediatric patients are rising, which Ebersole said could also spur new variants that could be unaffected by the current and effective trio of vaccines.

“The vaccines are working. The vaccines that are available to us now are an amazing match to the current variants and will protect our loved ones against the most severe impacts of the disease,” she said. “The pediatric cases in (intensive care units) in Michigan hospitals are a national story right now. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been hyper-focused on this the last 24 hours because I’m a mother of a three-and-a-half-year-old, but even though we adults may start to be productive, there are still transmissions happening with younger folks. And again, those are people under 16 that have yet or don’t have vaccine access. We have to be thoughtful because that means the virus is going to keep mutating and it could get farther away from what the current vaccines have been designed to handle.”

Ebersole added: “This is why it is really our individual responsibility not only to protect ourselves and our loved ones but be thoughtful in terms of how we’re engaging with other families.”

With those issues in mind, Ebersole said it was imperative for business owners, the chamber’s target audience, to share as much information as possible about the effectiveness of the vaccines and to dispel apparent myths.

She added that, while not a businessperson herself, she was encouraged to hear that some are thinking of ways to incentivize vaccine uptake.

Large-scale clinics, much like the Ford Field site or one that was held recently at DeVos Place in Grand Rapids, could help with vaccine hesitance from an access standpoint. The same goes for pharmacies that have become federal partners in vaccine administration among lower priority groups.

That said, Ebersole said she understands the frustrations of young people or those not yet eligible to receive vaccinations due to prioritization – an issue that could soon be solved with the state opening up vaccine eligibility to all residents 16 and older in a week’s time.

“Depending on where you are at in the state, there’s different demand for the vaccination at this time, and I know it’s been quite challenging because we haven’t had a centralized way to register and schedule an appointment. So, I like to take that right on the chin,” she said. “Part of that has to do with our decentralized public health system and how we’ve set this up. The other piece of this obviously is the federal supply that it is coming through and different streams, if you will, into the state. Like the Rite Aid (pharmacies), they have their separate system to register, so it’s an imperfect system.”


James Launches Leadership PAC

Two-time Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James announced he has launched a leadership political action committee that he said is intended to focus on supporting candidates willing to lead through challenging times.

The move by James is his first significant foray back into the political arena after his narrow loss last year to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township).

James, an Iraq War veteran and business executive at his family’s supply chain business, named his PAC the Mission First, People Always PAC – a reference to his military experience that was a prominent feature he touted in both of his campaigns for office.

“Mission First, People Always is not only the mantra of those who bleed red, wear green and carry the red, white and blue, but for Americans in all walks of life for whom failure is not an option,” James said in a statement. “Our leaders must be bold, stand on our principles, and take action. I look forward to supporting candidates who will forge ahead into all corners of America with a spirit of service and sacrifice.”

James lost his 2020 U.S. Senate race to Peters by about a 1.7% margin, not conceding the race until about three weeks after the election. It was a much closer race than his 2018 bid against U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who defeated him by about 6.5%.

James performed better than expected in 2018, even outpacing the party’s gubernatorial candidate and proving to be a strong fundraiser.

In 2020, he built on that fundraising ability despite coming up short again in what was the most expensive U.S. Senate race in Michigan history, raising $48.7 million during the campaign cycle, based on Federal Election Commission data. His U.S. Senate campaign committee still had about $1.6 million cash on hand through Dec. 31, 2020.

Even if James were not to run for office in the 2022 cycle, his fundraising prowess could be a significant asset for state Republicans.