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Aug. 20 | This Week in Government: Vaccine Misinformation Surrounds Bill Hearing; Redistricting Commission Parses Census Data

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. Vaccine Misinformation Surrounds Hearing on Bill Blocking Biz Mandates
  2. Redistricting Commission Parses Census Data Ahead of Map Drawing
  3. Line 5 Mediation Talks Will Continue Into September to Enviro Groups’ Ire
  4. Unemployment Rate Decreases in July, Still Above Pre-Pandemic Levels
  5. Biden Nominates Ex-DHHS Chief to Federal Health Agency Post

Vaccine Misinformation Surrounds Hearing on Bill Blocking Biz Mandates

Federal, local, and state health officials are biased and pushing information around the coronavirus vaccine, leading to businesses mandating inoculation based on false information, the chair of a House committee said Thursday before a hearing on legislation blocking such requirements even as the majority of experts stress the safety and efficacy of vaccines.

The abundance of science available shows the coronavirus vaccine is safe. The bill would also block employers from requiring the flu and TDAP vaccines, as well as mask wearing, which are also proven safe.

Rep. Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan), chair of the House Workforce, Trades, and Talent Committee, in opening comments implied that because vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals can transmit the virus, businesses are using flawed logic to require vaccines.

However, vaccines were never designed to stop transmission entirely. What is more important, and is cited by experts, is they prevent severe infection, hospitalization, and death. And while Griffin called government agencies biased, research made public by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed to vaccinated individuals potentially carrying as much of the virus as an unvaccinated person.

“Michigan businesses are being done a monumental disservice here, because the only data and science they are hearing about is based on often conflicting media reports about guidance from politically motivated government agencies,” Griffin said in opening the discussion.

The committee heard from roughly 10 individuals, many in health care or with advanced science degrees, calling coronavirus vaccines not only ineffective but dangerous. Just one person, Brad Williams with the Detroit Regional Chamber, spoke in opposition to the bill and emphasized the way out of the pandemic was through vaccines.

Business and medical groups alike opposed the legislation. While groups like the Michigan State Medical Society, the Michigan Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association opposed the bill, representatives from those groups did not speak during committee.

Along with the Detroit Chamber, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Bankers Association, and the Michigan Association of School Boards also opposed the bill.

Specifically, the bill would block employers from firing or refusing to hire a qualified individual because they decline to receive one of the three vaccines outlined in the bill. It would also block employers from requiring those individuals to wear a surgical mask, display a mark distinguishing the unvaccinated individuals from others, disclose to the public the individual has declined a vaccination, or retaliate against a person for filing a complaint under the bill.

Rep. Sue Allor (R-Wolverine), the bill sponsor, said by allowing businesses to require coronavirus vaccines could lead to other health care-related mandates in the future, like requiring any woman under the age of 60 to take birth control pills.

“The common thread here is the threat of business inserting itself into health care decisions. Decisions that should only be decided on a personal level, that personal decision is just what it states, a personal decision,” Allor said. “One that the individual weighs out carefully. There could be medical issues, religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, etc. that come into play when one is making a decision as to medical treatment and care.”

Williams said the free market works, and if one business implements a policy an employee doesn’t agree with, they choose another business that aligns more with their values.

“This represents the type of big government overreach many of the proponents of this legislation have long railed against in attempts to implement a one size fits all solution to the thousands of businesses across the state,” he said. “There are good employers requiring vaccines and masks, there are good employers who are leaving the choice to individuals. The best employers value the safety of their employees above everything else and will make decisions to balance the need to keep their employees safe and the need to attract top notch talent to their offices and shop floors.”

While Williams said the Chamber is not taking a position on if businesses should or should not require vaccines, he said vaccines are the only way out of the pandemic. He was immediately booed by the audience. He then quipped to Griffin, “are we having decorum?” As she did not gavel down the audience as she had during times of applause.

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) blasted the bill in a statement following the hearing.

“Getting shots in arms has given our economy a shot in the arm, and House Democrats stand with the business community in opposing taking away the ability for a business to do what it needs to keep its customers and to keep its doors open,” Lasinski said. “We’re used to seeing Michigan Republicans engage in cheap theatrics and political stunts to score points with the anti-vaccine crowd, but with the delta variant spreading rapidly, this bill is truly dangerous and could pave the way for another COVID surge and economic collapse, hurting small and large businesses.”

Two Michigan nurses testified before the committee questioning vaccine mandates. The rest of the testimony mostly surrounded vaccines and misinformation about their safety.

Some of the claims were:

  • Vaccines will actually harm you more as new variants develop;
  • The COVID vaccine does not slow the spread of the virus;
  • It’s the vaccinated who are driving up variants;
  • The vaccines cause more harm than good in terms of death;
  • There are no long-term studies on the vaccine; and
  • Masks increase chances of cancer.

Studies from Israel, though done before the Delta variant became dominant, found that those who received two doses of Pfizer vaccine were up to 78% less likely to spread the virus to household members.

Still, while the Delta variant could potentially be spread more easily by vaccinated individuals, the majority of people in the hospital and suffering severe illness or death are unvaccinated.

To claims COVID-19 vaccines have caused upwards of 12,000 deaths, Reuters fact-checked the claim last month. It is based on self-reports submitted to the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.

Essentially, the claim is missing context. Someone who died after getting the vaccine is different than someone dying because of the vaccine.

On variants, viruses mutate over time and that is not new information nor unique to the coronavirus.

Stuart Ray, vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics with John Hopkins Medicine, said the vaccines currently in use still appear to offer significant protection from severe disease caused by variants, even Delta. Additionally, Ray said the more people who are unvaccinated and infected, the more changes there are for mutations to occur.

As to the long-term effects of the coronavirus vaccine, Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, noted in an interview with the college that vaccines are different from say medications someone might see a commercial for related to lawsuits on adverse effects.

Goepfert, who has studied vaccines for 30 years, said vaccines are eliminated quickly by the body with side effects showing up in weeks, not years down the line.

“Many people worry that these vaccines were ‘rushed’ into use and still do not have full FDA approval – they are currently being distributed under Emergency Use Authorizations,” he said. “But because we have had so many people vaccinated, we actually have far more safety data than we have had for any other vaccine, and these COVID vaccines have an incredible safety track record. There should be confidence in that.”

As to claims that masks can increase a person’s risk to get cancer or other adverse incidents, there are many fact checks proving it wrong.

Related: Chamber Advocates Against Bill That Limits Businesses’ Ability to Create COVID-19 Safety Measures


Redistricting Commission Parses Census Data Ahead of Map Drawing

Members of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission on Thursday had their first look at long-delayed 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data released last week, giving them a peek into how their mapping consultant organized the raw data into tabulated spreadsheets and reference maps.

Kim Brace of Election Data Services also detailed how he and his staff would use the data to guide the commission as it starts to draw maps on its own, an exercise scheduled to beginning Friday during the commission’s morning meeting.

Many of the data tables created by Brace and EDS were meant to show commissioners the main population shifts that occurred in Michigan since the 2010 census, the current population deviations of census data when compared to the Legislature’s current congressional and legislative district maps, and how to best use race concentration data effectively.

Brace said the latter of which would be among the most difficult because Voting Rights Act and racially polarized voting guidelines would be key factors when deciding whether to break up or stack racial minorities into a given district. Doing either could run afoul of the Voting Rights Act and other federal redistricting criteria, he said.

However, by adhering to the criteria prescribed in the Michigan Constitution and thoroughly examining the glut of communities of interest input the commission collected over the past few months, those guideposts could ultimately help them when the racial factors come to the fore.

Much of Brace’s presentation detailed data released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week, which came to commissioners in an admittedly raw and non-user friendly format.

Gongwer News Service analyzed the major swings in population and the racial makeup of the state over the last decade. Among the biggest shifts were Detroit’s northern and western suburbs, along with Grand Rapids and its surrounding counties, which paced population growth for the state in the past decade, offsetting population losses in the state’s urban centers and most of its rural regions outside of the I-96 corridor and that are not near Lake Michigan. Michigan also became more diverse during the decade.

Several documents created by EDS detailed those shifts as hard numbers but also as maps overlayed on top of a regional map the commission created to help guide the drawing process.

With the data finally superimposed over a reference map, commissioners were for the first time able to see what they might have to change to make maps that not only satisfy population requirements, but ones that also fall in line with deviation requirements from both the federal government and the state.

Overall, Brace noted a flatlining of population movement in the state’s northwest region and decreased population growth in the southwest region of the state. By contrast, the Metro Detroit region was staving off its population losses seen a decade ago, cutting the percentage of population loss nearly in half.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s west coast saw notable growth. Graphically, Brace said they are seeing a shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part of the state, but they also saw a population increase in the southern part of the state, especially around the Detroit area.

Commissioner Anthony Eid asked, when looking at the east-to-west population shifts, if the Grand Rapids and the Metro Detroit areas deserved special attention. Brace said that was the case and the new data implied spillover from those areas, affecting not just Grand Rapids or Detroit but their surrounding communities.

There was also increased population growth on the east side of the Upper Peninsula that Brace wanted commissioners to take note of because it may very well affect how they go about redrawing lines in northern Michigan.

The predicted flashpoint for the U.P.’s state House districts may arrive as the commission decides what it wants to do with the 107th District, which is where population grew the most. What could very well happen, Brace said, is that the commission may decide to contract that district and add portions of it to the surrounding districts with almost no or declining population growth in the peninsula’s western region.

When looking at the population data and Michigan’s current maps, Brace noted higher degrees in deviation for both the House and Senate maps, but more so on the House side.

Deviation in redistricting speak refers to the difference between populations of electoral districts, which are constitutionally required to have similar population densities.

The current House deviation was around 49.25%, Brace said, adding that the Michigan Supreme Court has said the deviation should be under 10% above or below the constitutionally mandated threshold. Commissioners made a point to start from scratch with new maps instead of using the Legislature’s 2011 maps, which Brace said were clearly “out of whack” and necessitated changes.

The amendment to the Michigan Constitution that created the independent redistricting commission includes targets, noting that the state Senate should have districts with an ideal size of 265,193 people and deviations of -5% to 5%. The state House should have an ideal district size of 91,612 people with the same deviation thresholds.

For those districts with under 5% deviation, Brace also warned commissioners to carefully consider but not fall prey to calls from officer holders to keep their districts intact due to low deviation.

Bruce Adelson, the commission’s Voting Rights Act counsel, noted that the federal courts have been clear that they want to see deviations as close to zero as possible when redrawing congressional districts. However, the Michigan Supreme Court has given redistricting for House and Senate seats some leeway – but not much.

If a given House or Senate map had a deviation of less than 10 but was close to that threshold, Adelson said that plan would be far from bulletproof, and if challenged, could ultimately fail in court.

That said, Adelson noted advice he gave to the commission in an earlier phase: Write everything down and have a good explanation for why they drew the maps in a specific way. The more sound their reasoning and the more complete their notes, then a plan with higher House and Senate deviations may pass muster if and when a challenge comes before the high court.

While Adelson and Brace said that the commission had a lot to consider, they both tried to ease the body by comparing the data dump to their first day of school. Although it may be eye-blurring and time-consuming, the commission has the advantage of seeing the actual data and can now begin the most vital part of its work.

Commissioners will meet to discuss their first communities of interest considerations and draw maps starting 9 a.m. Friday.


Line 5 Mediation Talks Will Continue Into September to Enviro Groups’ Ire

The end of mediation efforts will have to wait a bit longer as state officials and representatives with Enbridge Energy failed to meet in August, instead pushing their next meeting date to Sept. 9.

Movement of the meeting date comes following a court filing on Wednesday, which noted that the “meeting scheduled for Aug. 11, 2021, was canceled, but at the request of the mediator the parties are scheduled to meet on Sept. 9, 2021.”

With that in mind, the filing also noted that the mediation before former U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen could conclude “by or about Sept. 30, 2021.” It was initially anticipated mediation between the two could conclude by the end of August.

Reasons for why the August meeting was canceled is not currently known.

While Whitmer administration officials did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication, Enbridge spokesperson Tracy Larsson said in a statement that she could not comment on why the meeting was canceled due to proceedings being confidential in nature.

She did, however, say that Enbridge does “intend to continue with mediation.”

“Our goal is to work cooperatively to reconcile interests, resolve disputes and move forward. … We understand the stakes in this matter are important not only for Enbridge and the state, but for many others throughout the region that have strong interest in its outcome,” Larsson said. “Meanwhile, we will continue to safely and responsibly deliver the energy the region relies upon from the Line 5 system.”

Currently before U.S. District Judge Janet Neff of the Western District of Michigan – who the most recent mediation documents were filed with – is a motion from Enbridge to remand the case to federal court. Michigan is fighting to keep the issue in state court.

Line 5 was ordered shuttered on May 12 following a decision by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 to revoke a decades-old easement which allowed Enbridge to continue operating the twin pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

Despite the structure being ordered to stop operating, Enbridge has continued Line 5’s use, maintaining Gov. Whitmer’s use of gubernatorial powers was overreaching when terminating the 1953 easement.

Following the news of the moved meeting date, environmental activist group Oil and Water Don’t Mix slammed the filing in a statement, saying that for every day mediation is delayed “is another day we risk an incredible environmental and economic disaster for the entire state.”

“At substantially more than $1 million a day in profits from Line 5, delay is Enbridge’s friend,” said David Holtz, spokesperson for Oil and Water Don’t Mix. “Michigan takes all the risk every day this ticking time bomb is allowed to operate in the Great Lakes.”

Holtz goes on to point out that Neff stated in a March 19 order that mediation would not delay court proceedings, however Rosen was appointed more than 150 days ago by her, and the case has yet to see much movement. He also took issue with the fact that Rosen has “not offered any evidence in court filings on what, if any, progress has been made” since negotiations began on April 16.


Unemployment Rate Decreases in July, Still Above Pre-Pandemic Levels

The state’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate declined to 4.8% in July, data from the Department of Technology, Management and Budget showed Wednesday, with a minimal workforce reduction of 4,000 since June.

In a statement, Wayne Rourke, associate director of the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, said the state’s labor market continued to recover in July.

“The unemployment rate moved to the lowest level since March 2020, and the state recorded the largest monthly payroll job gain since Feb. 2021,” Rourke said.

The unemployment rate was 0.6% points below the national rate, 5.4%. The seasonally adjusted jobless rate declined by two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.8% in July. Overall, the employment level increased for the fifth consecutive month, advancing by 36,000 since February.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer noted that job numbers are heading in the right direction.

“Despite our seven months of decreasing unemployment, however, we still have a lot of work left to do to help every family, community, and small business participate in our economic jumpstart,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use the massive influx of federal funds we have received to make tangible, lasting investments in the kitchen-table issues that impact Michigan families and small businesses most – child care, skills training, job creation, housing, and more.”

The total number of unemployed fell by 3.4%. However, the jobless rate remains above pre-pandemic levels. The employment count in July remained 256,000, or 5.4%, below the February 2020 pre-pandemic level. Unemployment is 43,000, about 23% above the February 2020 level, and the jobless rate is 1.1% points above February 2020 levels.

The Detroit-Warren-Dearborn area unemployment rate decreased to 4.3% during July. Employment has moved up by 3,000 and unemployment has moved down by 3,000. The workforce level remains unchanged.

Nonfarm jobs rose by 182,000, or 4.6% over the year, but the payroll jobs during July remained 287,000 – below the February pre-pandemic level. The leisure and hospitality sector had the largest industry job gain, advancing by 46,000. The second-largest sector was the professional and business services sector, up by more than 40,000.


Biden Nominates Ex-DHHS Chief to Federal Health Agency Post

Robert Gordon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, may soon be heading to Washington, D.C. after President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he had nominated Gordon to serve within the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The White House press office in an email announced Gordon’s nomination along with four others. Biden intends to place Gordon in the role of assistant secretary to the U.S. DHHS’s Financial Resources division.

Gordon abruptly resigned from his post in late January after leading the state’s coronavirus pandemic response along with his staff and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office. It was later revealed that he received $155,000 when he resigned from the state agency and signed a confidentiality agreement blocking any discussion on why he left. The confidentiality agreement in the deal was later waived, but neither Gov. Whitmer nor Gordon said much more aside that the executive branch wanted to move in a different direction from its previous pandemic response.

The White House noted Gordon’s time with the Michigan DHHS while also touting his time in the Obama administration as an acting assistant secretary to the U.S. Department of Education and as an acting deputy director and executive director at the Office of Management and Budget.