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Dec. 11 | This Week in Government: Latest on MI House COVID-19 Outbreak, Armed Protests at Secretary Benson’s Home

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. 8 Reps, 21 House Staffers Have Gotten COVID So Far
  2. Chatfield Denounces Armed Protest Outside SOS Benson’s Home
  3. Educator Workforce Data Indicates Uptick in Employed, 1st Year Teachers
  4. DHHS: COVID Cases Starting to Plateau as Testing Numbers Trend Down
  5. Whitmer Announces Bipartisan Commission on COVID-19 Vaccine

8 Reps, 21 House Staffers Have Gotten COVID So Far

After declining comment for months, House leadership changed course and announced Wednesday the total number of lawmakers and staff in the chamber who have either informed the House Business Office they tested positive for the coronavirus or are otherwise known to have had the illness.

Eight representatives and 21 staff members have had COVID-19, a spokesperson for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said in an email.

House leadership had previously denied requests seeking how many people in the chamber had the disease. The figure does not include Rep. Isaac Robinson, who died earlier this year of suspected COVID-19 complications.

There appears one unknown lawmaker who has tested positive for COVID-19. Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit), Rep. Kyra Bolden (D-Southfield), Rep. John Chirkun (D-Roseville), Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), Rep. Scott VanSingel (R-Grant), and Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton Township) publicly announced after contracting COVID-19.

A Senate spokesperson said Monday three senators and 16 staffers have had COVID-19 in that chamber.

Sen. Kim LaSata (R-Bainbridge Township), Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), and Sen. Tom Barrett (R-Charlotte) have previously revealed they contracted the coronavirus.

The news comes as the House is being investigated in its capacity as an employer for violations related to COVID-19 protocols.

“Nine months into this pandemic, and we’re finally getting this public information. Incredibly sad that it’s taken pressure from the media to make this happen,” Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) said on the information being released. “Our workplace should take stronger steps to keep us safe so we can address our state’s problems.”


Chatfield Denounces Armed Protest Outside SOS Benson’s Home

House Speaker Lee Chatfield condemned a showing of armed protesters outside of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s house over the weekend, saying that threats against Benson “are wrong and need to stop.”

“Political violence is always wrong, and so are threats of violence used to intimidate anyone. That is not how our republic works nor what our country stands for,” Chatfield (R-Levering) said in a statement Monday. “Secretary of State Benson is simply trying to do her job, which the people of Michigan elected her to do. These threats are wrong and need to stop.”

News of the protest broke Sunday after Benson addressed the incident on social media and in follow up statements.

Benson said she and her four-year-old son were at home decorating for Christmas on Saturday and about to sit down and watch a movie when “dozens of armed individuals stood outside my home shouting obscenities and chanting into bullhorns in the dark of night.”

She added the gathering was an attempt at “intimidation of public officials” but was not so much aimed at her as they were “at the voters.”

“Through threats of violence, intimidation, and bullying, the armed people outside my home and their political allies seek to undermine and silence the will and voices of every voter in this state, no matter who they voted for,” Benson said. “Their goal is to overturn and upend the results of an election that are clear and unequivocal, and that 5.5 million Michigan citizens participated in. But their efforts won’t carry the day. …I have spent my career defending and protecting the right to vote of every eligible citizen. That commitment has never wavered, and it will not waver now. I will continue as Michigan’s Secretary of State, proudly protecting and defending every voter and every vote.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel, in a joint statement with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy Sunday, said the gathering was “mob-like behavior” that was “an affront to basic morality and decency.”

“In a civil society, there are many ways to peaceably assemble and demonstrate. Anyone can air legitimate grievances to Secretary Benson’s office through civil and democratic means, but terrorizing children and families at their own homes is not activism,” the two wrote. “This disturbing behavior masquerading as protest should be called out for what it is and roundly condemned by citizens and public officials alike.”

In 2016, then-Attorney General Bill Schuette’s home was picketed during the day by two environmental activism groups over the Line 5 pipeline. At the time, Republicans characterized the protest as violent and an attempt to bully Schuette into fighting against the building of said structure.

At the time, Schutte was not home though his wife, Cynthia, was. The protesters aggressively banged on the door of the home and Schuette at the time was worried they were attempting to break down the door.

Protesters have also gone to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s home in Lansing. Infamously, her vacation home was surveilled as well by a group of men who have now been charged in a plot to kidnap and potentially murder her.

Attempts to reach Michigan Republican Party Chair Laura Cox for comment on the protests outside Benson’s home were not returned in time for publication. Similar requests for comment from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) on the protests were not returned in time for publication.


Educator Workforce Data Indicates Uptick in Employed, 1st Year Teachers

More teachers – both first-year and returning – are being employed by the state of Michigan than in years prior, 2018-19 data presented to the State Board of Education showed Tuesday.

During that timeframe, the statewide teacher count listed 106,286 actively employed educators which marks an increase for the second year in a row – up from the 102,055 educators employed in 2017-18 and noticeably up from the 98,481 employed in 2016-17. The number of first-year teachers has also increased since the 2015-16 school year with 5,194 first-year teachers reported in Michigan for the 2018-19 Registry of Educator Personnel.

First-year teachers are determined by counting individuals in the personnel registry assigned to a public school with a teacher assignment for the first time since the 2003-04 school year.

Certificate renewal is also up by a small amount, though down from 2016-17 levels. In 2018-19 just more than 17,200 teachers across a five-year period renewed their certificate, up from the 15,786 in 2017-18. Though down from the 17,949 certification renewals in 2016-17. The number of progressions – meaning a teacher moving from one type of certificate to another – also fell and has been falling since the 2015-16 school year.

As of 2018-19, 2,117 teachers progressed in their certifications, down from the 3,341 teachers the year prior and even more so from the 2015-16 school year, which saw 4,945 teachers progress in certification. That, however, is not necessarily looked at as a negative.

Leah Breen, Office of Educator Excellence director at the Department of Education, said the decline was largely due to a change in administrative rules.

“It used to be required that (teachers) had to move to a different certificate over time or risk losing their certification,” Breen said. “That rule was removed, and so more educators are choosing to renew than to move on to a different certificate.”

During this time there was also an increase in lapsed certificates – 6,729 teachers lapsed their certificates in the 2018-19 school year, up from the 5,674 teachers who lapsed certificates in 2017-18. The number of lapses is the highest it has been in the last five years.

Teaching certifications are good for five-year periods. During the last five years, data indicates teacher certification pass rate in Michigan sits at around 91%.

Also on the up are teaching certificates obtained from out-of-state programs. Roughly 1,330 certificates came from out-of-state programs in 2018-19, the highest it’s been in five years. That is juxtaposed by the number of certificates obtained in-state which is among the lowest it’s been in five years, at 2,794 in 2018-19. The only lower number was seen in 2017-18 which was 2,711 certificates.

Roughly 28% of teacher applicants have completed out-of-state prep programs – including online programs – which Breen indicated could be seen as a problem as “28% of our educators in our state have not had the exposure that we would like to see from the standards that this board has adopted.” Despite this, many of the online providers do require out-of-state teacher applicants to conduct student teaching in a Michigan classroom.

Insofar as out of state applicants, in 2018-19 MDE data indicates 95% of applicants were approved for positions, with less than 1% being denied. The remaining 5% “remain in limbo,” Breen said, due to pending paperwork or payment submissions.

On the whole, certification is up for both teacher and other educator certificates, 4,127 and 1,657 respectively, and is approaching teacher certification levels last seen during the 2014-15 school year. For other educators – which included things such as school counselors, psychologists, and administrators – that level has already been surpassed and is the highest it’s been in five years.

ANTI-BULLYING MODEL REVISIONS APPROVED: Also Tuesday, the board approved in a 6-1-1 vote changes to the state’s anti-bullying model which has not seen an update since 2010. Voting no was Treasurer Tom McMillin (R-Oakland Township). National Association of State Boards of Education delegate Tiffany Tilley (D-Southfield) was marked as absent during the vote.

This is the second time changes to the state’s bullying policy have come before the board. Changes were previously sent back for an extended public comment period after receiving limited feedback. On Dec. 1, that public comment period ended and the updated document reflects such feedback such as removing certain words for clarification.

It was that subject, however, which caused McMillin to vote no on the matter due to the removal of the word “reasonable” from a five-prong definition of the word bullying. In prior context, bullying could only be considered such if the student being bullied had a reasonable reaction to actions that they characterized as dehumanizing, hostile, humiliating, and more.

He contended that by removal of the word, anyone alleging they’d been bullied would be able to perhaps characterize the actions of another student as malicious regardless of any real wrongdoing. That concern was eventually overruled by the remaining board members, who pointed out the five-prong definition needed to be met cohesively and not in a piecemeal fashion.

LETTER TO THE LEGISLATURE: A majority of board members Tuesday voted to submit a statement to the Legislature regarding the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on local school districts, which called for changes to “a number of state laws.”

Topmost was flexibility in educator evaluations, the supply of regular and substitute teachers, student, and teacher data reporting, and allowing for virtual open meetings of public government bodies. That final topic, which was given the OK by the Legislature recently, expires at the end of this month, though pending legislation would extend the allowance.

“The State Board of Education urges action on these critical issues, preferably during the remainder of the current legislative session if conditions allow,” the statement reads. “To the extent that this is not possible, then we request the balance of the issues be resolved in the first three months of the new legislative session in 2021.”

Member Nikki Snyder (R-Dexter) and McMillin were the only two on the board to vote no, with both clarifying that while they supported everything else outlined in the statement, they could not support an extension of virtual meetings and believed it was possible for public bodies to meet and still observe preventative health measures.

BOARD BYLAWS COULD CHANGE AT JAN. 12 MEETING: Board President Casandra Ulbrich (D-Dearborn) also brought forward possible board bylaw changes that would allow for the cancellation of a regularly scheduled board meeting for a reason deemed appropriate. That could include weather, health, or safety issues in the Lansing area or statewide.

Those bylaws will be presented to the board for approval at its Jan. 12, 2021, meeting.

OTHER BUSINESS: The board Tuesday also OK’d a request by the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District to change its name to Northwest Education Services, in order to be more reflective of the varying communities it served. The board also unanimously approved all nominations to the state’s Special Education Advisory Committee.


DHHS: COVID Cases Starting to Plateau as Testing Numbers Trend Down

While it is still premature to say what effect Thanksgiving holiday travel and gathering had on Michigan’s overall coronavirus caseload, data from the last week show the state is beginning to plateau in the realm of case positivity rates.

Michigan has reported 44,053 COVID-19 cases in the last seven days, and cases have dropped for the second week in a row per data provided by the Department of Health and Human Services Wednesday. Cases in all monitored age brackets – 0-29, 30-49, 50-69, and +70 – are all also on the decline, though the 30-49 age bracket continues to have the highest case amount at 1,200 cases per million, data gathered from Nov. 22 through Dec. 5 showed.

Surprisingly, all of the age brackets are hovering at around the same percentage of cases occurring within the weeks being measured, anywhere between 13 to 16%.

The news comes as testing rates have declined since the holidays, which DHHS officials caution is not necessarily a good thing as testing and positivity rates are inversely related.

Percent positivity rates have plateaued for the last three weeks and currently sit at 14.4%.

“The state has dropped since the Thanksgiving holiday. We’re hoping that we’re starting to see a recovery … but we really want to emphasize the importance of getting tested,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, Michigan’s epidemiologist. “One of the things positivity indicates is whether or not we’re testing enough to be able to identify all cases in the state. So, when we see testing declining and positivity going up, that’s a signal to us that we need to be testing more.”

Despite this Michigan sits at 6th in the country for number of daily tests at 56,500 average daily tests, 11th for weekly percentage of population tested, and 16th for percent positivity rates. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also lists the state as 7th highest in the country for number of cases, 4th highest in number of deaths, 25th highest in case rates, and 8th highest in death rates in the last seven days.

All of these have declined a small to moderate amount since last reported, indicating a positive trend toward recovery.

Still, the state’s daily case rate currently sits at more than five times the amount from early October. That is true for the number of deaths as well, which is a lagging indicator of cases though the rate of increase has also started to slow.

The 80-and-over age bracket still leads with the greatest number of deaths in the past 30 days with 1,165, followed by 70-79-year-olds, 60-69-year-olds, and 50-59-year-olds.

Seventy of Michigan’s 83 counties reported double-digit positivity rates in the last week, with five counties having a higher than 20% positivity rate for this week. Those counties include Dickinson, Oscoda, Tuscola, Branch, and Hillsdale counties – the final of which had the highest county percent positivity in Michigan at 34%.

Also up are outbreak figures, with the total number of active outbreaks – 1,290 in all – up roughly 9% from the previously measured week.

Long-term care facilities saw 77 new outbreaks, bringing that strata’s overall total to 445 active or new outbreaks. Next highest in new outbreaks was manufacturing and construction with 40 new outbreaks, bringing their total to 152 overall outbreaks. In descending order, areas of the state which experienced an increase in outbreaks included K-12 schools, offices, child care, health care, restaurants and bars, the category ‘other,’ and retail locations.

Six of the state’s eight regions saw decreases in hospitalization for COVID-19 since last week, with the exceptions of Regions 1 and 2S, and the state’s overall hospitalization volumes are down 4% week-to-week – marking the first decline in hospitalization since September.

Still, Michigan remains at roughly 90% of its spring peak regarding hospitalizations.


Whitmer Announces Bipartisan Commission on COVID-19 Vaccine

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday announced a bipartisan commission to help raise awareness of the safety and effectiveness of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.

The Protect Michigan Commission, created through Executive Order 2020-193, within the Department of Health and Human Services will be chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, Former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, DHHS Chief Deputy Dr. Joneigh Khaldun and several others, and will consist of at least 50 members from around the state.

Gov. Whitmer said in a statement the leaders of the commission are “uniquely equipped” to help educate residents on the vaccine.

“Right now, we are on the brink of great breakthroughs when it comes to a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, and we must begin to educate Michiganders about how important it is that we all get vaccinated so we can eradicate this virus once and for all. That’s what the Protect Michigan Commission is all about,” Gov. Whitmer said. “This bipartisan group of leaders is uniquely equipped to help reinforce the importance of everyone getting vaccinated.”

The commission will serve in an advisory capacity to the governor and DHHS and will provide public leadership to elevate and reinforce the importance of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Its task will include identifying the barriers that make residents hesitant to receive the vaccine, identify the groups within the state most likely to experience this hesitancy, and develop an outreach action plan to overcome these barriers. The commission must complete its work and submit a brief final report to Gov. Whitmer by Dec. 31, 2021.

Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said in a statement that state residents have risen to meet every challenge COVID-19 has offered and said a safe vaccine would bring residents together.

“With a safe and effective vaccine on the horizon, the Protect Michigan Commission is bringing our state together once again to ensure that every Michigander has the information and resources they need to get vaccinated at the appropriate time,” Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said. “Our clearest path to healthy communities, a growing economy, and kids learning in their classrooms is through this vaccine.”

Currently, Pfizer and Moderna have submitted requests for emergency use authorization of COVID-19 vaccines to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Khaldun and her team at DHHS are developing a plan to distribute the vaccine. Initial groups to be vaccinated will be critical health care workers, especially those working in hospitals.

“If we’re going to ensure that everyone in our state has the information they need to get a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, we must all work together as Michiganders,” Calley said. “I am grateful for Gov. Whitmer’s leadership on this issue, and proud to serve alongside Lt. Gov. Gilchrist and all of these leaders on a bipartisan commission that truly reflects the great diversity of our state. Let’s get to work.”

Those wishing to serve on the committee must apply by Dec. 28.

Ohers also appointed as chairs other than Calley, Lt. Gov. Gilchrist, and Khaldun include Detroit Pistons player Blake Griffin, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Michigan Nurses Association President Jamie Brown, Spectrum Health CEO Tina Freese-Decker, Soumit Pendharkar, health administrator for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, among others.