WASHINGTON – Washington will rush federal resources to support vaccinations, testing and treatments, but not vaccines, to Michigan in an effort to control the state's worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 outbreak, the White House said Friday.
The announcement came as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer strongly recommended, but did not order, a two-week pause on face-to-face high school instruction, indoor restaurant dining and youth sports. She cited more contagious coronavirus variants and pandemic fatigue as factors in the surge, which has led some hospitals to postpone non-emergency procedures.
Statewide hospitalizations have quadrupled in a month and are nearing peak levels from last spring and fall.
“Policy alone won't change the tide. We need everyone to step up and to take personal responsibility,” Whitmer said Friday, while not ruling out future restrictions. Michigan's seven-day case rate was 506 per 100,000 people, well above second-worst New Jersey, with 314 per 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
President Joe Biden outlined the federal actions late Thursday in a call with Whitmer to discuss the dire situation in the state, according to senior administration officials. The response will not include a “surge” of vaccine doses, a move Whitmer has advocated and which is backed by Michigan legislators and members of Congress.
Instead, Biden talked about how the federal government was planning to help Michigan better utilize doses already allocated to the state, as well as to increase testing capacity and provide more medications used to treat the sick.
Whitmer, a Democrat, confirmed that she asked Biden on the call to send more vaccine doses to Michigan, particularly the single-dose Johnson & Johnson shot.
“I made the case for a surge strategy,” she said. “At this point, that's not being deployed, but I am not giving up."
“Today it's Michigan and the Midwest,” she added. "Tomorrow, it could be another section of our country. I really believe that the most important thing we can do is put our efforts into squelching where the hot spots are."
Doses are allocated to states proportionally by population, but Whitmer has called for extra doses to be shifted to states, like hers, that are experiencing a sharp rise in cases. The Biden administration isn't ready to make such changes.
“We’re going to stick with the allocation system of allocating by state adult population," said White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients, calling it “the fair and equitable way” to distribute vaccines. He said the administration was looking to help Michigan administer more of its vaccines efficiently.
When Whitmer began calling for more doses from Washington, the state had not maxed out its orders for vaccines from the federal government, according to a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the situation.
Gen. Gustave Perna, the top federal official overseeing vaccine distribution, raised the issue of gaps between states' allotments and their orders on Tuesday in a White House call with the nation's governors. On Thursday, Biden administration officials huddled directly with the Michigan health department to discuss the state's ordering strategy and ensure that it uses its entire allotment.
“We actually met with the White House team yesterday and walked through our entire ordering strategy, and when we ordered what and when,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, a top state health official, said Friday. "It's very clear. They agreed with us that we are ordering all of the vaccines that are available to us.”
Federal officials said providing more doses would not be as immediately effective in curbing Michigan's virus spike as increasing testing, restoring measures like mask wearing, and foregoing high-risk activities. That's because vaccines take at least two weeks to begin providing immunity.
Biden told Whitmer that his administration stands ready to send an additional 160 Federal Emergency Management Agency and CDC personnel to Michigan to assist in vaccinations, on top of the 230 federal personnel already deployed to the state to support pandemic response operations.
He's also directing the administration to prioritize the distribution of doses through federal channels, like the retail pharmacy program and community health centers, to areas of the state Whitmer identifies.
“We are at war with this virus, which requires leaders from across the country to work together,” said White House spokesperson Chris Meagher. “We’re in close contact with Gov. Whitmer, who is working hard to keep Michigan safe, and working in close coordination through a range of options that can help stop the spread of the virus.”
Michigan ranked 35th among states in its vaccination rate. About 40% of Michigan residents ages 16 and older have gotten at least one vaccine dose.
The governor's recommended high school closure drew mixed reaction in education circles. Her administration closed high schools for a month during the state's second surge late last fall.
“Research has shown schools can be safe places for in-person learning, so long as community spread is under control — but with higher risk in our communities comes higher risk in classrooms,” said Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart, whose union urged a similar two-week suspension of in-person learning at elementary and middle schools and colleges.
Restaurants, meanwhile, questioned Whitmer's recommendation not to eat inside but welcomed the call for more vaccines.
“We trust our operators to continue to provide a safe environment indoors or out in the coming weeks and we trust Michiganders to do their part to act responsibly and respectfully to help us all achieve that outcome,” said Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.
Eggert reported from Lansing, Mich.