By Malachi Barrett
May 29, 2020
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s plan to reopen public spaces and workplaces lacks clear targets and benchmarks included in plans released by neighboring states.
Michigan joined a seven-state coalition to coordinate the reopening of the Midwest regional economy last month, though each state is taking its own unique approach to lifting restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. Like other governors, Whitmer has regularly pledged to base her decisions on “the best science” and public health data, much of which has been made publicly available, but Michigan residents remain in the dark about what criteria must be met to move the state forward.
“We’ve had a uniquely tough experience with COVID-19,” Whitmer said at a May 18 press conference. “It’s hit us really hard and that’s why we need a Michigan-centric plan. We are, of course, taking in information from experts around the country. I am talking to my fellow governors across the country.”
Michigan has the most COVID-19 deaths out of the seven-state working group, but Illinois discovered more than twice as many cases. Michigan is among the top five states nationally in terms of deaths caused by the virus, with Illinois trailing close behind.
As of Thursday, 5,372 deaths have been recorded in Michigan, nearly one in 10 people who have been diagnosed with the respiratory virus. The state confirmed 56,014 COVID-19 cases and reported 33,168 people have recovered.
Under Michigan’s “MI Safe Start Plan,” eight regions of the state independently progress across six phases of recovery. Most of the state is in the third phase, “flattening,” while the Upper Penninsula and 17 counties in the northern part of the Lower Penninsula are in the fourth phase; “improving.”
Each phase represents greater progress toward containing the coronavirus and allows restrictions on businesses and social gatherings to be lifted. Moving forward to a new phase requires a region to experience a decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths, greater hospital capacity, and better access to testing and contact tracing.
Whitmer’s plan includes no specific details on how those goals are met, unlike plans released by other Midwest governors.
Illinois’ plan also calls for a gradual reopening of individual regions across multiple phases, but it provides more detail on how regions move forward.
To enter the next phase of recovery, an Illinois region must record a positive testing rate at or below 20%, experience two weeks of new cases increasing by under 10%, no increase in hospital admissions for 28 days and have surge capacity of 14% for ICU beds, medical beds and ventilators.
Pennsylvania’s plan also commits to a regional, phased-in approach. The state set a target of recording fewer than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. Pennsylvania has discovered slightly more cases than Michigan and has a similar number of COVID-19 deaths.
Even New York, the hardest-hit state in the U.S., outlines specific goals for new infections, hospital capacity, testing and contact tracing. New York’s 156-page plan contains much more detail than Michigan’s 15-page explainer.
Michigan’s plan outlines progression in vague terms. Moving from the “flattening” phase to “improving” occurs when cases and deaths decline “more sharply,” the percentage of positive tests is “decreasing,” healthcare system capacity “continues to strengthen” and “robust” testing, contact tracing and containment protocols are implemented.
Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said it’s difficult to compare Michigan’s approach to states that weren’t hit nearly as hard by the coronavirus. Martin helped developed a new dashboard unveiled this week that provides county-by-county health data.
Martin said the state is closely tracking many of the same metrics used as targets by other states, even if it’s not reflected in the “MI Safe Start” plan.
“A lot of those metrics are being watched, even though you don’t see that in a plan as triggers like you would see on some of the different states,” she said. “You’ll see more and more of those types of numbers become publicly displayed over time. I think it’s our goal that we bring more and more that kind of data to the public.”
State data shows the number of new cases found each day is declining, a smaller percentage of tests are coming back positive and hospitals are in a better position to handle COVID-19 patients. It’s not clear if that’s enough to move Michigan into the next phase of recovery.
Michigan added 10,999 new confirmed cases from May 1 to May 28, a 59% drop compared to new cases confirmed in April. The 7-day average of new cases also declined in May.
Questions still remain about Michigan’s COVID-19 statistics after the Department of Health and Human Services is working to compile and verify data on nursing homes. Preliminary data released by DHHS this week showed 23% of all COVID-19 deaths in Michigan involve cases from nursing homes.
The rate of positive tests fell during the last several weeks, while Michigan nearly doubled the number of tests taken compared to April. Overall, 6% of COVID-19 tests taken in May came back positive. Twenty-three percent of tests were positive throughout April.
Michigan completed 313,524 diagnostic tests for the coronavirus from May 1 to May 26, according to the most recent state data available. An average of 12,059 tests were conducted each day in May.
State officials have set a goal of reaching 15,000 tests per day, but that is not detailed in the “MI Safe Start” plan.
Most hospitals have access to three weeks’ worth of personal protective equipment, according to state data. Only two health systems in Michigan — Detroit Medical Center and U-M’s Michigan Medicine — have less than 20% bed capacity available.
Michigan’s governor has declined to commit to specific targets when asked about her plan’s lack of detail during her regular COVID-19 press conferences.
“There’s no textbook specific number that will tell you it is safe to re-engage a particular sector,” Whitmer said on May 13. “It depends on human nature, it depends on human activity, it depends on the appropriate protocols and the access to PPE for sectors of the economy. So there are a lot of variables in this equation.”
Michigan’s reopening plan was created in consultation with public health experts at the University of Michigan and a 29-member economic recovery council comprised of hospital leaders, business executives and university presidents. Multiple attempts to interview members of the Michigan Economic Recovery Council were unsuccessful.
Several industries — first construction, then manufacturing, retail, auto and healthcare — returned to work with some limitations statewide. Restaurants, bars and offices were allowed to reopen in several Northern Michigan counties on May 22.
Whitmer authorized gatherings of under 10 people on May 21. This allowed people across the state to get together for Memorial Day but contradicts the “MI Safe Start” plan. Small groups were anticipated to get the green light when the state enters phase four.
Meanwhile, the governor’s broader “stay-at-home” order remains in effect until June 12.
Michael Van Beek, director of research at the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said Michigan residents don’t have a clear roadmap for the future. He said the process of reopening society has been disjointed and confusing.
“We’re kind of in this holding pattern,” he said. “Without clarity on when that’s going to end, I think people are making that decision themselves. It means that the actual policies that the governor is trying to put in place aren’t as effective because not as many people are going to be following them.”
Many of Michigan’s neighbors are further along in reopening society, causing some residents to jump across the border to enjoy sit down dining in neighboring states. An Indiana businessman established billboards welcoming Michiganders to a “free-to-roam state.”
Indiana flagged specific dates for when counties can reopen certain businesses and relax restrictions on gatherings and other public interaction. The state is progressing across a series of phases and plans to reopen the entire state by July 4.
Whitmer said “artificial timelines” won’t guide the state’s recovery.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s statewide stay-at-home order expires May 29, though several industries were authorized to open throughout May. The “Responsible Restart” plan isn’t a phased reopening based on health trends; instead, it includes operating requirements for specific sectors of the economy.
If it seems like Michigan’s reopening strategy has been stop-and-go, that’s by design. Martin said it takes two weeks to see the impact of lifting restrictions, due to the virus’ long incubation period.
“That (two-week) pattern is a uniquely coronavirus thing that’s frustrating to epidemiologists, and even to the general public, because for most respiratory viruses the time between infection and disease is much shorter,” Martin said. “So we’re both in a strange environment of this chaotic fast-moving crisis but also the need to be patient.”
Van Beek doesn’t doubt that the state is using a data-driven approach to reopening Michigan, but residents aren’t being given that information.
Michigan’s new data dashboard shows much of the state experienced a faster drop in new cases during the last weeks of May. It also designates some parts of the state as having a lower risk of community spread than the state has formally recognized.
“I’m going to take the governor at her word,” Van Beek said. “For me, it’s a lack of transparency because Gov. Whitmer said from day one that she’s been using the data and science. To me, that means she has data and science she’s using and just choosing not to disclose exactly what that is publicly.”