Lansing, MI – December 18th, 2020 – Governor Whitmer held a news conference today to announce the death of Wayne County Sheriff, Benny Napoleon. The governor, Dr. Khaldun, and MDHHS Director Robert Gordon all spoke during the conference. Find their opening remarks below and keep reading for the transcript.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer:
Good afternoon. It is Friday, December 18th. I’m joined today by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, and Director Robert Gordon of Department of Health and Human Services.
Last night, my dear friend, the Wayne County Sheriff, Benny Napoleon died from COVID-19. Much will be written about my friend, Benny, because he was a beloved leader in Wayne County. He was a nationally respected leader in law enforcement and one of the highest-ranking African American leaders in Michigan for decades. His long-time love, Sharon, and the pride of his life, daughter Tiffani, and grandson [Malachi 00:03:12] shared this incredible man with the rest of us for so many years, and we offer them our condolences, our gratitude, and our support.
Benny was a special person. We’ve lost too many people to this horrendous virus. Benny’s brother was one of the people stricken with COVID last spring. He was sick and hospitalized for over 70 days. It was really scary and it shook the whole family. And because of that, Benny took this virus seriously, he’d call or text to encourage me when I had to make tough decisions to protect people’s lives because he saw the toll that this virus was taking on his friends and his coworkers and his loved ones. He was very careful and he followed the protocols. And despite that, somehow even he contracted COVID. And in a matter of three weeks, he went from testing positive to being hospitalized, to being put on a ventilator, and passing away. And my heart hurts.
So while I’ve stood here for approximately 80 press conferences over the last 10 months, stoic and resolved and focused, today I’m very sad and I’m pretty angry too. And I’ll tell you why. I’m angry because people like Benny are losing this battle every single day and I still cannot get a straight answer out of the Trump administration about why Michigan, like many other states is receiving a fraction of the vaccines that we were slated to receive.
There are millions of Pfizer vaccines, many right here in Portage, Michigan that are waiting to be shipped, but the Feds are slow walking the process of getting the addresses to Pfizer for some reason I cannot get an answer to. We have Michigan hospitals and nursing homes ready to administer this vaccine, and the bottleneck appears to be the White House. And I can’t get an answer why. I have put a call into secretary Azar’s office. And here’s what I would ask if I could get them on the phone, where are our doses? What is holding them up? When can we expect them? I’m angry because this virus is raging on in this country, and there is either corruption or ineptitude that is keeping us from saving lives and protecting people. And Washington D.C. Hasn’t gotten any relief done yet. We’re on the brink of a shutdown.
But for the first responders and public health experts, it feels very lonely on the frontline fighting this virus right now. Can you imagine if we had a White House that was leveling barriers and getting these vaccines to our nursing homes and to our hospitals, or if we had Congress that gave us the resources we need to build out the administration of these vaccines, or if everyone was simply on the same page and calling on all of us to rise to this challenge, how many businesses would be saved? How many lives would be spared? How many jobs would be maintained?
I want to acknowledge and say thank you to the everyday Michiganders who’ve done their job, who’ve stepped up and done their part. Michiganders have done a really good job bringing down our seven-day average and protecting our hospitals from being overwhelmed. We did our part by staying close to home during Thanksgiving. We’re having virtual celebrations with our loved ones. We doubled down on wearing masks and social distancing. And we did our part to avoid indoor gatherings where COVID can easily spread from person to person. And I want to take a moment to thank Michiganders, and I want to show you what our state looks like compared to what’s going on in other states.
This graph is a graph of Michigan and Ohio, our seven-day average. We did our part to adhere to safety protocols that we put in place. And you can see what is happening because of it. This next one is a chart that compares Michigan to all other Midwest neighbors. We, in Michigan, are bending the curve faster than other states that have not enforced protocols. Indiana is experiencing a spread so significant that they’ve had to all elective surgeries in their hospitals to make room for COVID patients. We haven’t had to do that in Michigan because we’ve been taking this seriously and following the science. Because of the hard work that the people in Michigan have done these past few weeks, we can start to lift some of the protocols that we put in place slowly, strategically.
Today, DHHS is announcing a new epidemic order to that effect. Starting on Monday, December 21st, high schools will be able to return for in-person learning. Making this change now allows schools to consider locally if offering face-to-face learning for high school works for their community.
Colleges and universities will be able to have students return to campus for the winter semester. I have asked them to delay in-person classes resuming until January 19th and move in not happening until January 16th. And I’m pleased to say that most of them have already indicated they will push back their calendar. And I appreciate their partnership.
Indoor venues, where people can stay masked and socially distanced, places like movie theaters and stadiums and bowling alleys and casinos are permitted to reopen without concessions. The key is keeping the mask on. And outdoor group fitness classes and outdoor non-contact sports can start up again.
This new order expires on January 15th. But if we substantially sustain our progress, we will seriously consider lifting protocols sooner. A lot depends on how the holidays go. If we, as a state, do the same thing over Christmas that we did over Thanksgiving and over New Year’s Eve, we will be able to move things forward more quickly than if we drop our guard and travel and gather with multiple households. It’s really that simple. So we can’t let our guard down for a second. We have shown we know what it takes to be successful, and we got to do everything we can to avoid a surge in cases after the holidays, just like we did for Thanksgiving.
As I’ve said before, the health of our people and the health of our economy go hand in hand. When we take action to protect our public health, we can grow our economy and return to normal sooner. Right now, the Federal Government is in the midst of negotiations for a federal stimulus package to help us get through the winter. COVID-19 has triggered budget crises in every state across the country, because we’re all working to save people’s lives and livelihoods.
… Working to save people’s lives and livelihoods. The fiscal constraints caused by COVID-19 will continue into 2021, which is why it’s so vital that any COVID relief package that happens now includes fiscal relief for states and local governments. I’m glad that discussions are ongoing in Congress right now, and I’m hopeful that they will pass legislation that will be relief checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, rental and eviction relief, money for schools and small business loans. This support will help many Michiganders who’ve been bearing the brunt of this pandemic at a very personal level. But the lack of additional aid to states and to local governments is reckless. For months, governors across the country have been ringing the bell on the need for federal funding, to shore up our underwater budgets amid this relentless pandemic.
Those are resources that state and local governments need to fund our police departments, our fire departments, our emergency responders who are more important than ever in the midst of this pandemic. That’s what’s in jeopardy if Congress doesn’t give us the relief we need. About 1.3 million public sector workers have already been laid off since the start of this pandemic. State and local governments simply can’t cut their way to balance budgets. Washington so far has ignored our pleas for fiscal relief. Without continued flexible federal aid to our state, budget cuts to programs that help Michigan workers and families are at risk. In Michigan, 56% of state funds go back to local governments and school districts. It may be difficult to hold them harmless if we don’t get some help from Washington.
Funding for health and human services like Medicaid, mental health services, public health funding, and funding for our most vulnerable children and seniors, public safety and higher ed make up 80% of the general fund budget that is bearing the brunt of this pandemic. These critical services could face cuts without help from the feds. This cannot be the last stimulus bill that comes out of Washington. We must continue to urge them to do their part and provide states like Michigan with the relief that we need so we can protect our families, and our small businesses, and our frontline workers, and our restaurants, and our restaurant workers. I’m certainly not going to let them off the hook. President elect Biden has said that a current stimulus if one is coming is not enough, and Washington has more work to do and I agree. Because we all know this virus won’t end with the beginning of a new administration. It will get better, but we still will have challenges ahead.
We need our leaders at the federal level to step up and to protect Michiganders’ lives and livelihoods. Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together. Every one of us, and we have to stick together. We have to do it for our frontline workers, for our small businesses, for our restaurants, and for our unemployed Americans everywhere who can hardly pay their rent or put food on the table much less buy a Christmas gift for their child. To our leaders in Washington, the future of our country depends on your ability to find common ground right now. This morning I met with the speaker of the Michigan house, the speaker elect, and the Senate majority leader. There’s a desire all around to reach a deal on the $100 million relief bill, to provide support to the families and small businesses that have been hit hardest by this pandemic. I’m hopeful that our leaders in the legislature will join forces with me to get this completed, so that we can give some much needed support for Michiganders.
The strength of our state is depending on all of us working together, to ensure support for our families and frontline and small businesses. We share a goal of extending unemployment benefits and funding response to the pandemic, including vaccine distribution, COVID testing and PPE. I’m optimistic that we can work together and get this done. 2020 has been a tough year. We know that there is hope on the horizon. The only way we will eradicate this virus for once and for all is if our leaders in Washington, Republicans and Democrats, here in Michigan our small businesses and all of you come together and work together for the common good.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer:
The curve is flattening, but we can’t let our guard down for a second because our fortunes can change fast. There are still people across our state who are mourning the loss of loved ones. Let’s keep practicing social distancing, let’s work to eradicate COVID-19 together by wearing our masks. This will be my last briefing before Christmas, so I wanted to wish you all a happy holiday, and in memory of my friend Benny and so many more that we have lost and who are fighting for their lives right now, let’s stay smart and stay safe. With that, I’ll turn it over to Dr. Khaldun. Thank you.
Thank you governor. I want to send my condolences as well to the family of Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. He was such a great leader and a champion for Detroit and Wayne County and he will truly be missed. Many people are still losing their battles with COVID-19 every day. While number of deaths has plateaued, we are still seeing more than 100 deaths a day. We must continue to remain vigilant. This isn’t just about numbers and metrics and graphs. Every life lost is someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, or friend. They are important members of our communities. We simply must not become complacent, and must do everything we can to fight this pandemic back. We do continue to see some improvements in the key metrics that we are tracking. Cases in the state have been declining for 27 days and are now at 439 cases per million people per day. All regions of the state are declining. Cases are between 357 cases per million in the Trevor City region, and 589 in the Jackson region.
The percent of tests that are positive is also declining for the past 11 days. We are now at 10.6%. Three regions in the state, the Upper Peninsula, Trevor City and Lansing regions are at 10% positivity or lower. The percent of hospital beds that are being used to treat COVID-19 patients is also declining over the past 13 days. That number is now at 17.3%, and ranges from 11.2% in the Upper Peninsula to 23.3% in the Saginaw region. These are encouraging numbers. Michiganders did what they were supposed to do over the Thanksgiving holiday, and we avoided the surge that so many other states are seeing. While I’m still concerned that our cases are six times higher than they were at the beginning of September, things are certainly trending in the right direction. Yesterday I had the privilege of getting the first dose of my COVID-19 vaccine at Henry Ford Hospital, where I work as an emergency medicine physician. This was a very special moment.
When I signed up to be a doctor and chose the field of emergency medicine, it was because knew I could make such a big difference in people’s lives, making life-saving decisions and interventions, and being able to comfort people when they are most in need. I work in the ER because it is what I’m trained to do, and it is my duty to serve people no matter what their age, insurance status or their medical complaint may be. What has been a challenging year in the healthcare field, many of my colleagues have gotten ill from COVID-19 while taking care of patients. Some have even had to take care of sick colleagues, and some of our colleagues have died. In fact, two clinicians who helped train me in New York City passed away due to COVID-19 in the spring. Fighting this pandemic for the past nine months has taken a tremendous toll on the physical and mental health of healthcare workers. This vaccine means there’s hope that this burden can be lessened.
For me, this vaccine means that I can keep my commitment to working on the frontlines, because I’m less likely to get sick and create staffing challenges for my department. This vaccine means that I will be less likely to bring the virus home to my family or my community. It means that we are one step closer to ending this pandemic in Michigan. The process for getting my vaccine was simple. I was asked a few questions by my nurse, and then I was given more information about the vaccine and what to expect. It took only a few seconds for me to receive the vaccine, and I did not really feel much pain from the needle. I made sure to make my appointment for my second booster dose of the vaccine, which I know for the Pfizer vaccine has to be 21 days after the first, in order for me to be fully protected. I then went home and signed up with my smartphone for the CDC’s v-safe program. It’s a confidential, private online program that you sign up for on your cell phone.
I put in some basic information about how I was feeling, and now I will get regular text messages asking me about my symptoms every day. This is how the CDC is going to make sure they’re keeping track of potential side effects. Today I feel well. There’s a small amount of soreness in my arm, and I know that over the next day or so I may have some mild side effects, like feeling a little tired or a low grade fever. I know that this is the vaccine doing its job. I encourage everyone to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines, and start planning for where and when you will get yours. While we have a very limited supply of vaccine right now, my hope is that by the late spring, every adult will be able to get a vaccine if they want it. I am encouraged that a second vaccine made by Moderna may be authorized for use as early as this weekend. This means more hospitals and local health departments could start getting this-
… more hospitals and local health departments could start getting the second vaccine starting as early as next Monday. And hopefully, we can start vaccinating people in our long-term care facilities by the end of this month.
While we’ve made some progress in our metrics and vaccines are here, we still must remain vigilant. Our cases, deaths and hospitalizations are still higher than we want them to be. And we know it doesn’t take much for just a few people, for one high-risk gathering to infect many others and cause our numbers and our deaths to go in the wrong direction.
While we are able to slowly start re-engaging more parts of our economy, we know that there are some things that are simply more risky, particularly activities that are indoors where people are not able to easily maintain six feet of distance from others or consistently wear a mask. So please, over the upcoming holiday season, please do your part, avoid large gatherings. Keep your mask on and wear it snugly over your mouth and your nose. Wash your hands frequently. I look forward to next year when we can roll out more vaccine and can start getting back to more of a sense of normalcy. And with that, I will turn it over to MDHHS Director, Robert Gordon.
Thank you, Dr. Khaldun. The vaccine means that hope is on the horizon, but until the vaccine comes, hope also comes from millions of Michiganders who are sacrificing to save lives. The pause is working.
You can see that on this slide this is just a picture of the levels of COVID by county in Michigan and surrounding states. And what you can see is that pink is worse, light yellow is better, and Michigan is clearly in the best position of any state in our region. Skip ahead.
So when I spoke with you a couple of weeks ago, we talked about how we would be observing three metrics to decide whether to move ahead and beginning to reopen from the pause. Those metrics were case positivity, case rates, and the percentage of hospital beds occupied by individuals with COVID. As Dr. Khaldun and the governor said, we are now improving on all three of those metrics. Our test positivity rate on the left is now at 10.6% still far too high, but it’s been dropping for nine straight days. Our cases have been falling for nearly a month and are now under 450 per million for the first time in nearly two months. And while our hospitals continue to be in a difficult situation, the percent of inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has been declining slowly for nearly two weeks. So these signs are good, but we are not out of the woods. The next slide.
The number of deaths remains deeply concerning. As you can see, cases have begun falling, but the number of deaths has not yet. We continue to average approximately a hundred deaths per day. That is a hundred unique, sacred, irreplaceable lives that we are losing each day.
Now, deaths is what is called a lagging indicator, and that means that as cases go down, we hope and expect that deaths will go down too. We look forward to that happening, but it has not happened now.
If we go to the next slide, please. I’m going to talk now in more detail about the order that I’ve signed today. This order takes effect on Monday morning and runs through January 15th. It is based on settled science and Michigan values.
So to begin with schools, K through eight schools have already been allowed to open, but the new order now allows high schools to reopen in the discretion of school communities. Knowing the centrality of education to children, to families, and to our future, we look forward to working with schools so they can put in place mitigation and use testing to enable safe reopening sooner than later.
We are cautiously moving to address other activities based on two core science-based ideas. The first is that if you are indoors, you need to wear a mask. That is a core finding of the science of COVID time and time again. The mask protects the individual and it protects others. The second idea is that if you are indoors, try to minimize the number of indoor gatherings with people outside of your household, because those gatherings bring great risk.
What you can see from this slide is … Actually, if you go back. Sorry. We are making real progress here. This is a measure of what’s called encounter density, the number of people spending time together based on cell phone data put together by a private company, not by the state. You can see that number going down quite consistently and on a sustained basis. That is a sign, it is another sign that we are doing the things we need to do to be safer.
So based on those two principles, here’s what’s now reopening in this order. Indoor entertainment and recreation will open for individuals or single households. So this includes arenas, cinemas, concert halls, performance venues, amusement parks, bowling alleys, casinos, gun ranges. Because masking is so important, concessions with food and drink will not be permitted. As soon as you are eating or drinking, the mask is off and that increases risk significantly. And as I said, groups will be limited to a single household of up to six people. We will reach a time when it is safe for groups of friends or multiple families to gather and go to the movies together. We are not at that time yet.
Many K-12 extra curricular activities will reopen except for those that involve close physical contact among participants, a high degree of exhalation or physical exertion indoors, or when masks can’t be worn. As Governor Whitmer said, the Governor has asked that colleges delay returning students to campus until the middle of January. It is our expectation that colleges will work together with public health officials on testing protocols to protect college communities from spread so that we do not see in the spring, a repeat of the kind of outbreaks that we saw in the fall. Appropriate testing protocols have been shown to work and we know that can work in Michigan.
With respect to sports, outdoor non-contact sports are opening. We will also be offering a new pilot program for fall sports, including contact sports that use antigen tests in order to ensure safety as students complete high school fall championships. This is a very limited number of schools that had seasons interrupted. And this will be a chance to do two things. It will let students complete a season that of course is very important to them, and it will let schools and the state of Michigan work together to learn how we can use antigen tests to encourage safe reopening in January.
Given our commitment to maintaining forward progress, there will not be changes for the highest risk settings of indoor bars and dining where masks are necessarily removed. And indoor sports and outdoor contact sports are still not allowed because of the risks around high levels of exhalation, except for the very limited pilot that I described. Go to the last slide.
As before, we’ll be closely watching our three key metrics over the coming weeks, looking for substantial and sustained declines across all three and very much hoping to be on a path to further reopen in January once we know we are getting safely through the holiday season. If you look to track our performance, you can visit michigan.gov/coronavirus to see each week, a detailed report on how we are doing on all of these metrics and much more about the coronavirus response.
We have made great progress, but that progress is precarious. Many countries and states have achieved gains like ours only to lose them. Our hospitals are still near capacity. 100 people are losing their lives to COVID each day. But if we stay on our current path, if we follow the science and if we all do our parts, we will continue to save lives, we will protect our frontline workers and we’ll be able to open further into January. Thank you.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer:
Thank you, Director Gordon.