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As Michigan Virus Cases Surge, State Would Rather Add Vaccinations Than Restrictions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Look across the country at the places where coronavirus outbreaks are worst right now. You'll find the majority are in Michigan. Sixteen of the top 20 metro areas with the greatest number of new cases relative to population are in that state. Last week, though, Michigan's Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer decided not to implement new restrictions. Instead, she encouraged people to avoid indoor dining for now and asked high schools and youth sports to pause in-person learning and games and practices for two weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETCHEN WHITMER: To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates or requirements. A year in, we all know what works, and this has to be a team effort.

KELLY: To talk about this approach, we are joined by Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. She is Michigan's chief medical executive. Dr. Khaldun, welcome.

JONEIGH KHALDUN: Thank you for having me on.

KELLY: Why have things gotten so bad in Michigan?

KHALDUN: You know, absolutely, we're very concerned about what we're seeing in Michigan. I think there are many reasons why we are seeing what we are seeing. I think we all know that we have these more easily transmitted variants across the country. That is the case here in the state of Michigan. We also know that many people have this pandemic fatigue, which is absolutely concerning. But I also think that Michigan did such a good job early on in this pandemic, we actually think we might have fewer people who are actually immune to COVID-19, and that may be also why we're seeing more cases across the state.

KELLY: Oh, interesting. So one theory here is that herd immunity is further from being a reality in Michigan because of measures that you put in place very early on.

KHALDUN: Yes, we've spoken to some experts, and that is - again, I think there's many factors, but that is one potential factor that is contributing to our rate of cases that we are seeing right now.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, given the situation is what it is - I mentioned 16 of the top metro areas across the country that are hardest hit are in Michigan. I know hospitalizations have surpassed the peak of the fall surge there for y'all. Given all of that, I am curious about this approach. Why encourage and ask people? Why not order and mandate and tell them, look; we got to do this, at least until vaccinations are a little further along?

KHALDUN: Well, I'll say this. You know, there's certainly no policy options that are off of the table. I have advised the governor on all policy options and what the impact, what the public health impact, of those policy options may be. But the fact of the matter is we need people to follow the orders that are currently in place. So we do have a mask mandate in place. We do have an indoor dining capacity limit. We do have gathering limitations in an order right now in the state of Michigan. And we know that many people are actually not even following the orders that we have in place now. So I think it's a matter of, yes, policies, and more restrictions could be impactful, but we also need people to follow the rules that are in place right now.

KELLY: Yeah, so you're pointing to - there are some mandates in effect, and I know some of them have been extended, the mask mandate, for example. But you mentioned pandemic fatigue, which is real. I think we all get it. But, again, this question of, you know, if people are fatigued and they're only being encouraged to avoid indoor dining for now, what makes you think people are going to comply with these suggestions?

KHALDUN: Well, you know, again, I have certainly advised the governor on what all of the policy options are and what the potential public health impact of those policy options would be. I'll just say this - in addition to what we are asking people to do, we are also really targeting our vaccination efforts, funneling vaccines into some of our areas that are the highest hit. We're also really ramping up our therapeutics. And we have one of the most massive testing efforts in the country. We actually have a testing mandate for sports teams, youth sports teams age 13 to 19, where they have to test every week in order to be able to play their sport.

KELLY: On the subject of vaccines, Governor Whitmer has been calling on the Biden administration to send you more, to surge more vaccines to Michigan. The White House so far has said, we will send extra vaccinators but not extra doses. I want to play you a little bit of the CDC director, Rochelle Walensky, who was asked about this on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: The answer is not necessarily to give vaccine. In fact, we know that the vaccine will have a delayed response. The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics.

KELLY: Dr. Khaldun, in the few seconds we have left, is she wrong? Is Michigan trying to vaccinate its way out of this?

KHALDUN: I absolutely respect Dr. Walensky, and I agree with her. A dose in an arm today is not an approach to the cases that you may see today. But I do - I will say, in Michigan, we had one of the most restrictive orders in place a year ago, back in April. I don't think that those are the type of policies we need right now. Michigan did have a limited, targeted approach for high schools, for indoor dining in the fall, and those are the type of restrictions that, if we were to do them, it would be much more targeted.

KELLY: Dr. Khaldun, we thank you very much for your time.

KHALDUN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: That is Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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