Amid an alarming surge in Covid-19 cases in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Friday appeal to her state’s residents to voluntarily take a two-week pause on indoor dining and gatherings was a sobering message and a reality check for Americans who have been returning to many of their old pastimes as the pace of vaccinations picks up.
“There’s light at the end of this tunnel, but the recent rise in cases is a reminder that we are still in the tunnel,” the Democratic governor said, urging people to continue to take precautions and get the vaccine – which is now available to anyone 16 and older in her state. “That’s the nature of this virus, the second we let our guard down it comes roaring back.”
Nationally, case numbers and hospitalizations rose last week compared with the previous seven-day period, even as deaths continue to fall. In Michigan, hospitals are once again weighing whether to cancel elective surgeries, and last week Michigan cities accounted for seven of the 10 worst Covid-19 outbreaks in urban areas. The state’s predicament points to the difficult balancing act that the Biden administration faces as it tries to project optimism while fighting complacency about the virus – and the new pressure it faces to change its vaccine allocation formula by sending more vaccine doses to areas with the worst outbreaks.
On Sunday, Whitmer and Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist urged the White House to ramp up the vaccine doses that it is sending to their state to help control the outbreak – a request the Biden administration has so far refused because they say it is most equitable to allocate shots based on the adult population in each state.
But Gilchrist argued on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that an increase in vaccine doses to Michigan, as part of “a national hot spot strategy,” is critical to slowing the spread of the variant in other parts of the country.
“What’s happening in Michigan can spread through the Midwest and can spread to the rest of the country,” Gilchrist said. “Equity means responding differently where there is the most need, and right now the most need is in the state of Michigan, that is very clear.”
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration who has been advising Whitmer, said Sunday that Biden’s team should have increased the vaccine supply to Michigan “weeks ago” to help curb the surge, adding that it’s “never too late to do it.”
“We need to get in the habit of trying to surge resources into those hotspots to put out those fires of spread,” Gottlieb said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “And it’s not just Michigan right now. It’s the entire Great Lakes region.”
The accelerating pace of vaccinations in the United States has rightly been a source of celebration, with a CNN analysis showing that the nation’s pace is nearly five times faster than the global average. The US set a record high of 4.6 million vaccine doses reported administered in a 24-hour period, according to data published Saturday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And Americans have taken heart in the fact that more than one in four adults are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19. But officials are citing increasing concern about the number of young people landing in the emergency room with Covid-19.
The emphasis on progress has inevitably created a false sense of security in some corners at a time when the virus remains unpredictable and increasingly contagious because of new variants.
The reality is that the country is still a long way away from herd immunity – with vaccine hesitancy now standing as a major hurdle in achieving that goal. A stunning 40% of Marines have declined the Covid-19 vaccine, according to vaccine data provided to CNN on Friday by the Marine Corps.
A new Kaiser Family Foundation report last week found that a higher percentage of rural residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine (39%) than those in urban and suburban areas (31% each). But as access to vaccines increases, the rural population may soon fall behind. That is because a much larger percentage of Americans in rural areas say they definitely will not get the vaccine (21%) compared with 10% in urban areas and 13% in suburban areas, another looming challenge for the Biden administration.
Covid fatigue and a contagious variant
With many Americans tired of pandemic restrictions and convinced that the worst is behind them, some governors have quickened the pace of reopenings in their states, clearly feeling the heat of their approaching reelection campaigns.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who is likely to face a recall this year, announced last week that his state will fully reopen by June 15, drawing criticism from opponents who questioned how he could predict what case rates would look like by that arbitrary date. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, threw out his state’s mask mandate last month. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, recently banned so-called Covid-19 passports, arguing they would create “two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.” And Whitmer, who faced a fierce backlash when she established some of the strictest Covid rules in the country last year, is notably taking a gentler approach by making her recommendations for a two-week pause voluntarily. All four leaders are up for reelection in 2022.
“To be very clear these are not orders, mandates or requirements,” Whitmer said of her call for halting indoor dining, in-person high school classes and youth sports. “A year in, we all know what works and this has to be a team effort.”
The spread of the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, which is now the dominant strain in the United States, is a central factor in Michigan’s surge. And for that reason, the state is becoming a case study for the warnings that some top doctors and epidemiologists issued in recent weeks that the pace of vaccinations will be no match for the rate at which new variants may spread among the population.
One of the most bracing facts about Michigan’s rise in cases is that nearly 40% of the state’s residents have already received one dose of the vaccine, according to the state’s tracking system.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, noted that Michigan’s surge is happening despite its vaccination progress. “The vaccine rollout has been a really important tool to try to reduce these cases. But as you’ve seen from Michigan and Minnesota – even though they have very high levels of vaccination relative to the rest of the country – you’re still seeing how severe the problem is,” Osterholm said on CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday. “We’re just aren’t going to be able to get enough people vaccinated quickly enough to keep the rest of the country from experiencing much of what we’re seeing in the upper Midwest and Northeast.”
While not everyone shares that perspective, the uncertainty has put the White House in a tenuous position, reflected in comments by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, during Friday’s White House Covid-19 Response Team briefing.
“On the one hand, we have so much reason for optimism and hope and more Americans are being vaccinated and protected from Covid-19,” Walensky said. “On the other hand, cases and emergency room visits are up, and as I’ve highlighted through the week, we are seeing these increases in younger adults, most of whom have not yet been vaccinated.”
She noted that particularly in Michigan and Minnesota, officials have been monitoring increasing reports of cases associated with youth sports: “I want to be clear, as cases increase in the community, we expect the cases identified in schools will also increase,” Walensky said.
With the administration eager to keep children in school, she emphasized that those cases may not necessarily be associated with school-based transmission, which she argued can be avoided if schools follow all the safety protocols outlined by the CDC. Still, the risks to students are one of the reasons why the CDC dedicated $10 billion from the American Rescue Plan to support testing in schools across the country.
“Being able to rapidly identify new cases among students will help us slow the spread of Covid-19 while we simultaneously work to expand equitable access to vaccines,” she said.
Biden's first 100 days
Some public health officials are backing up Whitmer’s call for a “vaccine surge program” and she amplified her plea Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“What’s happening in Michigan today could be what’s happening in other states tomorrow,” she said. “It’s on all of us to recognize we can squash where we’re seeing hot spots. It’s in everyone’s best interest.”
But White House Covid-19 coordinator Jeff Zients defended the administration’s decision to stick with their current allocation formula Friday as a matter of fairness to other states. He stressed that the administration is sending more resources – including offers of more personnel, greater testing capacity and more therapeutics and treatments to help patients – to states struggling with a rise in cases.
A senior administration official told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday that an additional 160 Federal Emergency Management Agency vaccinators are on their way to Michigan to assist the state in administering the doses it has on hand.
“There are tens of millions of people across the country in each and every state and county who have not yet been vaccinated,” Zients said Friday. “The fair and equitable way to distribute the vaccine is based on the adult population by state, tribe and territory. That’s how it’s been done, and we will continue to do so.”
“The virus is unpredictable. We don’t know where the next increase in cases could occur,” he added, noting that the US is not even halfway through its vaccination program. “So now is not the time to change course on vaccine allocation.”
But if the situation gets more dire in Michigan – and other states face similar surges – that may become a difficult position for the Biden administration to maintain. Whitmer may be the first Democratic governor to publicly pressure the administration for a vaccine surge program, but she is unlikely to be the last.
This story has been updated with additional comments.