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Whitmer talks with U.P. leaders about COVID-19

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, accompanied by National Guard Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, addresses reporters in Hancock Tuesday after a meeting with Upper Peninsula leaders about COVID-19.

HANCOCK — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer met with Upper Peninsula health officials and education and community leaders to discuss ways to stem the recent rise in COVID-19 cases during a stop in Hancock Tuesday.

During a press briefing following the meeting, Whitmer said she is concerned with the recent spike in cases from community spread, particularly in the southwestern Upper Peninsula.

Over the past week, the Upper Peninsula averaged 210.2 new COVID-19 cases per day per million people. The next-highest region, the Kalamazoo area, averaged 83.3 per million.

“Our hospital capacity in the Upper Peninsula, while they’re phenomenal health systems, are just not capable of handling a major COVID outbreak,” Whitmer said. “So we can’t afford to have a big surge of new cases in the area. So we’ve got to put a stop to the spread. And we’ve got to work together in order to get it done. And we need everyone to do their part.”

With cases rising in the U.P., Whitmer said she is trying to avoid moving the region down to the more restrictive Phase 4 of the state’s six-tiered recovery plan. It is currently in Phase 5, where it has been since early June.

While acknowledging people’s fatigue with mask-wearing and social distancing, Whitmer said it remains crucial. She also called on local leaders to use their voices to convey the importance of fighting COVID. Mask-wearing, near-universal in some parts of the state, is still less prevalent in the Upper Peninsula, she said.

“No one wants to avoid (moving back to Phase 4) more than I do … that’s really why I’m here,” she said. “We need people to mask up, and I know that fortunately, this community wasn’t hit as hard as parts of downstate were. But right now COVID is here. And it is a real threat.”

With flu season approaching, it’s also vitally important for people to get a flu shot, she said.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” she said. “The virus isn’t going to go away because we’re sick of it.”

Monday night, the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department announced Houghton County was up to 428 COVID-19 cases. Of those, 205 are in the isolation and quarantine period.

The 428 cases represent an increase of 362 since Aug. 31 — and 27% over even the previous update on Friday.

Houghton County’s seven-day average for COVID-positive tests was 7.2% as of Friday, the third day in a row it was at 7% or higher.

A spike is also being seen in Baraga County, which went from 17 to 25 cases since Friday. Two Baraga County residents died during the same span, bringing the five-county area’s COVID-19 death toll to four.

A state page on new and ongoing outbreaks at K-12 schools and colleges listed several at Tech. As of Monday, there was one new outbreak involving eight students and six ongoing outbreaks including 39 students.

On Thursday, K-12 schools in Houghton County announced they would suspend in-person instruction for the next two weeks. Gogebic Community College, Michigan Technological University and Finlandia University have all announced a pause for in-person lecture classes, leaving the possibility of labs and other experiential courses remaining active.

With at least several days between infections and the onset of symptoms, the effect of any policy changes on COVID-19 transmission won’t be known for two to three weeks, Whitmer said. So it’s important for the state to move incrementally.

“That’s what’s driven all of our decisions at the state level in terms of reengaging in our economy,” she said. “We’ve re-engaged some in-person instructions, athletics, we’ve reengaged a lot of business activity all across the state. This increased contact, we will know in two or three weeks, what it means in terms of an increase in COVID.”

As health experts learn more about how the virus is spreading in different parts of the state, Whitmer said, that more refined knowledge might pave the way for more limited interventions than moving regions into higher or lower phases. Bars, weddings, and other places people congregate have been larger drivers of the spread, she said.

“I am not going to predict what the future might look like,” she said. “I’m just hopeful and prevailing on people to do the right thing, so we don’t have to go there.”

Asked about considering restrictions only for certain harder-hit parts of the U.P., Whitmer said she would want to listen to public health experts and their concerns before taking that approach.

“Certainly, if it looks as though it’s contained to a particular region, that would be a consideration,” she said.

In explaining the decision to limit in-person K-12 instruction, Western Upper Peninsula Health Department Health Officer Kate Beer mentioned several factors, including rising numbers of local healthcare workers testing positive for COVID-19 or being quarantined because of close contact. Asked if the state might assist in augmenting the local staff, Whitmer said she had spoken with Beer Tuesday about a number of things straining the local resources.

“I’ve asked her how we can be helpful and we’re going to continue that conversation and if there are needs like that, that she asks for, we want to make sure that we help,” she said.

Whitmer was joined at Tuesday’s press conference by Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers of the National Guard. She thanked the National Guard for their role in expanding testing throughout the state.

Rogers said a contingent from the 1431st Engineering Company of Calumet is being deployed to the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas. They will be monitoring sensors and logistical support where needed to augment and relieve the Border Patrol.

“I can’t imagine how we would have tackled a lot of the challenges that we had without the Guard and Michigan’s National Guard really is one of the best in the country,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer also relayed the Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s announcement that more than $61 million in grants had gone to 10,000 small businesses and non-profits around the state through the Small Business Restart Grant program. The program provides relief for businesses impacted by COVID-19, particularly those owned by women and minorities. More than 700 of the businesses are in the U.P., Whitmer said.

“I know that business owners across our state have made incredible sacrifices and many are struggling to get by,” she said. “And that’s why my administration and I have been committed to helping them get back on their feet. So the best thing that we can do to help our small businesses is help keep them open by keeping our COVID numbers down.”

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