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Whitmer ties reopening to vaccination rates

HOUGHTON — In a bid to inspire more Michigan residents to get vaccinated, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday the state would tie further rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions to statewide vaccination rates.

Whitmer’s plan gradually eliminates limits as more people get vaccinated, effectively restoring the pre-COVID status quo when at least 70% of people 16 and up receive at least one dose.

“The more people that get vaccinated, the better, the more likely we can put this virus behind us and forestall the possibility of variants … our work will not be done when we hit one of these goals, but we we can enjoy a lot of things that we’ve all been craving when we do,” Whitmer said at a news conference Thursday.

The state has cited the 70% figure as the level necessary to reach a degree of herd immunity.

Whitmer outlined four stages Thursday:

• 55% of eligible residents, plus two weeks: Employers will no longer be required to mandate employees work remotely when feasible.

• 60% of eligible residents, plus two weeks: Indoor capacity at sports stadiums and conference centers/banquet halls/funeral homes will rise to 25%. At exercise facilities and gyms, it will increase to 50%. The curfew at restaurants and bars will also be lifted. For this and the 65% step, the state might delay the loosening of restrictions in a certain region if the seven-day average of new cases is above 250 per million per day.

• 65% of eligible residents, plus two weeks: All indoor capacity limits will be lifted, although social distancing between parties will still be required. The limits on residential social gatherings will be relaxed.

• 70% of eligible residents, plus two weeks: The state will stop requiring facemasks and remove limits on gatherings. Whitmer said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would only issue further broad mandates in the case of an emergency, such as vaccine-resistant variants.

Statewide, about 49.6% of eligible residents have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. In the four-county area, the rates are 40.4% for Baraga, 46.4% for Houghton, 53.2% for Keweenaw and 55.4% for Ontonagon.

Whitmer said Thursday modelers project the state will reach the 55% rate within seven to 10 days.

The move marked a change in approach for Whitmer, who had resisted previous calls from Republican leaders to set clear metrics for reopening. Thursday, she said the difference was being able to tie it to the vaccine, which she called “the best tool that we have to get back to normal.”

In a statement Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said, “It took 400 days too long for the Governor to be straightforward about how she will navigate this disease.”

COVID infection rates in Michigan have been declining, though they remain the highest in the country. The seven-day average of new cases is at 439.2 per million per day, down from a peak of 654 on April 11. The rate had been as low as 120 on Feb. 20, three weeks after the state eased restrictions on indoor dining.

In testimony before the state House Thursday, former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said he had been asked to resign by Whitmer in January. He believed the request was due to his objection to Whitmer’s plan to roll back dining restrictions, which Republicans had pushed for.

Nineteen percent of hospital beds statewide are being used for COVID patients, and the number of people hospitalized is trending down, said state Medical Officer Joneigh Khaldun.

“This is better but this is still not where we want to be,” she said. “…I want to thank all of the Michiganders who are doing the right thing, wearing masks, socially distancing and getting tested if you’ve been exposed or have symptoms and getting a vaccine as soon as you can.”

A mass vaccination clinic at Michigan Technological University Thursday drew more than 160 people, said Barb Goodson, systems manager for the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department. Sixty people chose the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while the rest chose Moderna, she said.

Goodson said it’s important to have clinics where people have a choice between vaccines. Before people received a shot, they were provided information about each vaccine and could read through the emergency use authorizations. They were also able to ask questions to the staff before choosing, Goodson said.

“We did have some people that changed their mind, and went from one to the other,” she said. “And that went both ways. People have strong preferences for one over the other.”

A list of upcoming WUPHD vaccination clinics through May 21 can be found at wupdhd.org/covid-vaccination-clinics-2. A list of hospitals and pharmacies offering the vaccine locally can be found at coppercountrystrong.com/vaccine.

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