Has Gretchen Whitmer lost faith in lockdowns?

Has Gretchen Whitmer lost faith in lockdowns?
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, Pool

Newsweek is wondering and so am I. The word “weird” doesn’t scratch the surface of one of the most pro-lockdown governors in America abandoning her favorite viral countermeasure at the moment her state is experiencing an outbreak of singular ferocity during the final stage of America’s pandemic.

There has to be an explanation. Either Whitmer has come to believe that lockdowns don’t work, which seems unlikely given lefty orthodoxy, or she’s decided that they’re too unpopular to risk ordering another one. She’s up for reelection next year, after all, in what’s expected to be a Republican-friendly national climate. Righties will be spoiling to beat her as payback for her heavy-handed restrictions earlier in the pandemic. Maybe she’s concluded that lockdowns are the right thing for the state to ease the outbreak but the wrong thing for her politically, and that her interest trumps her constituents’.

If so, that’d make a fine investigative segment for “60 Minutes.” They like narratives about governors prioritizing their own selfish political ambitions over the health and safety of their residents, from what I understand.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who repeatedly sparred with former President Donald Trump over COVID-19 restrictions, has no intention of mandating a new lockdown despite the state’s current sharp increase in COVID-19.

Michigan hospitals are treating 3,549 patients with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Medical workers are bracing for impact as the state experiences its biggest week-to-week spike in hospitalizations since last spring, with the possibility of hitting a new record next Monday. There were also over 8,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Michigan on Wednesday, the most of any state…

“The problem is fatigue, mobility and variance and we’ve got all of those things working against us in Michigan right now,” Whitmer said during a press conference on Tuesday. “This is not a policy problem, taking steps back isn’t going to fix the issue.”…

“You know, we’re talking to our hospitals every single day just to check in, see what the rates are, see if they’re getting concerned,” Whitmer said when asked about the possibility of new restrictions, according to MLive.Com. “At this juncture … we do have hospitalizations that have gone up but they’re nothing like what we saw last spring, when we were so worried about our health system collapsing… They’re not even what we saw in the fall.”

The fact that hospitals aren’t facing the same sort of crisis right now that they faced in previous waves in Michigan is a good argument for not locking down, except for two things. Hospitalizations always lag cases by several weeks, and since cases in Michigan have been rising steadily, that suggests hospitals are about to come under heavier pressure in the weeks ahead. If you want to protect hospitals, you don’t wait until they’re almost at capacity before ordering a lockdown. You do it a month ahead of time. Michigan’s not far off its winter peak right now, in fact: Per Newsweek, it maxed out at 3,941 hospitalizations during its winter surge and 4,365 last April, amid the first terrible wave of COVID.

The other reason to lock down now is that, uh, “The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services presented a model from Michigan Medicine that predicts a new peak of 4,522 hospitalizations next week during a virtual media call on Wednesday.” If that holds, it would actually top the record set last spring. The good news is that those needing hospital treatment now skew younger than earlier waves of patients did and doctors have a greater repertoire of treatments to help save them, improving changes of survival. ICUs should be less inundated, at least. Even so, if they’re on pace for a new record in people hospitalized for COVID, you would think Whitmer would already be scrambling to order restrictions to try to limit further infections. But she isn’t. How come?

I wrote yesterday that she’s eager for the White House to surge extra vaccines into Michigan, as speeding up immunization is the surest way to douse the flames. But Biden’s team is reluctant to do that, probably fearing that anything other than allocating doses per capita will earn it the resentment of some state or another. If it took doses from red states, Republicans would cry foul. If it took doses exclusively from blue ones, Democrats would want to know why Republican-led states aren’t being asked to help shoulder the load. For the moment, the administration seems content to let Michigan make do with what it has:

During a media briefing on Wednesday, White House officials acknowledged that Michigan’s situation is dire. They gave no indication, though, that they would send additional vaccines there to help quell the surge, when STAT asked. They argued that it is too early in the national vaccine campaign to begin targeting supply based on case rates.

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the agency was working to expand testing capacity in the state, address outbreaks in Michigan’s jails and prisons, and scale up genomic sequencing. The one strategy she did not bring up was scaling up vaccine supply…

Some have attempted to quantify what’s at stake more precisely: One modeler, University of California, Berkeley, research programmer Joshua Schwab, projected recently that doubling Michigan’s vaccine allocation for two weeks could help prevent 10,000 hospitalizations and 1,200 deaths.

I continue to wonder if Michigan has the capacity and the local demand to get thousands of extra shots into arms quickly if thousands of extra doses are supplied, but doctors seem gung ho for trying — even though that’ll mean fewer doses available to willing recipients in other states temporarily.

Other doctors want a big vaccination push *and* new restrictions:

That’s the odd thing about Whitmer holding off on a new lockdown. It gives the White House some cover to hold back on extra vaccines, reasoning that if the state truly believed the epidemic was out of control then it would be trying everything, including renewed limits on businesses, to try to put out the fire. Besides, even if Biden ultimately accedes to her request, the extra doses won’t start going out tomorrow. Whitmer needs people to do what they can to limit infection immediately, before things get worse. So why isn’t she? What scared her away from lockdowns?

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