Whitmer to Michigan: I'm not telling you to lock down, I'm asking you to lock down

A follow-up to yesterday’s post about Michigan’s weirdly ferocious eleventh-hour outbreak and Gretchen Whitmer’s curious refusal to order any new lockdowns despite the reputation she earned early in the pandemic for being aggressive about restrictions. Today she finally bowed to reality and went on television to tell Michiganders…

…well, not to “tell” them anything, exactly. To ask them to avoid certain indoor activities with others for the next two weeks in hopes of curbing the explosive spread of the virus in their state. She’s still not ordering a lockdown, and I’m still surprised.

“To be very clear, these are not orders, mandates, or requirements,” she said at one point of this morning’s press conference in case anyone was confused about her message. More from the Detroit Free Press:

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is calling on Michigan high schools to offer remote education for two weeks after spring break, youth sports to pause all activities for two weeks and people to avoid eating indoors at restaurants for the same amount of time

Michigan’s COVID-19 case rate has now risen to 515 cases per million, four times higher than it was in mid-February, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive. The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is also four times higher than it was in mid-February — at 18%. That’s the highest point it has been since spring 2020, and suggests broad community spread of the virus…

Essentially all of Michigan’s COVID-19 trends are the worst in the nation. Case rates, test positivity rates, hospitalizations and deaths are all increasing, some rapidly. Cases and test positivity have surpassed some earlier portions of the pandemic, when far more stringent restrictions on restaurants, other business and private gatherings were in place.

She’s focused on teenagers because cases are skewing younger in Michigan now that a large cohort of older people has been vaccinated. As for why she won’t order a lockdown, is it as simple as her and her legal team doubting whether those orders would hold up in court? Gabe Malor reminded me that the Michigan Supreme Court struck down her early emergency powers last October. Maybe Whitmer expects that any attempt to close businesses and schools would not only be unpopular but doomed to fail in court, making it a political and legal debacle.

There was a second surprise at this morning’s presser. Whitmer acknowledged that she’d been in touch with the White House about surging extra vaccines to Michigan to try to quickly inoculate people there before the virus spreads any further. And … the Biden White House said no. It’s a key swing state, Whitmer’s an ally, the outbreak is really bad, and experts think it’s a good idea, but Team Joe isn’t deviating from its game plan. States get vaccines based on population, period.

“This pandemic has hit every state and every county hard,” Jeff Zients, the COVID-19 response coordinator for the White House COVID-19 Response Team, said during a Friday press briefing.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and more are dying each day. There are tens of millions of people across the country in each and every state and county who have not yet been vaccinated. And 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 and you know that we push out all vaccine as soon as it’s available.”

That’s a fair argument: If you rush resources to Michigan to fight the fire there, you may leave another state exposed and vulnerable to an outbreak. But cases in California, for instance, are so low right now that it would take weeks to seed another new major outbreak. They could part with some doses without ill effect, I would think. If the White House is reluctant to do that, it’s probably because they think the politics of the move more so than the epidemiological consequences are dicey. Move doses out of California and into Michigan for a few weeks and even a slight uptick in cases and deaths in Cali will be blamed on Biden.

There’s also a question of how quickly Michigan would be able to use extra doses if they were delivered. The state website says that 5.6 million doses have been delivered to date and that almost five million have been administered. The NYT website, though, says that Michigan has received 6.8 million doses, which would mean they’ve only used three-quarters of their supply so far — which would put it in the bottom half of U.S. states in that regard.

Either way, things are now so bad in Whitmer’s state that they’re less than 500 daily cases off of their December peak. It may become the first and only state to experience a worse outbreak in the spring than it did over the winter:

Why Michigan? Possibly because of the prevalence of the British variant. The state now has 2,262 confirmed cases of it, which is more than twice what California, a state four times its size, has. Michigan has two-thirds as many variant cases as Florida despite having less than half of Florida’s population. And as I pointed out a few days ago, when you look at tests and cases per capita, Michigan seems to have had an unusually mild pandemic until recently. It may be that there’s simply less natural immunity in the population, making it fertile ground for a rapidly spreading strain like the British variant.

Watch a few minutes from this morning’s presser as she complains, politely but conspicuously, about Biden’s refusal to send extra vaccines to Michigan to try to put out the fire. If things keep getting worse and the White House keeps holding out, the “Whitmer vs. Biden” dispute is going to get awkward for Democrats quickly. Especially since public-health experts are on Whitmer’s side of it.