State ending mask, gathering restrictions early on June 22
In a surprise announcement Thursday, the state says it’s lifting all broad COVID restrictions on June 22, just over a week earlier than planned. Citing some of the lowest case rates since the pandemic began and 60% of residents having had at least one dose of the vaccine, health officials say broad mask and gathering mandates are no longer needed.
“We are in a really good position right now in Michigan,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Elizabeth Hertel. “Our case rates have been going down for the last eight weeks steadily. Our vaccination rates are increasing steadily, and our hospitalizations have dropped significantly. So we're at a really good point in time where I think we feel comfortable enough, that we have enough mitigation measures in place.”
With just 1.8% of COVID tests coming back positive, the state reported 172 new cases on Thursday, with 20 deaths (18 of those deaths were identified after reviewing previous death records, according to MDHHS.)
The hope is it's enough to keep the virus relatively contained to occasional outbreaks, rather than the kind of mass surges Michigan experienced in the fall of last year and earlier this spring.
“This is a great day, however, there is more work to be done,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS, in a press release. “We can’t let our guard down as there continue to be several variants of the COVID-19 virus circulating in our state, including the concerning Delta variant. The COVID-19 vaccine is the most important tool we have to reduce the spread of the virus and I urge everyone ages 12 and up who has not yet received their vaccine to get it as soon as possible.”
Originally, Whitmer’s team announced in late April that it wouldn’t remove all broad mandates until 70% of Michiganders 16+ had received their first dose. Currently, only 60% have, according to state data. (According to Whitmer’s original “Vacc to Normal” plan, 60% vaccine coverage would have only triggered an increase in indoor capacity to 25% for sports stadiums, conference centers, banquet halls, funeral homes. Gyms would have been allowed to be up to 50%.)
Then, following the CDC’s revised mask recommendations in May, the state “adapted” the plan and issued a new message: fully vaccinated Michiganders could didn’t need to wear masks, but unvaccinated residents would be asked to keep masks on inside until July 1.
“When the CDC made their announcement [that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors,] that kind of had to get tossed aside,” said Ingham County health officer Linda Vail. “We had to get somewhat in alignment with that. And then those benchmarks kind of went away.”
But even though the state hasn’t reached the 70% vaccination coverage goal, the low case numbers are another factor in weighing whether restrictions should be lifted, Vail said.
“We are now at the lowest numbers, in terms of [COVID] cases per million per day, since the beginning of the pandemic. ...Our numbers are still falling. We had a day this week where we didn't have any new cases reported [in Ingham County.] ...It kind of makes for probably one of the safest times we've been in since the pandemic has started.”
Health experts credit the falling case rates largely to the effectiveness of the vaccines. And even though the rate of daily vaccinations administered has fallen sharply since April, Vail’s optimistic that going forward, public health workers may be able to focus on containing isolated outbreaks, rather than community-level spread.
“It’s very important that we be able to contain those outbreaks,” she said. “So I think that we're looking more at outbreak containment, rather than a bunch of restrictions for widespread transmission in communities and massive surges.
“But I can't guarantee you that. I've been wrong before. I could be wrong again. But that's kind of the way it looks like we're headed, is into a stage where if we get to that herd immunity, then we should be able to make our way through this quite well. If we don't get the herd immunity, we're going to see some pretty significant outbreaks that we'll have to contain.”
Another complicating factor: the COVID variants. The Delta variant, first identified in India, has been confirmed in several cases in Michigan. The CDC says the variant is more easily transmissible, and may not respond as well to monoclonal antibodies.
“We can’t let our guard down as there continue to be several variants of the COVID-19 virus circulating in our state, including the concerning Delta variant,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at MDHHS, in a press release.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is the most important tool we have to reduce the spread of the virus and I urge everyone ages 12 and up who has not yet received their vaccine to get it as soon as possible.”
For Hertel, the MDHHS director, the variants are her biggest concern. One could evolve that doesn’t respond to the vaccines, she said.
“The more the virus has an opportunity to jump from person to person, the more it has an opportunity to mutate, and its ability to be smarter than our bodies, or the vaccines. There is potential for that to happen, and that concerns me. So to be able to ensure that we are minimizing that transmission, that we are keeping rates low, will ensure that we stay ahead of this virus and this pandemic into the future.”