Why Aren't Governors Listening to the CDC?

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States of Crisis with Dan Vock
Why Aren't Governors Listening to the CDC?
By Daniel C. Vock • Issue #38 • View online
We’ve seen something like this before: Amid a surge in cases, the federal government and state leaders are pushing opposite approaches for what to do next.
This time, though, it’s Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer trying to bring businesses, schools and churches back to more-normal operations, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are asking governors to clamp down.
That puts Whitmer at odds with fellow Democrats in the Biden administration, just a year after she faced off with President Donald Trump and Republicans in his administration for imposing restrictions they thought were overly burdensome.
That’s the story this week, as the Biden administration promises that all U.S. adults will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine by April 19 – a little more than a week away.
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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives remarks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives remarks after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Michigan's late COVID surge leaves Whitmer with few good options
Michigan is the biggest COVID-19 hotspot in the country right now, by far.
It has recorded more than 7,200 cases per day for the last week.
For some perspective, that means its per capita infection rate is 60 percent higher than that of New Jersey, the state with the next-highest infection rate.
New strains of the virus – particularly the so-called UK variant (B 117) – have taken hold in the state. The recent spread of the virus has disproportionately affected younger Michigan residents, and federal health officials have linked the latest uptick to the resumption of youth sports.
Michigan may also be more susceptible to a large outbreak, because it avoided some of last year’s surges. That means fewer people have built up immunity to COVID-19 after being infected with it.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky had some advice this week for how Michigan should cope with the surge.
“I would advocate for sort of stronger mitigation strategies, as you know, to sort of decrease the community activity, ensure mask-wearing, and we’re working closely with the state to try and work towards that,” she said Wednesday. 
Those remarks came after Whitmer resisted adding new restrictions.
“The problem is fatigue, mobility and variance and we’ve got all of those things working against us in Michigan right now,” Whitmer told reporters Tuesday.
“This is not a policy problem,” she added. “Taking steps back isn’t going to fix the issue.”
Michigan's daily count of new COVID cases has shot up in the last month (Source: State of Michigan)
Michigan's daily count of new COVID cases has shot up in the last month (Source: State of Michigan)
Whitmer’s focus has been on distributing vaccines as quickly as possible. The state is also taking other measures, such as mandatory testing for youth sports participants.
Indeed, on Friday, she called on the Biden administration to send additional vaccines to Michigan, a point she said she brought up with the president on a call Thursday night. The president declined but offered to help Michigan distribute its vaccines more efficiently, instead.
“I made the case for a surge strategy,” Whitmer recalled Friday. “At this point, that’s not being deployed, but I am not giving up.”
“Today it’s Michigan and the Midwest. Tomorrow it could be another section of our country,” she added.
Despite her reluctance to order new restrictions, the governor did ask Michigan residents to take action on their own. She asked high schools to suspend in-person classes and sports for two weeks. She urged Michigan residents to eat outdoors at restaurants or take their food to go for the next two weeks, as well.
“These are not orders, mandates or requirements,” the governor told reporters. “A year in, we all know what works, and this has to be a team effort. We have to do this together.”
But in the race between the vaccine and the virus, the virus has a huge head start.
“They’re relying on the vaccine to get us to the end, and I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to be soon enough given how fast cases are growing,” Dr. Matt Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, told Bridge Michigan.
Mona Hanna-Attisha
Michigan: we need a vaccination SURGE and a two week PAUSE in everything else. https://t.co/eotYJWvqrA
Whitmer is in a tight spot politically and legally when it comes to issuing more COVID restrictions.
The governor had a 53 percent approval rating in a recent poll that showed her slightly losing popularity with residents.
“Public pressure has been mounting on Governor Whitmer over the past few months, and voters are taking notice,” said Jenell Leonard, owner of MRG, the group that conducted the poll. “Not much has changed in voters’ sentiment about the direction of the state, but they seem to be watching the policies and action of the governor more closely and judging accordingly.”
Much of the opposition to Whitmer has come from Republicans and others who have chafed at the restrictions she has imposed in the past to contain the coronavirus. They have led protests and lawsuits to try to overturn the governor’s actions.
The Michigan Supreme Court, in fact, significantly limited the governor’s emergency powers last October. The ruling, though, did not apply to the state’s public health director, so many of the restrictions issued by that office have remained in effect.
The Republican-controlled legislature has repeatedly tried to rein in those powers too, even tying them to the ability to spend federal COVID-19 relief fund. But Whitmer has vetoed those efforts.
While Michigan’s outbreak certainly puts Whitmer in the spotlight, she is far from the only governor to defy CDC warnings this spring.
Even Democratic governors have lifted capacity limits on restaurants and businesses in recent weeks, while some Republican governors, like those in Texas and Mississippi, have ended mask mandates and other COVID restrictions almost entirely.
For the last two weeks, Biden and his administration have repeatedly called on governors to clamp down again to little avail.
“The governors around the country, some of them don’t want to have any role in the rescue of our country and our citizens,” White House coronavirus senior adviser Andy Slavitt told MSNBC last week.
“And the real question is, are we going to participate in that rescue, like the response from the Biden administration, or are we going to just wait and hope science rescues us?” Slavitt said. “And I think we can all work together, we can beat this much quicker.”
Earlier, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted stay-at-home orders, a Biden advisor called him out for it.
“Why are we so good at pumping the brakes after we wrap the car around the tree?” Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said on CNN. Osterholm serves on a Biden administration coronavirus advisory council.
But Newsom, like Whitmer, faces significant resistance at home. He is preparing to defend his position, as conservatives have mounted a recall effort against him. The campaign could very well amount to a referendum on how Newsom has handled the pandemic.
Newsom certainly didn’t do himself any favors by flouting his state’s stay-at-home orders himself, most famously by attending a birthday party at a fancy French restaurant.
Still, governors who may agree with the Biden administration in principle may see diminishing returns in imposing new restrictions. Most of their standings with the public have suffered as the pandemic has dragged on, because the public itself is so divided in how best to respond.
The calculations are not all about self-preservation: governors need buy-in from the public to make their orders stick. And right now, Americans who are being vaccinated by the millions every day, and who have been buoyed by Biden’s own promises of safe Fourth of July parties, may not be in the mood to hear about a governor shutting down schools or restaurants again.
Your turn
What do you think? Should the governors follow Biden’s advice, or are they more in tune with their own constituents?
Let me know what you think of the newsletter and what I should be writing next. And if you love everything, tell your friends by forwarding this along or promoting it on social media!
If you want to chat on Twitter, I’m at @danvock and @statesofcrisis.
Programming note
I’ll be taking next week off for a much-needed break.
But I’ll be back the week after that with another edition. Thanks for reading!
Did you enjoy this issue?
Daniel C. Vock

A pandemic. Recession. Civil unrest. State leaders are grappling with several enormous crises all at once. We explore how they're responding.

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