Whitmer brings in coaches to reinforce mask plea as COVID-19 uptick continues

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With Michigan still seeing an increase in coronavirus cases, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state health officials are leveraging people’s love of sports to again urge residents to wear masks to help slow the spread.

“This is one simple act for the greater good, for our individual good, that will make a huge difference,” the governor said at a Wednesday afternoon briefing.

Framing the fight against coronavirus as “a team effort,” Whitmer began the press conference by showing a new PSA on masks featuring coaches from both Michigan and Michigan State. Some of those coaches then joined the governor at the podium.

“We’re asking each and every one of you, please, to wear a mask,” Michigan State women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant said. “If we want our kids to be in school in the fall, we have to wear a mask. If you want to see college football this fall, we have to wear a mask.”

“We are in this fight together,” Michigan women’s basketball coach Kim Barnes Arico added. “We would love for schools to open, we would love for our universities to open, we would love to play those rivalry games … but we can’t do that without all of you, we can’t do that without everyone in our state wearing our mask.

“Masks matter,” she added.

“This common opponent is a deadly opponent,” Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo said, going on to say that he has been disappointed when people don’t follow best health practices. “I’m asking everyone to join me in wearing a mask. … Let’s all mask up for Michigan and show this country the state that really does work together.”

Whitmer last week strengthened her mandate requiring people to wear masks in public. While you could be slapped with a $500 fine if you flout it, Whitmer said she has never anticipated a legal crackdown. The goal, she said, is to just get people to wear their masks.

“I’ve given the economic reasons for masking up, I’ve given the health reasons for masking up. It’s the simple act of wearing a piece of cloth over your face when you’re in a public space or when you’re outside but in a crowded space. That’s it,” Whitmer said. “This should not be this flashpoint that it seems to be.”

She said if people don’t help to slow the spread, she could have to reinstate some of the more strict rules that were previously in place.

>> Slides from July 15 COVID-19 update

TOP DOC: PERCENTAGE OF POSITIVE TESTS TOO HIGH

Michigan on Wednesday afternoon announced 891 more coronavirus cases had been confirmed and four more deaths had been recorded.

The newest figures bring the total number of cases to 71,197 confirmed cases since the virus was first detected in Michigan in March and the total number of deaths to 6,085.

“That’s very concerning,” the state’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said of the number of new cases. “Overall, over the past few weeks, we’ve seen increases in cases across the entire state, which again is very concerning.”

While the number of new cases was the highest it has been in weeks, the state also tested its highest number of samples ever in a single day at 33,821. The percentage of positive tests actually improved over the previous day, declining by about .5% to 3.53%.

Still, the percentage of positive tests has increased in the last few weeks. It was hovering between 2% and 3% for the majority of June before rising to bounce between 3% and 4% for about the last week.

“That’s too high,” Khaldun said, explaining health officials nationwide like to see that figure below 3%. “This is an indicator that there is ongoing spread of the disease and that we are not simply seeing more cases just because we are doing increased testing.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, provides an update on the state of the coronavirus outbreak on July 15, 2020, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looks on. (Courtesy Michigan Executive Office of the Governor)

Khaldun said while some outbreaks can be tracked to gatherings and workplaces, there is still evidence of community spread. She also pointed out that younger people are now getting the disease faster than older people: The 20-29 age group now has the highest rate followed by the 30-39 group.

“Young people have to understand that they are not immune to this disease,” Khaldun said, stressing it can sicken or kill them, leave them with long-term health problems that are still being studied, and that they can still spread it to older and more vulnerable people. “Just do everything you can to not get it.”

She noted that the younger patient demographic may be contributing to a relatively low number of deaths, but also warned deaths are a “lagging indicator” because people often fight the virus for days or even weeks before it proves fatal.

Khaldun said the Grand Rapids region continues to see the highest rate of new cases in the state, with 53 per million people per day. That figure is more than 30 in the Kalamazoo and Detroit regions and above 20 in the Saginaw, Jackson and Lansing areas. It’s also above 20 in the Upper Peninsula — the highest it has ever been there amid six straight weeks of rising cases. The rate is above 15 cases per million people per day in the Traverse City area and has seen rising cases for three weeks.

Of the 891 new cases, 199 were in Wayne County, where the outbreak has been the worst. It has now had 23,380 cases since the outbreak began in March. The number of deaths there remained steady at 2,642.

Neighboring Oakland County has had 9,822 cases (177 more than the previous day) and 1,069 deaths. Macomb County has had 7,783 cases (113 more) and 892 deaths.

None of the four latest deaths were in West Michigan.

Kent County confirmed 71 additional cases, bringing its total to 5,554. It has had 142 deaths.

West Michigan counties with cases increases over 10:

  • Allegan County: 11 more cases for a total of 356. Seven total deaths.
  • Berrien County: 16 more cases for a total of 875. 61 total deaths.
  • Cass County: 11 more cases for a total of 191. Six total deaths.
  • Kalamazoo County: 14 more cases for a total of 1,182. 70 total deaths.
  • Muskegon County: 14 more cases for a total of 938. 54 total deaths.

Hospitalizations have continued to rise over the past week, with 428 inpatients as of Wednesday. There are still plenty of intensive care beds and ventilators for everyone who needs one. The state has never run out of critical care beds and equipment, even when the outbreak was at its worst in April.

Khaldun explained the virus spreads in respiratory droplets expelled when someone carrying it coughs, sneezes, shouts, talks or even simply breathes. That’s why 6-foot social distancing, staying away from large gatherings and wearing a mask can do a lot to help slow the spread. She reiterated that wearing a cloth mask can cut the risk of transmission by about 70%.

“This is not a joke. It is not a hoax. This is not about politics. Just wear your mask because you want to live and you want to protect those around you,” Khaldun said. “It’s one easy action that makes us all safer.”

Officials continue to urge people to get tested for the virus — pretty much anybody who wants a test can get one. Testing sites can be found on the state’s website or by calling 211.

Khaldun also asked everyone to answer the phone when contact tracers from their local health departments call, saying tracers are currently reaching only about 70% of people within two days of a positive test. She said health officials want that figure to be at least 90%. She also explained that it was important for people who test positive give tracers information about close contacts with so officials can work to isolate outbreaks. She promised the information would be confidential.

Despite the recent increase in cases, Michigan is still doing much better than it was when the state’s outbreak was at its peak in April, and better than a number of other states where cases are surging and some hospitals are struggling to keep up.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist discusses the state’s response to coronavirus on July 15, 2020, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer looks on. (Courtesy Michigan Executive Office of the Governor)

But state officials say we can’t get complacent. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said when looking at other states seeing massive surges, like Florida and Texas, and then comparing them to the relatively good situation in Michigan, “it’s easy to think we are out of the woods. But we are not.”

Whitmer said if the people of Michigan don’t take the virus seriously now, we could find ourselves in the same position as Florida.

WHITMER: ‘IT’S ABOUT PROTECTING OUR FAMILIES’

The governor said studies have linked the increase in cases in Michigan to “spotty compliance” with health safety protocols, notably wearing masks.

“We have a choice to make: Do we double down and get more vigilant in our fight against this virus or do we let all of our hard work go to waste?” Whitmer said. “For the sake of our neighbors and for our loved ones and for our communities, for our heroes on the front lines, for our kids who want to return to school in the fall, for our businesses that want to stay open or have the chance to open, it is incumbent on all Michiganders to do their part and to step up and mask up.”

“It’s not about vanity, it’s not about comfort. It’s about protecting our families,” she added.

She said there are 55 days until most schools intend to start the fall semester. She said we could see a lot happen in that 55 days — we could reverse the increase or see cases rise so quickly that things become just as bad as or worse than they were in April.

To those whose primary concern is the economic effect of the virus and mitigation efforts, Whitmer said a study by Goldman Sachs agreed that a federal mask mandate would prevent a 5% hit to the U.S. gross domestic product. She said a potential second wave forcing another widespread closure of businesses would be “devastating.”

“Even the president has started wearing a mask. I’m grateful for that,” Whitmer said.

“We strap a piece of cloth across our chest when we get in a car to prevent loss of life,” Lt. Gov. Gilchrist said. “Now, all we’re saying is that if you strap a piece of cloth across your face, you can prevent people getting sick and people losing their lives.”

**Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled coach Suzy Merchant’s first name. We regret the mistake, which has been corrected.

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