Whitmer urges halt of high school classes, youth sports

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LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is urging a two-week suspension of in-person high school classes, all youth sports and indoor restaurant dining to address a surge of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

The governor stopped short of ordering restrictions during a Friday news conference, instead asking for voluntary compliance. She urged high schools to shift to virtual learning and that both school-and non-school youth sports should be paused.

State Superintendent Michael Rice echoed the governor’s call for schools to go virtual and hold off on sports for the two weeks.

“Michigan educators, students, and families have risen to the challenge over the past year, and I am confident they will continue to do what is needed to help save lives as we keep fighting the pandemic,” his statement said in part. “I support the recommendations of the governor. I urge schools to contribute the next two weeks toward the common good of our state and the health of our residents.”

In a statement following the governor’s press conference, the Michigan High School Athletic Association said it would finish up its basketball season over the next two days, and each school could decide for itself if they would launch spring sports over the next two weeks. The spring tournaments are currently scheduled to begin in mid-May.

HOW SCHOOLS ARE RESPONDING

Comstock Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Thoenes said his district has already returned from spring break and will continue with its learning plans. 

“Given our fidelity and strong faith to our protocols and safety regimens, we’re confident moving forward we can continue to minimize our students and staff exposure,” Thoenes said. 

Thoenes said school officials will monitor cases and make decisions based on the data within the district. 

“We have four or five positive cases and upwards of 30 kids that are on quarantine of a district of 1,700 kids. That’s a small percent. So we’re monitoring that very carefully,” Thoenes said. 

The superintendent of Portage Public Schools, Mark Bielang, says his district will also continue to offer in-person and virtual options.  

“If secondary parents feel uncomfortable coming to school, they certainly have the option to change their mode of instruction from face to face to our remote environment,” Bielang said. 

The district says it will also keep following state guidelines for sports testing. Portage had already increased testing following an outbreak on the basketball program.  

“We’re testing our athletes on a weekly basis and we feel that is a good strategy,” Bielang said. 

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union representing teachers and school staff, said the governor’s request is warranted given case increases in the 10-to-19 age group and because no vaccines are currently approved for anyone under 16, spokesperson David Crim said.

“The numbers show the need for what the governor has proposed. The numbers show that a pause in in-person learning and youth sports is certainly warranted,” Crim said. 

Kalamazoo Public Schools says it will continue play, stressing that COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including weekly antigen testing, would remain in effect. It noted families had the choice not to participate.

Greenville Public Schools also said it will remain in-person and continue with sports. It noted it could change its plan if the outbreak worsens in the community.

Grand Haven Public Schools and Holland Public Schools both said they would follow the governor’s recommendation, moving high school students to virtual learning after spring break for the next two weeks. The districts also hit pause on sports until after players undergo their first rapid antigen test next week. Eighth graders and below will keep learning in person.

WHITMER: AVOID DINING IN

Whitmer also urged Michiganders on Friday to choose outdoor dining or takeout instead of indoor seating at restaurants, as the state’s chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said there have been 58 new outbreaks in retail or restaurant locations in the last week alone.

Miguel Rodriguez, a co-owner of La Familia restaurant in Kalamazoo, said Friday he was still figuring out what to make of the governor’s request. 

“We want to keep people safe but we also want to keep feeding everybody, keep everyone going,” Rodriguez said.  

Nearby Bell’s Eccentric Cafe announced on social media Friday that the restaurant will pause indoor dining for at least two weeks. 

The Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association fired back against the governor, releasing a statement saying its industry has done an “extraordinary job” at maintaining safe and sanitized environments for both staff and customers, and the governor’s request “doesn’t track with available data.”

“While we support and echo the governor’s call for a surge of vaccines to be prioritized for Michigan, we believe her suggested recommendation around indoor dining is misguided and doesn’t track with available data.

“Restaurant operators have done an extraordinary job of maintaining a safe and sanitized environment for guests and employees alike since reopening in February and it shows in the data.  While Michigan is experiencing an unfortunate surge that has fashioned nearly 1,000 new and ongoing COVID-19 outbreak investigations, an insignificant 0.3% of those investigations involved restaurant patrons.

“We trust our operators to continue to provide a safe environment indoors or out in the coming weeks and we trust Michiganders to do their part to act responsibly and respectfully to help us all achieve that outcome.  In accordance with CDC guidance, those fully vaccinated – a number already approaching 40 percent of the population – can safely dine indoors if they wear a well-fitted mask and maintain physical distance (at least 6 feet).  

“As we approach a herd immunity in Michigan that will transform the hospitality industry for the better, it is incumbent on us all to act with common sense and proper precaution.  But the continued scapegoating of the restaurant industry without proof or reliable data won’t make it come any sooner.”

MRLA

ABOUT 7,800 MORE CASES

Michigan on Friday announced 7,834 more confirmed cases of coronavirus and 26 additional related deaths. In all, Michigan has now had 731,131 total cases since the virus was first detected the state in March 2020 and 16,426 related deaths.

On Thursday, labs tested 52,313 samples for the virus and 9,165 were positive, a percentage of 17.54%. The number of positive tests is not the same as the number of new cases because people may be tested more than once. Additionally, testing numbers are from a single calendar date, while the number of new cases lists the increase since the last time the state compiled the data; these two time frames do not match up precisely.

Kent County recorded three more deaths for a total of 700 and confirmed 405 cases for a total of 56,315 since the start of the pandemic.

Several other West Michigan counties also reported additional deaths:

  • Allegan County: One more death for 96 total; 7,950 total confirmed cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • Berrien County: One more death for 236 total; 12,194 total cases.
  • Calhoun County: One more death for 235 total; 10,209 total cases.
  • Kalamazoo County: One more death for 294 total; 16,363 total cases.
  • Montcalm County: One more death for 91 total; 4,039 total cases.
  • Ottawa County: One more death for 337 total; 24,852 total cases.

Wayne County, which has been hit hardest by the virus over the course of the pandemic and which is again posting some of the highest figures, confirmed 1,607 cases, bringing its total to 121,585 since the start of the pandemic, and reported eight more deaths for a total of 4,097. Neighboring Oakland County has had 83,308 confirmed cases (1,009 more than the previous day) and 1,968 deaths (two more). Macomb County has had 74,784 cases (992 more) and 1,952 deaths (no change).

Dr. Khaldun said the state is seeing broad community spread of the virus.

“And because we are seeing so many cases a day, our public health (contact tracing) system is overwhelmed,” she said at the governor’s press conference. “We are not able to get information on many cases, nor are we able to identify their close contacts. We don’t know where all the cases and outbreaks are, and what we do know is likely an undercount.”

She also expressed worry about the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants in Michigan, which has confirmed nearly 2,300 cases of such variants — more than any other state.

“This serious. We are all connected and we’re in this together. And now is the time for us all to heed these warnings and do our part,” Khaldun said. “So the data is concerning, but there is no need to panic. We know how to do this. And I want to be clear, and I’ve said this before, just because something is open, it does not mean that it is safe or that you should do it.”

Michigan also ranks first in the nation for hospitalizations and ICU utilization, with more than 3,600 adults in the hospital with COVID-19. Citing the surge, Bronson Healthcare on Friday tightened visitor restrictions; other hospitals in the region have already done so.

The daily death rate is seeing modest gains, but remains low compared to previous surges.

The state has received nearly 5.7 million vaccine doses and more than 5.1 million of those have been administered. Nearly 40% of the state’s population over the age of 16 — or more than 3.2 million people — has received at least one vaccine shot. The goal is to hit 70%.

SpartanNash has scheduled a vaccine clinic for Tuesday catering specifically to 16- and 17-year-olds. The event will run from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 5221 Cherry Ave. in Hudsonville. You can schedule an appointment online at shopmyFamilyFare.com.

“…Vaccines, of course, are the most important tool we have to prevent the spread of COVID,” Khaldun said. “We now have data from almost 175 million doses that have been put into the arms of Americans over the past four months. The science is very clear: These vaccines work, they are effective, and known potential side effects like a sore arm or maybe a mild fever or body aches, that’s to be expected and it mans that the vaccine is working.”

She reminded people that once they’re fully vaccinated — two weeks after their final dose — they can do more things like gather with other fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or travel without getting tested.

“Vaccines not only drive down our cases, but they change the things that you are able to do in your everyday life,” Khaldun said.

She urged people to stick with mitigation protocols just a little longer as the vaccine rollout continues.

“We are just so close,” she said.

MORE AID FROM WASHINGTON, BUT NO EXTRA VACCINES

The White House said Friday it is surging federal resources to support vaccinations, testing and therapeutics — but not vaccines — to Michigan in an effort to control the state’s worst-in-the-nation COVID-19 transmission rate.

President Joe Biden outlined the moves late Thursday in a call with Whitmer to discuss the situation, according to senior administration officials. But it will not include a “surge” of vaccine doses, a move Whitmer has advocated for, and again pushed during Friday’s news conference.

Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is opening its COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program Monday to reimburse those who had pandemic-related funeral expenses after Jan. 20, 2020. You can apply by calling 844.684.6333 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT Monday through Friday.

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