Life can be pretty darn unpredictable. So unpredictable, in fact, that Joe Biden, who considered Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer to be his running mate in 2020, now heads an administration “locked in an increasingly tense standoff” with Whitmer over the allocation of vaccines, in the words of the New York Times.
As you’ve probably noticed, COVID-19 hammered the state of Michigan over the past month, while caseloads are generally going down in most of the rest of the country. Last week, Whitmer urged high schools to suspend in-person classes and youth sports for two weeks as well as asking diners to avoid eating at restaurant indoors. But she emphasized that “these are not orders, mandates or requirements,” apparently concluding that orders and mandates aren’t necessary yet, that they’re not that effective, or they generate too much backlash and resistance to be worthwhile.
Whitmer wants the federal government to tell manufacturers to send more vaccines sent to her state, and fast. So far, Michigan’s vaccine efforts are in the middle of the pack – 79.5 percent of distributed vaccines have been administered so far, ranking 30th out of the 50 states. Some other states might ask why Michigan would get shipped more vaccines, when that state still has unused doses and aren’t getting them into arms as fast as other states.
Yesterday, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky made clear she didn’t think rushing more vaccines to Michigan was the right solution.
When you have an acute situation, an extraordinary number of cases like we have in Michigan, the answer is not necessarily to give vaccine. In fact, we know that the vaccine will have a delayed response. The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down, to flatten the curve, to decrease contact with one another, to test to the extent that we have available, to contact trace. Sometimes you can’t even do it at the capacity that you need. But, really, what we need to do in those situations is shut things down.”
Raise your hand if you foresaw the Biden administration accusing Gretchen Whitmer of being too resistant to far-reaching shutdowns. Walensky continued, “I think if we tried to vaccinate our way out of what is happening in Michigan, we would be disappointed that it took so long for the vaccine to work, to actually have the impact.”
Andy Slavett, Acting Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, added, “We have to remember the fact that in the next two to six weeks, the variants that we’ve seen in Michigan — those variants are also present in other states. So our ability to vaccinate people quickly in all — each of those states, rather than taking vaccines and shifting it to playing Whack-a-Mole, isn’t the strategy that public health leaders and scientists have laid out.”
Based upon those comments, the Biden administration is not going to reroute any vaccine shipments from other states to Michigan — putting Whitmer in a tight bind. Up until a month ago, Michigan was in relatively good shape for a state of its population, and last fall, she was getting glowing profiles in the national media. “From her living room, Gretchen Whitmer has led Michigan through a pandemic, an economic meltdown and even a dam collapse — all at a time when government itself seems broken,” gushed the New York Times.
But Michigan suffering a huge spike in cases during the vaccine rollout – when other states aren’t seeing similar spikes – raises the question of just how well Whitmer’s policies helped the state, and how much was just random chance and luck. Whitmer is now emphasizing “policy change alone won’t change the tide,” which is not quite what she or her fans contended last year. In fact, from the start of the pandemic, state lockdown policies have rarely aligned clearly with outcomes – some strict lockdown states had huge outbreaks, some loose lockdown states had milder caseloads, and vice versa. Policy probably has some effect on the margins, but it’s modest compared to population density, temperature, weather, travel patterns, factors like mass transit bringing people close together in enclosed spaces, and random chance.
But if “policy change alone won’t change the tide…” did Whitmer ever deserve all of that gushing praise for her response to the pandemic?
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