Michigan leaders explain what it will take to lift COVID-19 restrictions

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday that COVID-19 restrictions put in place three weeks ago will continue for at least another 12 days, or until Dec. 20. 

At the end of day 12, Whitmer said the state would look into proceeding on a 'pathway to cautious reengagement.' The director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Robert Gordon, said the department will be looking at three key metrics to determine whether to slowly reopen at the end of the 12 days. 

The three key metrics for a safe restart are the share of hospital beds with COVID-19 patients, the COVID-19 case rates and also the percent positivity. 


The MDHHS will be looking at the percent of hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients. The higher that number, the less room for people who need care. The risk that those patients won't get quality care also increases then. 

Gordon said they've seen a flattening or declining trend with this metric in the past week but are looking to see continued progress. It also takes time after cases decline to show an improvement in this metric.

The MDHHS will also continue consulting with hospital leaders in the state to track this metric. 


As Gordon pointed out, a lag in time exists between when patients get infected and when they get hospitalized. If officials only focused on the hospital bed metric, it's possible to miss the fact that COVID-19 cases are growing. 

By the time hospital rates have risen, it may be too late to turn around the exploding case rate. 

Gordon said they're seeing a declining trend of case rates in Michigan over the last couple of weeks but are looking for it to meaningfully continue. 

As of Dec. 7, the state's medical director Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said the overall case rate in Michigan is at 522 cases per million people per day. The case rates range from 428 cases per million people per day in the Traverse City region to 603 cases per million people per day in the Jackson region.


Officials are looking at declining case rates to indicate less COVID-19 spread, but declining cases could also exist because testing went down. "That's not what we want," Gordon said. 

The percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive measures whether we could be missing cases in the community. It's also an early indicator of future cases and hospitalizations. 

Gordon said the percent positive rate isn't declining right now. 

Dr. Khaldun said on Dec. 7 the state's overall percent positive rate is 14.4%. It varies from 8.1% in the Upper Peninsula to 16.1% in the Saginaw region. 

Dr. Khaldun has said that a percent positive rate at or below 3% indicates community spread isn't happening. 


"One thing we've learned is that progress against COVID is hard to earn and easy to lose. We need to open cautiously, not recklessly," Gordon said. 

He said the first thing Michigan officials are looking at doing once the reopening process can begin again is to give local communities the ability to reopen high schools. 

The next step, he said, would be to open indoor venues that allow those inside to continue being consistently masked, such as movie theaters, bowling alleys, casinos, etc. He said movie theaters would be allowed to open under the condition that the concessions are closed because then people won't be eating and drinking. 

And if progress continues, Gordon said the state will eagerly lift restrictions on businesses beyond those mentioned. 

"We're not ready to do that now and it's unlikely we'll be ready to do so in 12 days but we will do so as soon as we can," Gordon said. 


The reopening of indoor dining at restaurants seems to be the lowest priority for the state's reopening plan right now. 

"The science on eating and drinking inside is settled," Gordon said. "As Gov. Whitmer said, there's a lot of studies on this and I'll name just one recent one. While inside a restaurant, two people got COVID infections from an individual who was 15-20 feet away - in one case for just five minutes. That finding nears a raft of studies finding a correlation between restaurant traffic and infection levels."


Gordon said that adhering to the restrictions and by wearing face masks whenever around someone outside your own household can help bring cases back down. 

"Please, if you're inside with someone outside your household, please always, always wear your mask," he said. "With the steps we are taking today and with the actions that all of us take, we can give thousands more Michiganders the chance to enjoy the next holiday season. For this holiday season, let's mask up; let's avoid indoor gatherings and let's give the gift of life."