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Dr. Khaldun on Michigan’s COVID-19 Surge: “Certainly, This Is a Case for Stronger Public Health Orders”

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Image credit: State of Michigan

Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun talks about why the governor is not tightening restrictions even though there is a surge in cases.

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The state’s top doctor, Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, says the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Michigan is “certainly” a case for stronger public health orders, although she is largely defending the state’s response so far. She has not said exactly what new restrictions she would advise Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to put in place. Whitmer has avoided tightening restrictions amid this new surge.

Michigan’s COVID-19 spike is now as bad as we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, at least by some measures. Hospitalizations are similar to what they were this time last year during the initial surge in cases. Total confirmed cases are near the same level we saw at the peak of the surge last fall, and are still rising. Deaths are also rising, but are not yet as high as what the state saw last fall and early winter.

A vaccine put in an arm today does not address the spread, really, and the case rate that is going on today.” —Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive

The governor is instead asking for a voluntary two-week pause in youth sports, in-person classes and indoor dining. She is also asking the federal government to surge vaccines to Michigan, a request that the CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has publicly rebuffed this week, saying the governor should enact a new shutdown in Michigan.


Listen: Dr. Joneigh Khaldun talks about the surge in COVID-19 cases and whether new restrictions are appropriate.


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Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive and one of Whitmer’s top advisers on the state’s pandemic response. Khaldun says the surge in cases and hospitalizations is ”a dire situation.” 

Khaldun emphasizes that there are things we can all do to help bring down the surge. ”Masks, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, getting their vaccine, as soon as they are able to, avoiding indoor dining,” she says, ”those are things that absolutely would bring our cases down.” 

Khaldun also discusses why the governor has not tightened restrictions further as a result of the surge. 

I would certainly say again, with the cases, hospitalizations looking as they as they do, there certainly is a case for stronger public health orders,” she says. ”But we also have therapeutics now, we have vaccines now. I don’t believe we need to do the type of restrictions that we did last April, just because we’ve learned so much more about this virus and we can be much more targeted and strategic in our efforts, including the epidemic order that was put in place last fall to help bring our surge down.”

When you have an acute situation, 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.” —Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director

She says she understands that there is a level of “pandemic fatigue” that is affecting how people behave here in Michigan.

A lot of people are very tired, they are not interested in being told what to do anymore. I get it. But I’ll also just add, Michigan actually still has one of the most restrictive orders in in the country, particularly in the Midwest as well as 50% capacity limit on restaurants. There is still a mask mandate right now. So it’s not as if we completely allowed everything. There are still really good evidence-based policies in place right now.”

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky this week publicly rejected Whitmer’s request to “surge” vaccines to Michigan as part of the state’s strategy to mitigate spread of the virus in the state.

If vaccines go in arms today, we will not see an effect of those vaccines, depending on the vaccine for somewhere between two to six weeks,” said Walensky. ”So when you have an acute situation, 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.”

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,” Walensky added.

A vaccine in an arm today, absolutely, that is not a strategy to address the cases that are occurring and the transmission that is occurring todayn… But we do have a broader strategy.” —Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan Chief Medical Executive

Khaldun reacts to that statement and defends Michigan’s response.

Absolutely respect Dr. Walensky and her expertise,” says Khaldun. ”I think she likely doesn’t fully understand the efforts that are going on on the ground in Michigan, which I don’t necessarily expect her to. But to be very clear, we are actually a really top state when it comes to our testing approach.”

But absolutely, I actually agree with her,” she continues. ”A vaccine in an arm today, absolutely, that is not a strategy to address the cases that are occurring and the transmission that is occurring today … But we do have a broader strategy.”

On the issue of vaccine hesitancy in Michigan, Khaldun stresses that any serious side effects are exceptionally rare, and that people are taking a bigger risk to their health by not getting vaccinated. ”Millions of people now across the United States have gotten these vaccines and by and large they are safe and effective,” she says.

Web story written by Allise Hurd

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