Michigan House Republicans introduce coronavirus response plan based on local case numbers

Carol Thompson
Lansing State Journal

LANSING — House Republicans have introduced a coronavirus response proposal that directs county health officials to take action based on local case numbers, hospital capacity and other health data.

They hope the proposal will move Michigan beyond a "one-size-fits-all" approach toward one that requires county-level actions based on county-level data. 

"This proposal calls for a publicly disclosed set of metrics, which would allow a county health director the option to modify existing state orders which reflect the needs of a county," said Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso.

The plan would not override statewide health department orders, he said. 

Instead, it would allow public health experts to set their own rules about things such as gathering sizes and restaurant capacity as long as their communities remain within a set of coronavirus benchmarks. If a county meets the benchmarks, then it can set looser rules than the state.

Those benchmarks include:

  • Less than 55 confirmed COVID-19 cases per 1 million residents in a 14-day period.
  • Under a 5% positivity rate over a 14-day period.
  • A two-week supply of personal protective equipment at local hospitals.
  • The ability to test at least 15 people per 10,000 every day and get results within 3 days.
  • Hospital capacity to manage a 20% surge in patient admissions or transfers and below a 25% case hospitalization increase in the last 14 days.

Data those health officials use to make decisions would be reported daily to the public.

County health officials would work with local health providers to determine what steps to take to combat the virus. Frederick said the state would step in if local officials don't take action when the virus takes hold. 

"The data points must be continually maintained, or state-level restrictions quickly resume," he said.

Setting clear benchmarks on case numbers and health care capacity will make it clear to the public why coronavirus limits are issued and enforced, said Rep. Graham Filler, R-DeWitt.

The plan would not change local or state health officials' powers, which are outlined in the state's public health code.

House Republicans modeled their coronavirus response plan after the bipartisan Return to Learn plan, which allows school districts to choose whether to provide remote or in-person instruction based on what they consider most appropriate for their community.

More:Gov. Whitmer, lawmakers reach compromise on plan for reopening schools

Filler said the plan offers hope and an opportunity for bipartisan action. 

"This House plan is just one idea that we have, but we think it holds real merit," Filler said. "I would say that nobody has all the answers about how to defeat COVID in Michigan, but we're using this plan as a vehicle to bring real ideas and experience to the table so we can get closer to those answers."

Republicans have chided Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's response to the coronavirus, arguing her administration is not open about what metrics it uses to determine whether business closures, crowd size limits or mask mandates are necessary.

Whitmer took broad action when the virus first swept through Michigan, issuing a widespread lockdown order, closing schools and limiting crowd sizes with executive power. She rescinded restrictions as case numbers abated.

But early this month, the Michigan Supreme Court declared Whitmer did not have the power to extend an emergency declaration without legislative approval, which made many of her executive orders defunct.

More:Michigan Supreme Court rules against Whitmer on emergency powers but effect unclear

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon has issued epidemic orders that replace some of Whitmer's previous orders that were directly related to health, such as limitations on gathering sizes and mandatory mask-wearing. Those orders are still in place.

House Republicans don't seek to undo any of Gordon's orders, Frederick said. They hope their plan would be put in place alongside the statewide regulations. 

Having a broad, legislative response to the coronavirus will remove any uncertainty about Whitmer's or Gordon's powers and give Michiganders a clear understanding of the safety rules, Filler said.

"We need to have a state response to COVID. It needs to be data based, and it needs to take very seriously this pandemic," he said. "The best thing we can do is have predictability and legality behind our state's response."

Michigan State Medical Society President Dr. Bobby Mukkamala voiced support for the plan in an emailed statement. He said the plan gives physicians a chance to weigh in on local coronavirus response.

"Implementation of any plan like this relies heavily on good data and sound metrics, and Michigan physicians are eager to help in the development of these metrics," he said. "In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our understanding of the disease has become clearer and the ability of the medical community to care for and treat patients has become more effective."

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail said public health officials in Michigan already have been using data and metrics to issue coronavirus lockdown orders. Vail herself took steps beyond statewide rules after cases spiked locally.

More:How Linda Vail is leading Ingham County through a pandemic

Instead of county-by-county rules, health officers have asked for a statewide coronavirus response plan, Vail said.

"Now you’re looking at exactly the opposite of what your local health experts asked for coming out of our legislature," she said.

Contact Carol Thompson at ckthompson@lsj.com. Follow her on Twitter @thompsoncarolk. Reporter Megan Banta contributed to this story.