Michigan lawmakers need to pass a new law requiring resident wear masks in indoor places and crowded outdoor areas, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a Thursday news conference.

The governor said she sent a letter to Republican lawmakers this week asking them to pass a bill. Lawmakers, especially Republicans leading the House and Senate, have asked to have more of a role in the process of tackling the pandemic, Whitmer noted. Now is their time to act.

“This is the law under epidemic orders. But we do think it would be helpful to our health, our safety and our economy if it was codified in a bipartisan (manner at) the Legislature, and that’s what we’ve asked for, ” Whitmer said.

“We’ve known for a long time that the single most important weapon that we have against this virus is the simple task of wearing a mask.”

State health orders issued in October already require mask wearing in public. Yet case rates continue to rise. While Whitmer said she thinks putting the requirement in law would likely encourage Michiganders to take the precaution more seriously, she knows people are tired and frustrated.

“We are all tired of dealing with COVID. And yet ignoring the problem is making it worse,” Whitmer said.

“I think fatigue is a part of it, I think the political rhetoric has created a lot of confusion and unnecessary suspicion around the efficacy of masks. However, studies have shown this remains the best tool that we have.”

Whitmer said state health and labor officials are also “increasing scrutiny” of remote work policies, especially for employers requiring staff to work on site. The state may cite employers, require changes and issue fines up to $7,000, Whitmer said.

The comments come one day after Michigan recorded its highest number of cases in any day since the start of the pandemic.

The 7-day average daily case rate is above 3,500, much higher than at any point in the pandemic. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, state medical executive, said the percentage of positive tests is averaging 7.5%, though it exceeded 10% on Monday and Tuesday.

Hospitalizations are four times higher now than they were at the end of August, and 60% are outside of southeast Michigan. More than 7,400 people have died from COVID-19. There were more deaths in Michigan in October from the disease than in any month since May.

About 2,300 people are now hospitalized in Michigan with COVID-19 symptoms, said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, Henry Ford Health System’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer.

“It is definitely taxing all health care systems and hospitals across the state,” he said.

The Detroit-based health system has re-activated its incident command center to allow it to “make rapid changes as needed to accommodate the increasing number of patients” who have COVID-19, Munkarah said.

About 18% to 20% of the COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized at Henry Ford need to be admitted to intensive care units, he said, but fewer are in need of ventilator support.

“Part of this is because we’ve learned much more about the disease over the past few months and how to manage it differently where we do not feel that we need to put people on respirators or ventilators so early,” Munkarah said.

For the time being, no elective procedures or medical services are limited at Henry Ford because of the rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, but Munkarah said: “We are going to continue to monitor things very, very closely.”

But one of the biggest concerns he has is whether Henry Ford and other hospitals statewide will have enough staff to get through this surge.

With so much community spread of the virus, hospital workers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 just as everyone else is. And if they get sick, Munkarah asked: “Are we going to have enough staff to take care of patients in the hospital?”

“If we don’t do anything else, if we don’t change our behaviors, we could be seeing 100 deaths per day by the end of December,” Khaldun said.

“We are really at a tipping point right now when it comes to COVID-19. … Our rates are rising exponentially. “

More: What it’s like to vote when you have COVID-19

More: Michigan coronavirus cases: Tracking the pandemic

In late October, state health officials announced it would be continuing regulations and restrictions intended to mandate mask wearing while in public, limit crowd sizes at private gatherings and in business, and generally promote actions that will stop the spread of the disease.

That included requiring restaurants to keep contact information for patrons, in order to ease any potential contact tracing efforts. The state also limited the number of people who may eat at an establishment together at six, and reduced the number of people allowed at a gathering at a non-residential venue that does not have fixed seating.

Health officials hurriedly issued a similar order in early October in response to Michigan Supreme Court rulings. The court, in a split decision, essentially invalidated executive orders put in place by Whitmer. The court determined one law Whitmer had relied upon was unconstitutional, and a second law required Whitmer to obtain approval from the legislature if she wanted to extend a state of emergency.

State health officials issued the restrictions under a completely separate law that was not in any way affected by the court’s ruling.

“We have to get the politics out of the public health crisis. It is killing us. It is jeopardizing our economy…today, the most important tool that we have is a mask. And every one of us has an interest to masking up,” Whitmer said Thursday.

While state Republican legislative leaders have groused about Whitmer’s decision to issue executive orders, the legislature has not passed any comprehensive legislation aimed at stopping the spread of the disease.

The GOP-led House and Senate have collaborated with the governor on legislation that helped schools open, extend unemployment benefits, give clarity to nursing home operators and new legal protections to some businesses.

“Michiganders are tough. We have grit. Take care of each other. We can’t stop now,” Whitmer said.

Dave Boucher

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Whitmer calls on Michigan legislature to pass law requiring masks


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