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MICHIGAN ADDS 86,009 CASES, 501 DEATHS FROM COVID-19 OVER 5 DAYS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan on Wednesday added 86,009 COVID-19 cases and 501 deaths from the virus, including cases from Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

The state averaged 17,202 confirmed cases per day over the five days. Of the latest deaths reported, 346 were identified during a delayed records review, according to the state health department. The additions bring the state overall totals to 1,832,716 confirmed cases and 28,980 deaths since March 2020.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday recorded 4,453 adults and 114 pediatric patients are hospitalized with confirmed infections in the state. About 83% of the state’s inpatient hospital beds are occupied.

Adult hospitalizations are nearing records set on Jan. 10 when the inpatient tally of 4,580 adults broke a previous record set on Dec. 13, when the state health department reported 4,518 adults were hospitalized with confirmed virus infections. Earlier this month, the state set a new high mark when it reported more than 20,000 cases per day.

Michigan’s top health officials have described the state’s COVID-19 situation as “critical,” and urged vaccinations and boosters and masking as a fourth surge of the virus has driven up hospitalizations.

About 25% of hospital beds were filled with COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday and there were an average of 2,457 emergency room visits related to COVID-19 per day in the state.

According to the state’s modeling projections, cases are showing a sharp increase compared to last year, hospitalizations are higher than last year, and deaths are similar to last year.

During a press update Wednesday, Henry Ford Health System officials said they’re hopeful in a slight decrease of COVID-19 hospitalizations this week and a slight decrease in staff vacancies.  Based on recent data from most Michigan health systems, the state health department found that in 2021, 88% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized were unvaccinated and 85% of COVID-related deaths were occurring in unvaccinated individuals.

Hospital systems are warning of a “breaking point” amid the surge, and federal medical teams are assisting at Beaumont’s Dearborn location, Henry Ford Wyandotte, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw and Mercy Health Muskegon.

The current surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations could send an “already stressed” health care system “over the edge,” Michigan’s top health officials said last week.

“This surge is not like the others,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s chief medical executive, told reporters last week. “This is the highest number of weekly cases that we’ve ever had.”

Omicron variant driving rise in cases

In Michigan, variants of the virus are moving at a high rate, proving more contagious and infecting both unvaccinated and vaccinated residents.

Medical officials are recommending residents wear surgical or KN-95 masks as the omicron variant has been shown to linger on cloth masks.

The state, as of Friday, has confirmed 840 cases of omicron by genetic sequencing at the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories in Lansing. The majority are in southeast Michigan. But experts say that a greater number of people are likely infected because only a small percentage of samples of the virus are sequenced. Roughly 95% of cases of COVID-19 in the country are caused by the omicron variant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For subscribers: When medical experts think omicron will peak in Michigan

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory in November recommending people wear masks at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status. It remains in effect until further notice.

Michigan’s latest data

Michigan remains at a high transmission rate and the state’s percent of tests returning positive has increased over the last three weeks. Illinois and Michigan have the highest case rates in Midwest; New York City and Rhode Island have the highest case rates in U.S.

About 35% of K-12 school districts have mandatory mask policies in the state covering 55% of students.

There have been 208 cases of a rare inflammatory condition formed in children from the COVID-19 virus where multiple organ systems become inflamed or dysfunctional. Of the cases, 147 – or 70% – were admitted to the intensive care units and there have been five deaths.

About 64.1%, or 6.4 million, residents have received their first doses of a vaccine, as of Monday, and 57% are fully vaccinated. So far, more than 196,000 children ages 5 to 11 in Michigan, or 23%, have received their first dose of the vaccine.

More than 2.5 million vaccine booster doses have been administered in Michigan.

Approximately 2% of those fully vaccinated have been reported with a breakthrough infection, according to the state health department.

The state considered 1,342,025 people recovered from the virus as of Jan. 7.


STUDY SHOWS MICHIGAN’S ECONOMY STILL STRUGGLES TO COMPETE WITH OTHER STATES

BRIDGE MI — Michigan remains in the bottom half of states when it comes to economic growth despite 12 years of gains since the Great Recession, according to a study released Thursday by a nonprofit statewide business advocacy group.

The next five years will be pivotal for Michigan as it tries to improve — and attract jobs, raise education levels and increase personal income, says the top executive of Business Leaders for Michigan.

“We’ve got a lot of headwinds facing us,” CEO Jeff Donofrio told Bridge Michigan.

Among the disruptions, he said, is the automotive industry’s accelerated shift to electric vehicles, which will affect at least 160,000 workers in Michigan. Among them are 46,000 who work directly on the internal combustion engines whose production manufacturers expect to cut by half by 2030.

Labor force participation also is a challenge. Michigan had 191,000 fewer people in the workforce of 4.758 million in November 2021 compared to two years earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 59.5 percent of the adults in the state hold a job or are looking for one, compared to 61.9 percent nationwide.

In addition, Donofrio said, at least 100,000 residents are preparing to leave the workforce over the next 10 years due to retirement.

That, combined with pandemic declines in workers due to retirement, child care struggles and other COVID-related issues, should keep policymakers’ attention on labor and workforce development, Donofrio said.

“If we can find ways to remove barriers to work, … (and) get to the average of where the U.S. is with labor force participation, we’d have another 250,000 workers in Michigan’s labor force,” he said. “That’s a significant jump.”

The annual benchmarking report by BLM put Michigan at 29th among the 50 states for economic growth, a ranking that Donofrio called “middle of the pack” after comparing it to its initial position of 49 in 2010. The goal remains to get Michigan into the top 10.

This year’s annual study added four metrics. In addition to traditional business climate measures like GDP, or gross domestic product, BLM added labor force participation, net migration, the number of people in poverty and business creation. Combined, they show how Michigan residents are faring instead of solely measuring the state’s economy.

Ranked from highest to lowest,  Michigan’s scores in the data comparison with other states 2022 show:

  • Business climate perception, 15th
  • Net talent migration, 19th
  • Net business creation, 20th
  • Poverty, 34th
  • Median household income, 35th
  • Educational attainment, 35th
  • GDP per capita, 36th
  • Labor force participation, 41st.

In the past three years, Michigan has improved in business climate perception, poverty —which changed largely due to federal pandemic stimulus payments — and educational attainment.

But the state lost ground over the same period in GDP per capita, median household income and labor force participation. Michigan’s ranks for talent migration and business creation over three years were flat.

According to this year’s BLM benchmarks, the top 10 states are Utah, Washington, Colorado, Texas, Massachusetts, Virginia, California, Oregon, Florida and Arizona.

“These are the states that give us a window of what Michigan needs to do,” Donofrio said.

Michigan is making strides in perception of its business climate, Donofrio said, in large part to the $1 billion SOAR fund approved by the Legislature in December.

That money will fund incentives for businesses considering expansion into the state, as well pay for site readiness efforts when property owners — either public or private — invest in infrastructure ahead of a contract by a company to build.

The fund also dovetails with one of BLM’s recommendations for the state: Investing in long-term economic development strategies.

In another recent survey, Michigan’s business climate tied for 12th in a ranking from Site Selection magazine. In that survey, workforce skills was named as the most important metric, which is in line with BLM’s second recommendation:  that the state focus on developing talent, ranging from improving K-12 education to increasing growth in higher education degrees and credentials.

One program already underway is the MI-Reconnect program, which had 90,000 people ages 25-plus sign up for free community college.

“We actually have a large pool of individuals … who are in jobs that, frankly, are underpaying them,” Donofrio said. “(Some of our needs will be met) if we can move them along a career pathway.”


OXFORD HIGH SCHOOL MEMORIAL TO BE REMOVED AHEAD OF STUDENTS’ RETURN TO CAMPUS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — A memorial created for the victims of the Oxford High School shooting on the school grounds will be removed before the first day students return to the campus on Monday.

Oxford Community Schools superintendent Tim Throne said the memorial will be removed to further students’ “healing process” in the Wednesday announcement.

“The temporary memorial that has been created by our community played a beautiful role in honoring and remembering our lost Wildcats and provided a place for our community to grieve,” Throne said. “As our high school welcomes students back to the building on Monday, trauma specialist Dr. Henry, along with those from other schools that have gone through similar situations, have advised us that the temporary memorial should not be there when our students return to campus.”

Families of the victims will be able to take home any items from the memorial, and anything not kept by the families will be stored for potential future use.

Throne noted the memorial has been professionally 3D scanned.

“We will soon begin to plan for a permanent memorial to honor the beautiful lives that have been lost,” he said. “This will be a long and well thought out process. It will first begin with consulting the families of the victims and discussing their wishes. Then, a committee of students, staff, and parents will be created to begin this planning.”

The memorial will be removed Sunday, so anyone who wants to visit one last time is encouraged to do so through Saturday.


WEBSITE FOR FREE COVID-19 TESTS IS HERE. HOW DOES IT WORK?

ASSOCIATED PRESS VIA DETROIT NEWS — Under criticism after weeks of shortages, President Joe Biden’s administration is working to make COVID-19 rapid test kits more available and accessible to Americans by boosting supply and lowering costs.

A new federal website to request free test kits officially launches Wednesday – but was available to use Tuesday – with the first shipments going out to Americans by the end of the month. In addition, most Americans are now able to get reimbursed for tests that they purchase.

Key details about the new programs:

How you can order free COVID-19 tests

Free tests can be ordered at covidtests.gov or at usps.com/covidtest.

The first tests will ship by the end of January. The White House says “tests will typically ship within 7-12 days of ordering” through the U.S. Postal Service. USPS reports shipping times of 1-3 days for its first-class package service in the continental United States. Shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, Army Post Office (APO), Fleet Post Office (FPO) and Diplomatic Post Office (DPO) addresses will be sent through Priority Mail.

Importantly, given the shipping and process times, Americans will need to request the tests well before they meet federal guidelines for requiring a test.

Does the website work?

The White House emphasized that the website was in “beta testing” when it made tests available for ordering for the first time on Tuesday. At points, more than 750,000 people were accessing the website at the same time, according to public government tracking data, but it was not immediately known how many orders were placed.

There were isolated reports Tuesday afternoon of issues relating to the website’s address verification tool erroneously enforcing the four-per-household cap on apartment buildings and other multi-unit dwellings, but it was not immediately clear how widespread the issue was.

When should I test?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at-home testing when people experience COVID-19 systems including fever, cough, sore throat, respiratory symptoms and muscle aches; five days after a potential COVID-19 exposure; or as part of test-to-stay protocols in schools and workplaces.

Omicron variant: How it differs from a cold or the flu

How many tests can I order from the website?

The White House says that “to promote broad access,” shipments from covidtests.gov will initially be limited to four rapid tests per residential address, no matter the number of occupants.

Is there another way to get a test kit for free?

Starting on Jan. 15, private insurers have been required to cover the cost of up to eight at-home rapid tests per month per insured person, under a new Biden administration rule.

People have the option of buying tests at a store or online, then seeking reimbursement from their health insurance provider. Insurers are being incentivized to work with pharmacies and retailers to develop plans to cover the cost of the tests with no out-of-pocket cost to customers, but those programs will not be immediately widespread.

Those with public health insurance through Medicare, or without insurance, are being directed to covidtests.gov to order tests or to community health centers in their area offering free testing.

How will I be reimbursed?

The Biden administration says the procedures will differ from insurer to insurer, and it is encouraging Americans to save receipts from rapid test purchases for later reimbursement and to reach out to their insurance providers for information.

Critically, the requirement only covers purchases on or after Jan. 15. Insurers are not expected to retroactively reimburse the cost of tests purchased earlier.

What are other testing options?

The Biden administration is emphasizing that the website is just one tool for Americans to access COVID-19 testing. Millions of free tests are available at participating pharmacy locations, community health centers and Federal Emergency Management Agency-backed sites in some parts of the country experiencing a surge in cases.

Which home test will I get?

That will vary. The federal government has secured more than 420 million tests for distribution through covidtests.gov already, with plans to increase the order to 1 billion tests in the coming weeks. All of the tests supplied will be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and are capable of detecting the more-transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19, which is the dominant strain in the U.S. While they are packaged differently and may use slightly different procedures, officials said, the test mechanisms of detection and effectiveness are generally the same. All tests will come with detailed instructions.

Why is Biden buying these test kits?

It represents an acknowledgement by the president that the administration needs to do more to increase access to COVID-19 testing, which is an important tool to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In cases where infected people show symptoms or not, testing is the only way to find out if they have the virus so they can avoid being out and about and potentially spreading disease.

Demand for test kits soared as the holidays neared and people grew eager to test themselves and their families before traveling and as the omicron variant spread rapidly in just a few weeks to become the dominant strain in the U.S.

Biden’s promise of 1 billion test kits is in addition to the administration’s earlier pledge to send 50 million rapid tests to community health centers across the country.

How much will the program cost?

The White House estimates the cost of purchasing and distributing the first 500 million tests at about $4 billion. That will be paid for with money from the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill Biden signed into law in March.

Will the government program make it harder for me to find a test at the drugstore?

White House officials say the covidtests.gov tests are coming from new manufacturing capacity and should not interfere with existing supplies that drugstores, health clinics and state governments are relying on.


MICHIGAN’S DANA NESSEL: I MAY CHARGE FAKE GOP ELECTORS IF FEDS DON’T

BRIDGE MI — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Tuesday her office has enough evidence to bring charges against 16 Republicans who submitted a certificate falsely claiming Donald Trump had won Michigan’s electors in 2020.

But the first-term Democrat told reporters her office referred the case Thursday to the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan Andrew B. Birge because federal officials are “better suited” to prosecute.

“It is our hope that the Department of Justice will pursue this because we think it’s really the best venue for it from a jurisdictional standpoint,” Nessel said. “We think it’s important because it allows for the federal authorities to determine if there … was a multi-state conspiracy.” At the core of the issue is a document signed on Dec. 14, 2020, by Republicans who falsely claimed they were “the duly elected and qualified electors” of Michigan after meeting at the state Capitol that day to perform “the duties enjoined upon us.”

According to documents obtained by Politico, among the GOP signees are Meshawn Maddock, who is now co-chair of the Michigan Republican Party; Kathy Berden, a National Republican Committee member from Michigan; and Stanley Grot, a Shelby Township trustee and former secretary of state candidate. Maddock wasn’t party co-chair when she signed the certificate.

Even though President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris won Michigan by 154,188 votes in 2020, the officials signed affidavits claiming that Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence carried the state.

The certificate was transmitted by Berden to the president of the U.S. Senate and other officials in an effort to thwart Biden’s victory, Nessel said.

“Obviously, this is part of a much bigger conspiracy” to “overthrow the U.S. government,” Nessel said Thursday on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Fake electors in at least five other states— Arizona, Georgia, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin— also tried to submit false certificates with the same font and language.

Records obtained by DC-based advocacy nonprofit American Oversight, the certificates of the seven states followed a similar template.

A spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from Bridge. The Detroit News quoted a party spokesperson as saying Nessel is “playing  political games with people’s lives and livelihoods for the sake of scoring political points ahead of an election.”

Grot and Berden didn’t immediately respond to separate requests for comment.

Nessel added her office might still move forward with bringing charges later if the federal government doesn’t prosecute. She mentioned the possibility of charges such as forgery of a public record and election law forgery, which could carry prison sentences of up to 14 years in prison.


FINAL OXFORD SHOOTING SURVIVOR RETURNS HOME TO CONTINUE RECOVERY

DETROIT NEWS — Kylie Ossege, the longest hospitalized victim in the Nov. 30 Oxford High School shooting, has been back home for the past week, her family said.

Ossege’s family provided an update Sunday on her GoFundMe page, which has raised about $139,000 of the $150,000 it seeks to aid in her recovery. Ossege, 17, was shot in the chest.

“After one week at home, we are adjusting,” the Jan. 16 update reads. “Kylie began outpatient physical and occupational therapy. The therapists have welcomed her and have been so kind. We are seeking to establish our new routine.

“Despite the cold,” the page adds, on Saturday Kylie “felt able to make the trip to the farm to see Blaze,” a horse.

“We were so touched that the trees along the drive into the ranch were decorated in Oxford colors, as well as Kylie’s locker,” the update reads. “Blaze was excited to see her. It was so great to spend some time with him! Afterward, she said, “That was amazing, the BEST therapy!”The update contains three pictures. One shows a masked Ossege in the hospital, with medical personnel on either side. Another shows her smiling as she stands in front of the blue and yellow bows at the farm, Oxford High colors. The third shows her smiling alongside Blaze. Ossege’s family reported in early December that she had moved from the intensive care unit at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital-Oakland to a standard room where she was to remain for up to six more weeks.

Ossege is one of seven survivors of the shooting.

Classmates Hana St. Juliana, 14, Tate Myre, 16, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Justin Shilling, 17, were killed.

Oxford High School sophomore Ethan Crumbley, 15, faces 24 charges in the shooting, including terrorism causing death and premeditated murder. His parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, face four counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

All three are at Oakland County Jail as their cases proceed.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | COVID CASES, EXPOSURES CANCEL MICHIGAN HOUSE VOTES THIS WEEK

BRIDGE MI — The Michigan House will not vote this week because of widespread COVID-19 cases and exposure to the virus among staffers and lawmakers, House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, announced Monday.

In a statement, Wentworth said House committees will still meet at the discretion of the chair. The Legislature is due back this week from holiday break.

“Nobody wants to see COVID get in the way of normal business and delay work on issues that are important to Michigan families,” Wentworth said in a statement.  “However, we have nothing on the agenda this week that must be done immediately, and the votes can be rescheduled for next week.”

Last week, Michigan saw the highest daily count of COVID-19 cases in a week, with 18,557 new cases a day. Since the omicron variant was detected in the state, the daily count has more than  doubled.

Wentworth said the House will follow the “most updated recommendations” moving forward.

A spokesperson for the Senate majority leader told Bridge Michigan the Senate plans to be in session to vote as scheduled.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, did not release its regular COVID case counts and hospitalization updates due to the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.


U-M INVESTIGATING WHETHER SCHLISSEL MISUSED UNIVERSITY FUNDS IN SUPPORT OF RELATIONSHIP

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The University of Michigan is investigating whether former President Mark Schlissel misused university funds in support of his relationship with a female employee, two sources with knowledge of the investigation told the Free Press on Sunday night.

The look into how money was spent is part of an ongoing review of Schlissel and his conduct, first prompted by an anonymous tip that reached the Board of Regents in December. The school’s board fired Schlissel on Saturday night for violating the university’s supervisor relationship policy.

It was unclear what funds the investigators might be examining. The sources requested anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

New York law firm Jenner & Block is continuing the investigation, U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed to the Free Press. He did not answer questions about the scope of the work.

Schlissel has been unable to be reached for comment by the Free Press.

He made $927,000 a year.

The university posted its contract with the law firm on its website Sunday. It was signed on Dec. 23, although the university began working with the law firm as soon as the university received a tip  that Schlissel was involved with a female university employee on Dec. 8.

“After an investigation, we learned that Dr. Schlissel, over a period of years, used his university email account to communicate with that subordinate in a manner inconsistent with the dignity and reputation of the university,” the board said in an announcement of Schlissel’s firing.

The law firm charges the university per hour. The firm’s standard rate was $1,100 in 2021 and $1,250 in 2022, but is giving a 15% discount to the school. No timeline has been given for wrapping up the investigation.

According to emails posted by the university Saturday night in a stated spirit of transparency, Schlissel wrote to the female employee regularly and in familiar tones, including in October 2019 when he emailed about receiving a box of knishes. The woman said in reply that she liked the doughy snack food. Schlissel replied again: Can I “lure you to visit with the promise of a knish?”

The decision to fire him was made behind closed doors Saturday morning, without a public vote. It was effective immediately.


AIRLINES URGE US REGULATORS TO DELAY 5G WIRELESS ROLLOUT

BLOOMBERG NEWS VIA DETROIT NEWS — A trade association representing major U.S. airlines asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the nation’s top communications and aviation regulators to prevent wireless carriers from implementing 5G services close to airports.

Airlines for America warned in a letter Monday that the traveling and shipping public could see “catastrophic disruptions” if the new C-band frequencies were put into service within two miles of where aircraft fly. The association said it was willing to work with the government and carriers to find a mutually agreeable solution.

Wireless carriers including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. reached an agreement with federal regulators earlier this month to launch the new service on Jan. 19. Airlines are worried the signals could interfere with instruments that measure an aircraft’s altitude.

The Federal Aviation Administration granted approvals Sunday that will allow some jetliners to operate within zones where new 5G wireless services are being used, significantly reducing the potential impact on flight schedules. The decision permits landings during low visibility at as many as 48 of the 88 U.S. airports with equipment for such arrivals, the FAA said.

Two Congressman – Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rick Larsen, chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation – also Monday urged regulators to delay the implementation.

“We must provide the FAA and aviation industry with more time to thoroughly assess the risks of deployment in order to avoid potentially disastrous disruptions to our national airspace system,” the two Democrats wrote in a letter.

Reuters reported earlier Monday on the letter from Airlines for America, which represents carriers including American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc., as well as cargo operators such as FedEx Corp.


HIGH COURT BLOCKS COVID VACCINE MANDATE FOR BUSINESS, ALLOWS IN HEALTHCARE

 

BRIDGE MI — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked the Biden administration’s federal vaccine-or-get-tested mandate for large employers, saying it was an overreach to target workplaces where COVID-19 is not an “occupational hazard.”

If upheld, the mandate would have impacted an estimated two million Michigan workers and 84 million people across the country. Some Michigan business leaders expressed their relief after the decision.

“We strongly support the United States Supreme Court’s decision to block the federal vaccine or test mandate,” said Wendy Block, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Chamber and spokesperson for the Listen to MI Business Coalition, which had urged Biden to reverse the mandate before it headed into the courts.

“The court fully acknowledged the sweeping and disruptive nature of OSHA’s vaccine mandate and the numerous complexities associated with its implementation,” Block said. “We will continue to encourage vaccines and the necessity of maintaining thoughtful safety protocols in the workplace.”

In a separate ruling, the Supreme Court narrowly backed a Biden vaccinate-or-test rule for health workers at medical facilities that accept Medicare or Medicaid payments.

The large-employers mandate — announced in September by President Joe Biden — drew challenges from across the country as business groups and some workers resisted the order, which was to take effect this past Monday, with enforcement to begin in February.

Biden and health officials had said the mandate was necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19. Over recent weeks, both the state and nation are recording record levels of the omicron-fueled virus, noting that unvaccinated people are most at risk for hospitalization and death.

Employers of 100 or more people were told to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or have the workers undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense, according to rules on the mandate released by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Fines ranging from $13,653 to $136,532 were set for violations.

Challenges filed from across the country said the rules were an overreach for the department that regulates workplace safety, and that the mandate represented executive overreach without the proper approval needed from Congress.

In a 6-3 split decision on the employer mandate, the nation’s highest court agreed. The court’s three liberal justices dissented.

OSHA is empowered “to set workplace safety standards, not broad public health measures,” the Supreme Court majority said in its ruling.

“Although COVID– 19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” according to the opinion. “COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather.

That means the risk “is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases. Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life — simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock — would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”

Among the reasons, it added, were that all types of jobs were treated the same under the OSHA mandate, including those that faced less risk from the virus.

“The regulation … operates as a blunt instrument,” according to the ruling. “It draws no distinctions based on industry or risk of exposure.”

Some Michigan business leaders applauded the move. Many — already in the midst of a labor shortage — had feared the mandate would cause some of their workers who resisted becoming vaccinated against COVID to quit.

Brian Calley, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said he welcomed the decision.

“This is going to be a big help in terms of creating certainty and avoiding the types of workforce challenges we were concerned about,” Calley said Thursday during a Facebook live event.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had recently called the business mandate “a problem” for Michigan businesses, while fellow Democrat Attorney General Dana Nessel backed the mandate.

In the separate 5-4 ruling allowing the vaccine mandate at hospitals and other healthcare facilities that accept Medicare and Medicaid payments, the court said the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was within its authority to set the requirements, since “vaccination requirements are a common feature of the provision of healthcare in America:”

“(H)ealthcare facilities that wish to participate in Medicare and Medicaid have always been obligated to satisfy a host of conditions that address the safe and effective provision of healthcare,” the court wrote.

The rule applies to staff, contractors and volunteers. It took effect on December 6.


MICHIGAN SET TO RECEIVE $563M IN FEDERAL AID FOR BRIDGE REPAIRS, REPLACEMENTS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan is set to receive $563.1 million over five years for bridge repairs and replacement under the bipartisan infrastructure package, the White House said.

The funding comes from a bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed last year, with the bridge program now being launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The White House said the program, overseen by the Federal Highway Administration, will be the largest dedicated bridge investment since the construction of the interstate highway system.

It will send $26.5 billion to states over the five years of the law, including $5.3 billion for the current fiscal year or $112.6 million for Michigan this year.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, applauded the funding, calling it a “game-changer” and saying it would “transform how Michiganders get around the state and strengthen the safety of our bridges for future generations.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, noted the United States ranks 13th in the world in infrastructure quality, “which is what makes this federal investment essential.”

“The bipartisan infrastructure law will bolster our economy by rebuilding roads and bridges that are in desperate need of repair and create good-paying jobs along the way,” Peters said in a statement.

Congress cleared the bipartisan infrastructure package in November. Under the bill, Michigan was estimated to receive at least $8 billion in federal funding over five years for highway and bridge projects, including $7.3 billion from federal highway programs, according to estimates by the White House based on transportation funding formulas.

The state may also compete for additional funding from the package’s $12.5 billion program for economically significant bridges and roughly $16 billion intended for major projects with economic benefits for communities.

Michigan is expected to receive an additional $1 billion over five years to improve public transit options under the measure.


GOP ATTEMPT TO AWARD MICH. ELECTORAL COLLEGE VOTES TO TRUMP REFERRED TO FEDS, NESSEL SAYS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a television interview Thursday her office has referred the submission of a false slate of presidential electors from Michigan Republicans for the 2020 presidential election to federal prosecutors.

Nessel made the comments Thursday during an interview with MSBNC’s Rachel Maddow.

As Michigan’s presidential electors convened on Dec. 14, 2020, to cast their votes for Joe Biden, a group of Republicans signed on to their own certificate that attempted to award the state’s 16 Electoral College votes to Donald Trump.

The document, shared with the U.S. House committee investigating the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol last year, was obtained by POLITICO.  Law enforcement denied access to the group of Republicans who tried to deliver their own electoral votes to the Capitol in Lansing that day, incorrectly arguing they were the state’s presidential electors.

Biden won Michigan by more than 154,000 votes. Election audits have affirmed Biden’s victory in the state and courts rejected allegations of widespread fraud as based on conspiracy and conjecture.

Nessel told Maddow that her office has been evaluating charges for almost a year but decided Thursday to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan.  “We think this is a matter that is best investigated and potentially prosecuted by the feds,” Nessel said.

The signatories of the failed attempt to award Michigan’s Electoral College votes to Trump include Michigan GOP co-chair Meshawn Maddock, national Republican commtiteewoman Kathy Berden and Michigan GOP grassroots vice chair Marian Sheridan, among other pro-Trump activists in the party.

The decision does not preclude possible charges against the Republicans who falsely claimed that they cast Michigan’s Electoral College votes for Trump, Nessel said. And her office might still bring charges, she added.  “…under state law, I think clearly you have forgery of a public record, which is a 14- year offense and election law forgery, which is a five year offense,” Nessel said.

“But obviously this is part of a much bigger conspiracy and our hope is that the federal authorities and the Department of Justice and United States Attorney General Merrick Garland will take this in coordination with all the other information they’ve received and make an evaluation as to what charges these individuals might make,” she said.

Federal charges could include forgery of a public record for purpose of defrauding the U.S. or conspiracy to commit an offense to defraud the U.S., Nessel told Maddow.


MICHIGAN HOSPITALS FACE WORST BLOOD SUPPLY SHORTAGE IN A DECADE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Michigan hospitals are in dire need of blood.

“I’ve been a doctor over 20 years, and this is the worst that I’ve ever seen in terms of the blood supply,” said Dr. Craig Fletcher, who runs the blood bank at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

And it’s not just in Michigan — the American Red Cross said Tuesday there is a “national blood crisis.”

This means that doctors are forced to make nearly impossible decisions, limit nonessential procedures and prioritize the most urgent and critical operations.

Hospitals have to keep some blood supply on reserve for when trauma patients show up, Fletcher said, because those surgeries often can’t wait.

Beaumont is one of 85 hospitals around the state that primarily receives blood from Versiti, a blood bank. Beaumont Royal Oak also gets smaller amounts from the American Red Cross and shipped from other states.

“As far as Versiti is concerned, this is the lowest the blood supply has been in a decade for our organization, and for many others, as well,” said Versiti spokesperson Kristin Paltzer. “Blood is needed for cancer patients, for patients that are dealing with sickle cell anemia, for mothers and babies that need transfusions before, during and after childbirth. So there’s a lot of reasons why people would need blood and without it, that can be a really dangerous time.”

The shortage began when the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and lockdown commenced. Since then, blood supply levels have ebbed and flowed but remained low. Pre-pandemic, mobile donation centers visited schools, businesses, and churches for the majority of their collections. That’s harder to do amid the pandemic, Paltzer said.

“(The COVID-19 pandemic) coupled with the recent tragedies throughout the Midwest, and then the loss of appointments during the holiday season because people get busy, they travel, they’re celebrating,” Paltzer said. “People are also getting sick from COVID and they can’t come in and donate, it’s kind of magnified the challenge, and it’s essentially a perfect storm.”

Paltzer said, in order to support all of its Michigan hospitals, it needs about 3,000 donors a week.

At Beaumont Royal Oak’s blood bank, Fletcher said they’re “critically low” on blood supply, especially Type O blood.

“We like to usually keep about a five- to six-day supply on hand, and currently we are in about a one-day supply,” Fletcher said. “So, we’re very low and we’re relying on our suppliers to get us blood on a daily basis to kind of just keep up, we’re just trying to keep up at this point.”

Fletcher urged everyone who can to donate — each donation can save up to three lives.

“Get out and donate, that’s the best thing to help our patients, our cancer patients our surgical patients, our pediatric patients that require blood transfusions, get out there and donate even if you’ve never done it before,” Fletcher said. “The whole process only takes about an hour. I’m a regular blood donor, and it’s a very easy process, a very safe process. … It’s just critical that people get out either Versiti.org or through the American Red Cross, whichever one suits them to get out there. You can really make a difference and save people’s lives through just a donation just a little bit of your time.”

Find a donor center near you:


MICHIGAN AUDIT TO SHOW ‘NEARLY 30%’ MORE COVID DEATHS TIED TO LONG-TERM CARE FACILITIES

DETROIT NEWS — A much-anticipated state investigation will report the number of COVID-19 deaths linked to long-term care facilities in Michigan is “nearly 30%” above what state officials previously tallied, according to two state officials who’ve reviewed the audit.

In a letter revealed Wednesday, Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, criticized the findings ahead of their formal release by the Michigan Office of the Auditor General, which are due out Monday. Hertel questioned the methods used by the office to arrive at its conclusions, which have not been reviewed in detail yet by The Detroit News.

State departments almost never issue a rebuttal to a Michigan auditor general report before it’s released. Hertel said almost half of the difference between the state health department’s tracking and the audit’s was attributed to the inclusion of facilities that are not subject to state reporting requirements. The director also said the Auditor General’s Office had included individuals who resided at non-reporting facilities on shared campuses with a facility required to report its COVID-19 deaths.

“I fear that your letter will be misinterpreted to question the work and integrity of long-term care facilities, local health departments, coroners and other frontline workers who we rely on to report data,” Hertel wrote in her Sunday letter to Doug Ringler, Michigan’s auditor general.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan’s health department has tracked 28,228 deaths linked to COVID-19. According to its current state data, 6,309 deaths, or 22% of the state’s total, have been tied to long-term care facilities. While the report itself won’t be revealed until Monday, the early release of Wednesday’s letter by the Department of Health and Human Services was a sign of the attention the findings will likely receive.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of nursing homes during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a key point of disagreement with GOP lawmakers, and legislators have been working to investigate the data at the center of the debate.

House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, confirmed the 30% finding in a Wednesday evening interview.”The 30% number is accurate, and it’s incredibly troubling,” Johnson said of the Auditor General’s finding.

The decision of Whitmer’s administration to care for patients with COVID-19 in long-term care facilities was “disastrous,” Johnson said. GOP lawmakers pushed for wholly separate facilities that Whitmer’s team resisted, questioning the feasibility of the idea.

Skilled nursing facilities, or nursing homes, are one type of long-term care facility in Michigan. There are about 447 of them. Other types of long-term care facilities are adult foster care facilities and homes for the aged. Johnson has said there are many long-term care facilities that didn’t have to report their COVID-19 statistics to the state, including thousands of small adult foster care facilities.

The Auditor General’s report will indicate the state health department tracked the COVID-19 deaths generally accurately under the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

The CDC defines a long-term care facility COVID-19 death as a resident who died from COVID-19-related complications, including deaths in the facilities and at other locations where the resident was transferred.

Hertel’s letter asserted the upcoming Auditor General report included long-term care residents who were hospitalized for a non-COVID-19 reason, such as a fall, and then subsequently acquired COVID-19.

“The data table in section 2 is misleading and appears to suggest that there was a nearly 30% underreporting, when almost half of this difference can be attributed to facilities not subject to reporting requirements,” Hertel’s letter said.

Members of Whitmer’s administration have argued the upcoming report attempts to compare apples to oranges.

Kelly Miller, state relations officer for the Auditor General, declined to respond to Hertel on Wednesday. The office on Wednesday released its findings to Johnson, who requested the report, Miller said. “We will post it to our website on Monday, and we are not releasing any details at this time,” Miller said.

Johnson requested the Office of Auditor General undertake a “comprehensive study of reported and unreported deaths in long-term care facilities” in June following questions over the reliability of the state’s data.

The state Department of Health and Human Services created controversial regional hubs in April 2020 to help care for nursing home residents with COVID-19. The hubs were existing nursing homes that were supposed to have the isolated space, equipment and personnel to help elderly individuals with the virus who were being discharged from hospitals or resided in other facilities that couldn’t properly handle them.

But Republican lawmakers repeatedly called for the creation of entirely separate facilities to care for those with COVID-19 to stem its spread among a vulnerable population. Nearly half of the nursing homes that Michigan initially selected to serve as regional hubs to care for elderly individuals with COVID-19 had below-average quality ratings from the federal government.

In addition, some nursing homes struggled to implement isolation and safety protocols to contain the virus.


MICHIGAN TROOPERS VOW REFORMS AFTER STUDY FINDS RACIAL DISPARITIES IN STOPS

BRIDGE MI — The Michigan State Police’s director vowed immediate reforms Wednesday after a report found that troopers were more likely to stop, search and arrest African-American drivers than whites.

State Police Director Col. Joseph Gasper said all troopers will have body cameras by the end of the year, and the agency will undergo a thorough review of practices to try and end “the clear and consistent evidence that racial and ethnic disparities” occur in traffic stops.

“Michiganders deserve unbiased policing, transparency and accountability from their state police, and that’s what they’re going to get,” Gasper said during a Wednesday media event outlining the problems and the agency’s proposed solutions. Complaints by the American Civil Liberties Union prompted the agency to track the race and ethnicity of drivers. After disparities appeared, the state police hired Michigan State University researchers to analyze 2020 traffic stop data.

That initial review found that 21 percent of all stops in 2020 involved African Americans, who make up less than 14 percent of the state population.

MSU researchers, led by Scott Wolfe, an associate professor in the school of criminal justice, dove deeper into the data for the latest report, comparing stops to census and crash data and analyzing night and day traffic stops.

By all comparisons, African Americans were disproportionately stopped in most regions of the state and were more likely to be searched and arrested, according to the report.

But in some measures, such as comparing stops to the race or ethnicity of those in car crashes — an indicator of who is on the roadways — the disparities are far more narrow.

The disparities also were not uniform: In some areas, like the Thumb, African-Americans drivers are far more likely to be pulled over, but there is almost no such difference in places like the Upper Peninsula, where there are few Black residents or motorists.

Although Hispanics were less likely to be stopped than whites, they were more likely to be searched and arrested, according to the study.

Wolfe’s study did not conclude whether there was any intentional discrimination.

“This report and its findings speak only to the extent of racial or ethnic disparity in MSP’s traffic stops,” Wolfe said Wednesday.

“At the same time, the data do show a meaningful level disparity. That deserves more attention.”

Minorities in Michigan and the country have complained for years that police have targeted people of color for traffic stops. The ACLU had asked the state police to begin tracking racial data in 2017. That data led to the study released Wednesday.

Wolfe’s study also shows that African Americans get searched and arrested at higher rates.

Both white and African Americans get a warning about 73 percent of the time.

But African Americans were searched in 12 percent of the stops, compared to 4 percent for whites, and Blacks were arrested 13 percent of the time, compared to 5 percent for whites.

Hispanic motorists were also more likely to be searched (7 percent of stops) and arrested (10 percent of stops).

The Rev. Wendell Anthony of Detroit, a member of the national board of the NAACP, commended the agency for its transparency — and called it to root out officers who discriminate.

“We know not all state troopers are guilty of these actions but too many of them are,” Anthony said during the press event Wednesday.  “And so, we simply say that having responsibility with no accountability is an exercise in futility … and there must be accountability for officers who are guilty of misusing their trust and violating their oath and disregarding the professional ethos of the Michigan State (Police).”

Gasper announced five immediate changes:

  • Adding body cameras to all 1,600 troopers. He said the department currently has 250 of them.
  • Hiring an independent consultant to review the agency’s policies and making recommendations on changes to address racial disparities.
  • Engaging with residents and community leaders statewide about racial problems and solutions.
  • Creating a “professional development bureau” within the state police to provide additional education for trainees and troopers, particularly about cultural and racial issues.
  • Providing troopers with data about traffic stops so they are aware of patterns so they “can learn about and adjust their actions.”

“Today, armed with new awareness about our traffic stop activity, we’re taking another step toward transparency for the communities we serve,” he said. “We will fix this together.”

Mark Fancher, an attorney for the ACLU who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the state police in 2021, applauded the agency’s efforts. But he said it needs to go further and study troopers themselves to find out why the disparities exist.

He said officers may be pulling over certain types of cars because they believe criminals are driving, or because they have to make a certain number of stops in order to get positive performance reviews.

But he said the agency won’t know why the disparities exist unless it “gets into the heads of the troopers and sees what the culture is.”

“We welcome not only their movement in the right direction but also their transparency,” Fancher told Bridge Michigan. “We just encourage them to stay on the path and go all the way to the end of it.”


WORST YET TO COME WITH OMICRON IN MICHIGAN, OFFICIALS WARN

BRIDGE MI — COVID-19 hospitalizations could rise 60 percent in the next few weeks, further pressuring hospitals already at a breaking point amid the omicron wave, the state’s chief medical executive said Tuesday.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian said models predict as many as 8,000 COVID-19 patients could be hospitalized by late January or early February, well above the 5,000 now being treated.

“This is a very dangerous time for us and this is not what we want to see with cases exploding the way they are,” she said. The prediction is among the more pessimistic — but not the most pessimistic — of models crafted by teams of researchers from around the country, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California.

While those models are predictions, hospital officials across Michigan are sounding alarms about what’s happening now.

More patients are showing up every day with COVID-19, affecting hospitals’ ability to help all patients — at the same time hundreds of staff members are also contracting COVID-19.

“It’s the sheer number of people infected with omicron that is overwhelming our resources,” Dr. Marschall Runge, dean of the University of Michigan Health System, told reporters Tuesday.

Already, the U-M Health System has canceled 250 surgeries, discontinued accepting transfers of critically ill patients and instituted a two-week pause on visitors.

Since Jan. 1, over 700 U-M Health staffers have tested positive, said Dr. David Miller, president of U-M Health. The system employs 30,000, including 5,220 nurses, to provide care for 1,100 licensed beds.

“This staffing shortage is the most serious we have ever seen,” Runge said.

High case rates likely to climb higher

Though evidence is growing that the omicron variant of COVID-19 is causing less severe illness, the state is experiencing unprecedentedly high case rates.

Before the current surge, the state’s highest rate of cases was about 80 cases per day per 100,000 people.

On Monday it hit 161 cases per 100,000 people. If other states’ experience is a guide, the rate will soon top 200 cases per 100,000; because so far, omicron is concentrated in metro Detroit and only detected in about half of Michigan counties.

Bagdasarian and others said they believe models that forecast Michigan’s current cases will nearly double from 112,500 in the past week.

She and other health care officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated and boosted, to wear quality masks in public indoors and avoid large gatherings.

“When we look at our most pessimistic model, we’re looking at about 200,000 cases per week in Michigan. And in fact, the most pessimistic model does seem to be the most accurate,” she said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters from across the state.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that a quarter of Michigan hospitals have staff shortage. Statewide, 28 percent of all hospital patients are COVID-19 positive, as of Tuesday.

Officials for the state’s largest health system, Beaumont Health, said last week that it was “at a breaking point,” reporting that its numbers of patients with COVID had shot up 40 percent in a single week.

The system asked its doctors to cancel non urgent surgeries, especially those that required overnight stays.

Cancer-treating and other time-sensitive surgeries went ahead as planned, but “if there’s a total knee replacement that can wait, then we’ll wait,” said  Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont’s chief clinical officer.

Not all COVID-19 patients know it

Bagdarasian and others have acknowledged that not every COVID-19 positive patient is in the hospital because of the virus.

Many patients are showing up for surgery or treatment and are testing positive, unaware that they have it. Fischgrund said one of his fellow surgeons at Beaumont last week had four surgeries scheduled for the day to mend broken bones; three of the four patients tested positive for COVID before surgery.

Even if they’re not being treated for COVID illness, a COVID positive patient requires a private room, more staff, and more personal protective equipment, he said. For surgeries, operating rooms must be left empty a full hour before a cleaning crew enters.

U-M’s Miller said 8 percent of patients coming in for other procedures or treatment have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Case rates have jumped the highest among those in their 20s and 30s, also the two age groups with the lowest vaccination rates. Although many people who are fully vaccinated are getting infected by the omicron variant, hospital officials reiterated that the most seriously ill have been the unvaccinated. Of 128 current COVID-19 positive patients in U-M’s hospitals, officials said 38 percent were fully vaccinated.  But just 21 percent of the ICU COVID-19 patients were fully vaccinated and 25 percent of those on ventilators.

Omicron may cause a bigger problem for hospitals serving Detroit, which has one of the highest case rates and lowest vaccination rates.

Currently nearly 200 people per day per 100,000 are coming down with COVID-19 in Detroit, where 78 percent of the population is African American.

Statewide, African Americans are now contracting COVID-19 at rates more than double white Michigan residents, reversing a trend that had seen African Americans have a lower rate for over a year. African Americans are now getting infected at a rate of 1,003 per 1 million people per week, compared to 382 per 1 million people for white residents.

Although the estimates are low because the race of 11 percent of the vaccinated are unknown, an estimated 37.6 percent of African Americans are fully vaccinated, compared to 51.6 percent of whites.


OAKLAND COUNTY SHERIFF MICHAEL BOUCHARD TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID-19

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard announced Tuesday that he tested positive for the coronavirus and will be working remotely.

Bouchard, a Republican who won a sixth term in office in November 2020, is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot.

He said he is experiencing a headache, congestion, exhaustion and other aches with the virus.

“Even though I choose to be fully vaccinated and received the booster shot, the omicron variant was still able to catch up with me,” he said in a release.

“I had assumed it was not a question of whether it caught up to me given the duties of a first responder, but when. Per our protocols I will be in quarantine, but I will continue to work remotely.”

The virus is in its fourth surge in Michigan, with health officials saying it is fueled by the highly-transmissible omicron variant. The surge is bearing down on the state, driving up cases and hospitalizations and breaking record after record in its wake.

Models suggest the surge could peak in late January or early February.

Health officials are urging residents age 5 and older to get vaccinated against the virus or boosted, to wear better masks — such as KN95s — in indoor settings, to social distance and to wash hands.

On Monday, the state health department confirmed 617 cases of omicron in Michigan through genetic sequencing, including 93 cases in Oakland County. More than half of the cases statewide are in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and the city of Detroit.

But that is estimated to be only a small fraction of the total number of cases of the virus strain in the state.

In November 2020, Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said he tested positive for COVID-19 and reported having mild symptoms. A month later, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon died after a month-long battle with the virus. He was 65. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said in the release that it has been hit hard by COVID-19, with more than 170 of its 1,400 employees off work because they have the virus or were exposed to it.

Earlier in the pandemic, Bouchard ordered regular testing for employees, regardless of vaccination status, to keep workers and the public protected.


OXFORD STUDENTS RETURN TO CLASS FOR FIRST TIME SINCE MASS SHOOTING

DETROIT NEWS — Under the cover of darkness and single-digit cold, Oxford High School students returned to classes at the district’s middle school on Tuesday.

Both parents and a phalanx of buses dropped off the students who were greeted by what appeared to be school officials. There was a presence, too, of Oakland County sheriff’s deputies on hand to supervise.

Some students wore lettered school jackets inside; another wore a shirt that read, “Everything about us is tough” on the back.

There were two entrances students used to enter the building for the half-day of sessions.

It was the first day back for students after a Nov. 30 shooting at the high school. Four students were killed, and six students and a teacher were injured.

Later Tuesday morning, Denise Aldred-Nahass was waiting to pick up her granddaughter, who is a freshman at Oxford High School. She said she was eager to learn about her spirits.

“I think it was good that they started out at the middle school,” she said. “Get used to school slowly.”

Nahass said her granddaughter didn’t want to stay the whole school day, “so I’m picking her up early. I applaud her for that.”

“I’m sure she was anxious,” Nahass added. “It’s just very sad. It makes us all down. And I just can’t believe it (the shooting) can happen in little Oxford. You don’t think it can happen until it happens in your town.”

Oxford school officials reported an 88% attendance rate for high school students.

“It was absolutely electric in the hallways. It was amazing,” said Jill Lemond, assistant superintendent of student services.

For two weeks, through Jan. 21, Oxford High, Oxford Middle School and Bridges, its alternative high school, will be on “alternative hybrid schedules” at the middle school building, Superintendent Tim Throne has said. High School students will also have half-days at the middle school on Thursday and Jan. 18 and Jan. 20. On those days, middle school students will attend classes remotely, as they did Tuesday.

Renovations to the high school are expected to be completed the week of Jan. 17 and the building is expected to reopen during the week of Jan. 24.

“We hope this slow transition together at OMS will help in the healing process and ease our high school students back in a familiar academic setting,” the district said in a statement about returning to classroom instruction.

On Thursday, Oxford school officials reported an 88% attendance rate for high school students.

“It was absolutely electric in the hallways. It was amazing,” said Jill Lemond, assistant superintendent of student services.

Ethan Crumbley, 15, who was a sophomore at the high school, faces murder and terrorism charges in connection with the incident. His parents, James and Jennifer, each face four charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the shootings.

Last week, Ethan Crumbley waived hearings in his case and will proceed to trial. His parents on Friday lost their bid to have bond lowered. They face a preliminary examination next month.


MICHIGAN SHORTENS QUARANTINE, ISOLATION TIME GUIDANCE FOR K-12 SCHOOLS

DETROIT NEWS — The state of Michigan issued new guidance Monday that will shorten quarantine and isolation periods for many students, faculty and staff.

The guidance, issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Monday, brings Michigan schools closer in line with recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have shortened most isolation and quarantine recommendations from 10 days to five.

Before Monday’s guidance was issued, Michigan schools operated under recommendations that required unvaccinated students exposed to a nearby COVID-positive student to either “test to stay” or quarantine seven to 10 days, depending on the circumstances. People displaying COVID-19 symptoms were required to isolate and test with return dates determined by local health departments.

Monday’s guidance would give shorter timelines for those activities.

“We always advocate for preventative measures that keep our children safe,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, chief medical executive for the state health department. “Children of school age — ages 5 and up — are now eligible to get vaccinated, and children ages 12 and up are eligible to get boosted. In addition to masking and testing, we feel confident that schools can remain as safe as possible for our children.”

The CDC in late December cut isolation restrictions for COVID-positive individuals whose symptoms improved or who showed no symptoms from 10 to five days and made similar decreases to quarantine time. The state said shortly afterward that it would evaluate the federal guidance to determine what changes would be made to Michigan K-12 guidelines.

The new guidance issued Monday by the state allows teachers, students and staff who develop COVID symptoms or test positive for the virus to isolate at home for five days and, if symptoms have improved, to return to school while wearing a well-fitted mask for days six through 10.

The guidance eliminates quarantine for those exposed to a COVID-positive individual if the exposed person had COVID-19 within the last 90 days or if they are up to date on all COVID vaccines. Those individuals should monitor for symptoms and wear a mask to school for 10 days after exposure, according to the state health department.

People exposed to COVID who have not had a recent case or are not fully vaccinated should quarantine for five days and wear a mask for days six through 10. Or those individuals can “test to stay” for days one through six and mask up for the full 10 days.

If at any point during quarantine, an individual develops symptoms that person should test and isolate pending the results of the test. Individuals who do not develop symptoms post-exposure should get tested at least five days after exposure.

Anyone unwilling to wear a mask should quarantine or isolate at home for the full 10 days.

The state’s announcement came as the state set a record for the highest number of adult patients hospitalized with COVID-19 — 4,581 — since the pandemic began.

As of Monday, 108 hospitalized children had confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.

Michigan on Monday added 44,524 confirmed cases of COVID-19 over three days, a continued influx in confirmed cases believed to be driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.


OUTDOOR TENT SERVES AS WAITING ROOM AT MERCY HEALTH MUSKEGON DURING COVID-19 SURGE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Mercy Health Muskegon is using a climate-controlled tent outside the west Michigan hospital’s emergency department to serve as a waiting room because of high patient volumes during the coronavirus surge.

The tent outside the building was set up Dec. 4 in case it would be needed and was first put into use Thursday when the hospital was about 99% capacity, Dr. Justin Grill, chief medical officer, said Monday.

He said the nurse-staffed tent will act as a waiting room space so the current emergency department waiting room can be converted into clinical space to care for patients.

“The tent will only be in operation during times of highest volumes, and will not be used overnight,” Grill said. The hospital was at 97% occupancy Monday, he said, with the intensive care unit at 140% capacity. There are 67 patients who are positive with COVID-19, 21 of whom are at ICU status.

“We cannot provide the exact numbers on vaccination status at this time, but we can share that most of our current COVID (positive) inpatients — around 70-80% — are unvaccinated,” he said. “All COVID positive patients currently on ventilators are unvaccinated, with the exception of one who has not had all recommended doses.”

Grill said the hospital also is seeing a lot of non-urgent or non-emergent care in the emergency department, as well as people seeking a COVID-19 test.

He, like other health care officials in Michigan, urge people to call their primary care physician or use urgent care for medical concerns and the emergency department for emergent medical needs during this surge.

Grill said Mercy Health Muskegon received an emergency Certificate of Need on Dec. 7 to add temporary hospital beds in existing space to treat patients.

An emergency department conference room was converted into temporary clinical space, he said. Some private patient rooms were turned into semi-private rooms to accommodate the current volume of inpatients.

Hospital officials throughout Michigan are bracing for an influx of patients at the same time they are dealing with thousands of their own workers off the job because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to it.

Hospitals also are postponing some elective procedures in this surge, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant. On Monday, the state set a new pandemic record for the number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

There were 4,674 people, including 94 children, hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus in Michigan hospitals, according to state health department data. The previous record was 4,566 on Dec. 13.

Beaumont Health said it is treating 857 COVID-19 patients at its eight hospitals, the highest since the pandemic began.

Michigan averaged about 14,841 new cases of coronavirus each of the last three days, according to state data.


WILL OMICRON CHANGE RETURN TO THE OFFICE PLANS FOR MICHIGAN BUSINESSES?

MLIVE — Will Omicron be the final nail in the coffin for a full return to office? Michigan businesses aren’t ready to hammer in that decision but the new variant is front of mind for HR directors crafting 2022 workplace policies.

Offices will once again reassess and adjust in-person work expectations as cases hit record highs across the state after a holiday surge.

In some cases that means bringing back the plexiglass dividers and social distancing spaces, said Amy Bergman, President of Insight Human Resources and board member of The Human Resource Association of Southeast Michigan.

“We’re kind of just going back to where we were a year ago with a lot of those standards,” she said. “For the most part, the organizations that had embraced the remote work hybrid options hadn’t really taken their foot off the gas on that yet.”

The small to mid-size businesses Bergman’s firm consults are still asking the same questions like what to do if an employee is exposed and how long are they out of work for if they test positive. But the Omicron variant has put those concerns into overdrive, she said.

Nationwide, it’s estimated 95.4% of COVID-19 cases from Christmas to New Year’s Day were the Omicron variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Michigan, the variant has been detected in at least 19 counties.

Doors won’t close for Plante Moran, a business management consulting firm with 10 Michigan locations, but the variant did prompt human resource managers to “exercise even more caution” with workplace policies, Group Managing Partner for Offices Laura Claeys said.

With offices in four different states, work plans had to remain flexible to fit the situation happening in each location, Claeys said. Since July, the company has been encouraging its 3,500 employees to choose their “workplace for the day” with consideration of what case numbers were in their area. About 30% of the workforce has continued to work in-person, Claeys said.

For the next 30 days, the company is asking employees to reconsider if they need to be in-person as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads. As of now there’s no plans to close offices or go fully remote. Claeys said the company wants to give employees the option to go into work if that’s where they feel most productive.

“We haven’t changed any of our real estate footprint,” she said. “It’s really on a given day saying what makes the most sense for me, to be in-person or be remote?”

The federal vaccine mandate continues to loom over businesses. The vaccinate-or-test policy is set to go into effect on Monday, Jan. 10. The Supreme Court heard arguments on both mandates for businesses and healthcare workers on Friday, Jan. 7.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has stated it will not cite for noncompliance with the testing portion of the mandate until Feb. 9.

Businesses with 100 or more employees have the choice to mandate vaccination for all workers or give a vaccinate-or-test option in which unvaccinated workers must test weekly and wear masks while working in-person.

Both the vaccination status and testing requirement will add onto the workload of HR departments if the mandate goes into effect, Bergman said. Employers are responsible for having all employee vaccination statuses on file as well as keeping track of every weekly test result.

“It’s just this unbelievable amount of work,” she said. “For every activity that you have to monitor and track then you have sometimes hours of research and follow up when something goes awry.”

Bergman said she’s started seeing businesses add HR positions dedicated solely to staying on top of covid policies.

“It’s extremely draining to have your government entities blast out something that you’re all the sudden supposed to scramble and comply with, with no playbook,” she said.

Since the mandate was announced in November court drama has unfurled at different levels of the legal system leaving employers with even more questions on if and when these mandates would be enforced. Throughout the process businesses were encouraged to get a policy in place just in case.

If the vaccinate-or-test policy goes into effect, Plante Moran has decided to front the cost of at-home tests for unvaccinated employees — although the company is not legally obligated to. The mandate specifies that employees must test in the presence of a healthcare provider or employer so the company has set up a telehealth proctor.

At the time the mandate was issued, OSHA determined there were enough tests for this mandate to go into effect. Omicron has dramatically increased the demand for tests and added stress onto employers.

“The accessibility and availability of tests — they’re hard to come by right now,” Claeys said. “And that’s with people who aren’t being mandated to test, so now what?”

Regardless of the SCOTUS decision, the labor shortage continues to weigh on employers as well, Bergman said.

Companies are walking a tight rope, fearful to lose the employees they have or lose out on potential candidates. Bergman said she recently spoke with a job candidate who asked to be taken out of consideration if a company required vaccination.

“There is a huge void of available workers right now, or they’re available but not willing to work, and so there’s a morale crisis within organizations,” she said. “Companies in general are somewhat cautious about creating things that are going to negatively impact the morale of the organization right now. Everyone’s kind of at their tipping point as far as mental health goes.”


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | LT. GOV. GILCHRIST TESTS POSITIVE; FIFTH FEDERAL TEAM COMING TO MICHIGAN

BRIDGE MI — Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist announced Sunday night he tested positive for COVID-19 after his 2-year-old daughter experienced symptoms.

Gilchrist said he will be isolated and maintain “a virtual work schedule.”

“The Omicron variant of COVID is very, very contagious,” Gilchrist said in a video posted on Twitter. “At this point, I am not showing symptoms and our daughter’s symptoms are improving. We are praying for this to continue to be the case.”

Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced she was going into isolation after her husband tested positive for COVID-19. As of Wednesday, Whitmer had tested negative for the virus in a rapid test and a PCR test.

The Biden administration announced Friday it is sending a fifth medical team to Michigan, the same day statewide hospitalizations of COVID patients reached an all-time high of 4,797.

Deployed to Henry Ford Hospital in Wyandotte starting Monday, the 30-person Disaster Medical Assistance Team will include advanced practice physicians, emergency and intensive care nurses, paramedics, pharmacists and logistics and supply chain personnel.

The federal team will be on site for 14 days, adding to teams sent to Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw and Mercy Health in Muskegon.

Omicron is a less virulent strain of COVID, but it is still packing hospitals. While some patients with the virus are hospitalized for different reasons, they still require additional staff, equipment and space to keep infection from spreading, hospital leaders have said.

“We may not be treating them for COVID, but we have to treat them as if they have COVID,” Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, the chief of clinical services for Beaumont Health told Bridge Michigan on Thursday.

That day, Beaumont — the state’s largest health system — announced it is “at a breaking point” because 430 employees were off work with COVID symptoms amid the surge of patients.

Hospitals have asked Michiganders to reconsider using emergency rooms for conditions that are not life threatening.

Michigan reported 40,692 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, or 20,346 cases a day, far surpassing Wednesday’s previous high.

The onslaught of new cases pushed the seven-day average to nearly 15,000 as the state on Friday reported the highly transmissible omicron variant has now been detected in 32 counties and Detroit, up from 23 counties and the city on Wednesday.

Hospitalizations also hit a high Friday, rising to 4,797, just above the previous high of 4,782, reported on Dec. 13. Officials, though, said some of those cases are likely people who came into hospitals for other conditions and were unaware they had COVID-19 until they were tested.

Widespread infections have hit many hospital staff members, forcing many to stay home. More than a quarter of the state’s hospitals, 44 o 164, are reporting critical staffing shortages, the most since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting them.

Case counts continued to soar in metro Detroit, with Detroit (223 cases per 100,000), Macomb (195), Washtenaw (191), suburban Wayne (187) and Oakland (183) all reporting the highest rates yet of the pandemic.

The statewide rate is 150 cases per 100,000 per day. A week ago, it was 108 cases per day per 100,000.

The state reported another 259 COVID-19 deaths, including 138 that occurred late last year; 100 of the new deaths have occurred in January.

The state’s positive test rate continued to rise as well, with 34.7 percent of the past two days’ tests coming back positive. More than 425,000 tests have been taken in the last week, a huge surge. It’s the most tests since more than 446,400 tests were reported in the week ending Nov. 26, 2020.


DETROIT TO TORONTO BY TRAIN PLAN GETS BOOST WITH AMTRAK AGREEMENT

DETROIT FREE PRESS — A mega freight railroad merger appears to put a Detroit-to-Toronto passenger rail connection closer to reality.

Amtrak, which provides much of the passenger rail service in the United States, said it has gotten a commitment of cooperation for its own expansion plans from Canadian Pacific Railway Limited, which has a $25 billion acquisition deal with Kansas City Southern.

Amtrak said its plans include adding passenger rail service through the Detroit River Tunnel connecting Detroit and the cities of Windsor and Toronto in Ontario through VIA Rail Canada. Connecting Toronto via Detroit with Chicago and its many connections could go a long way toward improving service for U.S. rail passengers, who currently deal with a rail network that leaves many cities without direct connections.

Amtrak was one of the beneficiaries of last year’s big infrastructure package pushed by the Biden administration, which directed $66 billion toward passenger rail.

It wasn’t immediately clear how quickly a rail connection between Detroit and Toronto could be established. If it happens, it wouldn’t be the only good news for rail passengers in Detroit being envisioned. The Michigan Department of Transportation is looking to build a new Amtrak and bus station in Detroit’s New Center area, adding a $10 million federal grant to offset the estimated $57 million cost.

The railroad tie-up, which still needs approval from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, would create a rail network connecting the U.S, Canada and Mexico. The Wall Street Journal noted in March that “if approved by regulators, the deal would unite the two smallest of the seven major North American freight carriers, linking factories and ports in Mexico, farms and plants in the Midwestern U.S. and Canada’s ocean ports and energy resources.”

Amtrak has agreed to support the railroad merger before the Surface Transportation Board, calling Canadian Pacific an excellent host railroad for passenger rail service. Amtrak noted that Canadian Pacific “consistently” receives an “A” grade on Amtrak’s annual host railroad report card, “recognizing its industry-leading on-time performance record.” Passenger and freight rail often share the same tracks, and that is frequently blamed for many of the service delays experienced by Amtrak passengers.

“We welcome CP’s commitment to our efforts with states and others to expand Amtrak service and are pleased to have reached an agreement formalizing CP’s support of Amtrak expansion in the Midwest and the South,” Amtrak President Stephen Gardner said in a news release. “Given CP’s consistent record as an Amtrak host, we support CP’s proposal to expand its network. This is exactly what Congress and the Administration are seeking: Amtrak and the freight railroads working together to benefit freight customers, Amtrak passengers, our state/regional partners and the general public.”

Amtrak’s Midwest expansion plans, which Canadian Pacific will cooperate on, also include increased frequency between Chicago and Milwaukee and extending service from Milwaukee to St. Paul, Minnesota, “to create a second round-trip on the Twin Cities-Milwaukee-Chicago corridor.”

The agreement could also help Amtrak connect New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and allow it to “study the potential for Amtrak service between Meridian, Mississippi, and Dallas.”

Keith Creel, Canadian Pacific president and CEO, said in the release that the deal with Kansas City Southern would have no adverse effect on intercity passenger rail service and that the railroad is “pleased to continue to support Amtrak and its infrastructure projects to provide capacity needed to accommodate additional service.”

WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) reported earlier on the Amtrak agreement.


LACK OF BUS OPERATORS FORCES SMART TO CUT TRIPS, CHANGE SCHEDULES

DETROIT NEWS — As many as a quarter of SMART bus service has been canceled or delayed on a daily basis, the transit agency said, as the spread of COVID-19 means bus operators aren’t available.

The agency has had to cut trips and make changes to existing schedules as a result, it said in a news release.

SMART, like many workplaces, has had to limit its operations because of a lack of workers, the agency said. It estimates it is down 80 bus operators, meaning it can only operate at 75% of its pre-pandemic levels.

“By scaling back service levels, riders will be assured of more reliable service to get to work or to other important destinations,” the agency said in its release.

SMART is asking people to stay home if they’re sick or have cold- or flu-like symptoms. Masks are required for the duration of any trips, as required by the Federal Transit Administration.

The agency is asking riders to check their trip information on its transit app to confirm arrivals in real time. By changing the existing schedules, the agency said, it is working to create “more reliable service” for those trying to get places.

In the meantime, it asks people to be patient with operators and with each other, and, if necessary, to call Customer Care at (866) 962-5515 with new extended hours from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.


‘WE ARE REALLY AT A BREAKING POINT,’ BEAUMONT HEALTH DOCTOR SAYS OF COVID-19 SURGE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — More than 3,000 Michigan health care workers are off the job because they tested positive for coronavirus or were exposed to it, forcing hospitals to postpone some elective procedures as they brace for an influx of more patients in a COVID-19 surge fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

Strained workers, who have been on the front lines treating patients for nearly two years, are exhausted, but their work is far from over as the surge pushes on, driving up cases and hospitalizations, including among children.

“We have an obligation to take care of the COVID patients,” said Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont Health’s chief of clinical services. But the health system also must be able to take care of people who’ve been injured in car accidents, those who’ve had heart attacks and other illnesses.

“We’ve really asked our physicians to postpone, if safe, any procedures that can be postponed. … We’re trying to take care of the community, but we’re also trying to take care of our staff. … We know our 33,000 staffers are working as hard as they’ve ever worked.

“We are really at a breaking point. … We are really at a point where it’s the worst it’s ever been and … we’re afraid it’s going to get even worse next week. So we’re trying to be proactive. We’re cutting back on things that we don’t have to do today, but we still want to take care of our patients.”

On Thursday, Beaumont Health said more than 430 employees are out with coronavirus symptoms.

By postponing the less urgent procedures and tests, Beaumont can shift more staff to caring for COVID-19 patients along with those with cancer, traumatic injuries and other acute medical issues.

Other Michigan hospitals also are struggling.

Spectrum Health had 766 of its 31,000 employees test positive for the virus the week of Dec. 29 through Wednesday, said Chad Tuttle, Spectrum Health West Michigan’s senior vice president for hospital and post-acute operations. He said many employees have volunteered to take extra shifts for stricken colleagues.

Trinity Health Michigan, which has eight hospitals and 22,000 employees, reported more than 900 medical workers were in isolation or quarantine as of Wednesday after contracting the virus or being exposed to it.

And the Henry Ford Health System has 989 employees — about 3% of its roughly 30,000-person workforce — in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation as of Thursday morning, said Bob Riney, COO and president of health care operations for the Detroit-based hospital system. “When you start to get into numbers where it’s, 3%, 4%, 5% of your workforce, you have to make some decisions about services,” Riney told the Free Press. That means postponing surgical procedures and longer waits in emergency departments.

Beaumont Health officials said Thursday the health system is caring for more than 750 COVID-19 patients in its eight hospitals, of which about 65% are not vaccinated. There has been a 40% increase in the number of COVID-19 patients being treated at the health system during the past week, they said.

Thirty-six children under age 18 are among the COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Nick Gilpin, the health system’s medial director of infection prevention and epidemiology.

On Tuesday, Henry Ford Health System officials said there were 480 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 systemwide, including one child under 17 years old who was not vaccinated. That was a 25% increase from the previous week.

“We’re dealing with just intense, widespread community transmission right now,” Gilpin said. “When we look at mathematical modeling, and data that we have from sequencing, we know that the omicron variant is really taking a strong foothold in the Midwest.

“Last estimates that I saw from the CDC put omicron at around 93% of all of the COVID cases that we’re seeing.”

Coronavirus vaccines are working to prevent COVID-19 from progressing to more serious or fatal consequences in most people, Gilpin said. But more Michiganders need to get a booster dose to provide greater protection from the omicron variant.

About 8% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Beaumont’s hospitals have received a booster shot, he said.

“When you look at the ICUs and the more critically ill patients, the proportion of vaccinated patients with COVID is lower,” Gilpin said. “It’s about 20% to 25%, which goes along with what we understand about this omicron variant — that it is more contagious, but it’s causing less severe disease overall, particularly among the vaccinated.”

In Michigan, 60.5% of residents age 5 and older are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A federal team of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists continues to help workers care for patients at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, one of four federal teams dispatched to Michigan to help hospitals that are struggling with stretched-thin staffing.

Other federal teams were sent to Mercy Health Muskegon, Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw. The team at the Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn site was to leave Jan. 2, but will spend an additional 30 days assisting.

With the help of the federal strike team, Beaumont, Dearborn was able to “open additional beds in critical care, and our patients and staff have truly benefited from the expertise the DOD team has brought to our hospital,” said Tom Lanni, chief operating officer of the Dearborn hospital.

This month, the federal team will have more presence in the emergency center, which is experiencing a large volume of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients.

“For the health care system to keep functioning, we must have the community’s support,” Beaumont Health CEO John Fox said in a statement, urging people to get vaccinated, boosted, wear a mask, practice social distancing, limit gatherings, and stay home when sick.

“We all need to work together on the critical preventive steps to control this new phase of the pandemic.”


COVID TREATMENT PILLS IN MICHIGAN. BUT ONLY A FEW WILL GET THEM, FOR NOW.

BRIDGE MI — Two antiviral pills meant to help people with COVID ward off severe infection made their way to Michigan this week.

But a severely limited supply and narrow eligibility criteria mean that getting them anytime soon won’t be easy, even as Michigan is seeing record volumes of new COVID cases.

“Unfortunately, there will be people that cannot receive medication because it’s just not available to them yet,” said Dr. Gregory Gafni-Pappas, president of the Michigan College of Emergency Physicians, told Bridge Michigan.

The Food and Drug administration authorized the two drugs in the waning days of 2021 — Paxlovid on Dec. 22 and molnupiravir, also known also by its brand name, Lagevrio, on Dec. 23. The Paxlovid pill — approved for people age 12 or older with mild to moderate COVID  — was particularly  welcome because early research showed its effectiveness against the new  omicron variant, which is rapidly coursing through Michigan.

Manufacturers began shipping supplies of the pills to the states through a tightly rationed federal allocation process, with the first courses arriving in Michigan over the past week.

As of Monday, the state had been allocated just 1,600 courses of Paxlovid, which manufacturer Pfizer reported is 89 percent effective against hospitalizations. It also received 7,480 courses of molnupiraver, which has a far lower, 30-percent effectiveness rate, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Most of the antiviral pills have been distributed to 10 Meijer pharmacies in southeast and east Michigan, regions hardest hit by the omicron-fueled COVID surge.

A handful of federally-qualified health centers — which serve mostly low-income and underinsured residents — will receive allocations directly from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said Anne Scott, operations officer for the Michigan Primary Care Association, which represents those clinics.

The Biden administration announced on Dec. 22 — the same day that Paxlovid was authorized — that it had pre-purchased  10 million courses. But the drug is complex to make, and that meant just 250,000 courses would be available in January, according to the White House.

Even though the federal government has reportedly since doubled its order, it’s unclear how many courses are targeted for Michigan and when they will arrive. The next shipment is expected Jan. 10, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Both antiviral drugs are prioritized for immunocompromised patients, those 65 and older who aren’t “maximally vaccinated,” and other risk groups. The pills are most effective when given within days after an infected person first shows symptoms.

The strategy prioritizes “the most vulnerable,” but also is expected to help ease Michigan’s already-strained hospitals, said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state’s top medical officer.

“Our goal is to prevent healthcare from collapsing,” she said. “We’re trying to use those drugs in a very strategic way — to take care of the most vulnerable, the most in need, and to prevent the most number of severe cases and deaths,” she told Bridge Michigan Thursday.

The drugs also are restricted by limits set by the FDA and by how they interact with other drugs. Paxlovid is authorized for those 12 and older; molnupiraver is authorized only for people 18 and older.

With record volumes of new COVID cases in Michigan and more than 4,500 people hospitalized as of Wednesday with confirmed or suspected COVID, doctors are having difficult and sometimes lengthy conversations with sick patients who don’t meet criteria for the pills, said Gafni-Pappas, who also is associate medical director of emergency medicine at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and rounds at St. Joseph’s in Ann Arbor.

Compounding the frustration is that Michigan also has a limited supply of monoclonal antibodies — the other COVID treatment given to high-risk patients to stave off more serious illness. Two of the three antibody treatments that proved effective against the delta variant aren’t effective against omicron, making the monoclonal antibodies option even more limited.

“I do feel bad about it,” Gaffi-Pappas said of conversations with patients about the limited supply of monoclonal antibody treatments. “But I also understand … As soon as that patient leaves who is likely going to recover from COVID, the next patient I have is an older person with a lot of comorbidities.”

Doctors must also be vigilant to ensure patients aren’t on medications that don’t interact well with antiviral pills, said Dr. Srikar Reddy, president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. Molnupiravir, for instance, may cause fetal harm if used by pregnant women, according to the FDA.

Priority guidelines that include the unvaccinated — who are at greater risk to become hospitalized or die from COVID — have also met backlash from some health leaders. Dr. Matthew K. Wynia, director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado, told the New York Times that giving unvaccinated patients first crack at antiviral pills feels “like you are rewarding intransigence.”

Still, the antiviral pills are another tool to curbing the steep surge now sweeping Michigan and the globe.

“Things are changing fast,” Reddy said of the pandemic and the skyrocketing case rates in Michigan. “Something is better than nothing. This is an added benefit.”


OXFORD ADDS SAFETY MEASURES, RENOVATES HIGH SCHOOL AHEAD OF REOPENING

DETROIT NEWS — Enhanced security measures and a district-based psychiatrist are among the changes families of the Oxford Community Schools should expect when high schoolers return for in-person classes this month for the first time following a Nov. 30 shooting rampage.

School officials noted during a virtual town hall Thursday that future beefed-up security measures could include ammunition-sensitive dogs at schools and random sweeps in parking lots and on school buses.

The planned changes and others under review come in response to the most deadly school shooting in the country since 2018. Oxford High School sophomore Ethan Crumbley is accused of opening fire inside the high school, killing four students and wounding six others and a teacher.

Residents, parents, and others were invited Thursday to ask questions and participate in a poll regarding their concerns ahead of the gradual return to classes next week for high school students at a different building before they return to the high school on the week of Jan. 24.

Officials touched on extensive physical renovations at the high school, including new carpeting and “calming” colors and textures that are expected to be completed by Jan. 17. Until then, high school students will renew their studies at the district’s middle school and attend remote classes by computer. High school seniors will be provided with first-semester grading options of pass-fail; grades they would have received, or an option to improve their grade.

Officials also noted extensive damage occurred along a hallway in the high school, requiring work in more than 25 classrooms.

The district is planning to host three open house opportunities for Oxford High School students and families to visit the renovated high school building together before Jan. 24.

For two weeks, Jan. 10 through Jan. 21, Oxford High, Oxford Middle School and Bridges, its alternative high school, will be on “alternative hybrid schedules” at the middle school building, Oxford Community Schools Superintendent Tim Throne wrote in a letter to families this week.

Throne and other school leaders made it clear Thursday that the emotional and physical safety of students remained their top priority.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and Oxford Village police have committed to increasing a public safety presence at the school, officials said.

Among mental health resources in place, the school district plan to have a psychiatrist on-site at the middle school to meet with students and also travel to other schools.

Still to be addressed is what other types of security enhancements are needed. While clear backpacks are now required for middle and high school students, some parents on Thursday argued that it’s not sufficient to keep a weapon from being smuggled into the school and indicated more needs to be done for school safety.

“Why are metal detectors an issue?” asked one parent, Rebecca Drisco. “It’s perhaps the only way to ensure a weapon isn’t brought into school.”

Jill Lemond, assistant superintendent of student services, said Thursday the expense of metal detectors was not a consideration but rather how they are implemented at 54 entrances at the school.

Parents also inquired whether findings of an internal school investigation would be available to the public before students return to school.

Lemond said that a “blue-ribbon” group will investigate all concerns, including security procedures at the school and “what we can do better.”

“The results will be communicated and we will share whatever we can,” she noted.

The high school has been closed since the incident in which Hana St. Juliana, 14; Tate Myre, 16; Madisyn Baldwin, 17; and Justin Shilling, 17, were killed.

Nearly 400 callers participated in a number of questions Thursday including how satisfied they were with the district’s handling of the circumstances to date. Of those polled, 61% said they were very satisfied; 31% were somewhat satisfied, and 8% said they were not satisfied.

When asked of their knowledge of available mental health resources at the school, 60% of responders said they were aware; 33% said they were somewhat aware and 7% said they were not aware.

Crumbley, 15, has been charged with various crimes including first-degree murder and terrorism. He is jailed without bond and has a probable cause hearing on Friday in Rochester Hills District Court.


MICHIGAN KIDS AGES 12 TO 15 NOW POISED TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR COVID BOOSTERS

BRIDGE MI — The vaccine advisory board for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday recommended COVID boosters for children 12- to 15 years old.

The recommendation will be reviewed by CDC director Rochelle Walensky. If she approves, the decision will make boosters available for the first time for young teens as schools struggle to stay open against skyrocketing COVID cases.

The boosters would be given at least five months after the second dose of the two-dose series, the panel recommended.

Boosters for this age group are likely welcome news for many Michigan families, said Dr. Lynn Smitherman, a Detroit-based pediatrician: “I had a couple of parents text me over the weekend with ‘Hey, I hear the boosters are coming out for the kids.”

But for others, boosters may be a tough sell, as parents are overwhelmed with information — much of it constantly-changing, she said.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 13-1 Wednesday in favor of extending boosters to children as young as 12. Until now, only those 16 and older have been eligible for boosters, except for children considered immunocompromised.

It was the third change in booster recommendations by the CDC in as many days, and one of several recommendations that have changed in recent weeks.

The CDC this week also shortened the recommended time between initial doses and boosters for anyone who received the Pfizer vaccine. Under the new recommendation, Pfizer vaccine recipients now may get a Pfizer or Moderna booster 5 months after completing the second dose of their two-dose primary series; it had been six months. (The recommendations for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or Moderna vaccines remain unchanged.)

The CDC this week also shortened the wait for additional doses for 5- to 11-year-olds who are immunocompromised. Those children now may receive another dose 28 days after their second shot from Pfizer — the only vaccine authorized and recommended for children 5 to 11 years old. That change reflects similar recommendations for adults who are immunocompromised.

In Detroit, Smitherman said a desire to return to sports and the frustration with online learning and uncertainty are driving much of the interest in vaccines and, in some cases, boosters for school-age children.

In Michigan, about 45 percent of children 12- to 15-year-old are vaccinated, according to state data.

But Smitherman noted that many parents and others are finding it difficult to keep up with rapidly evolving guidelines.

“People are getting kind of tired of information that’s constantly changing. It has them confused (and wondering) why are things changing so fast?” Smitherman said. “It feeds into the underlying mistrust.”

As of Monday, fewer than 2.4 million doses have been distributed in Michigan as “additional” or “booster” doses across all eligible groups, according to state data. “Additional doses” are those given to immunocompromised people who may not be able to mount the same level of immunity from a vaccine as healthier individuals, while “boosters” do what the name implies — they boost a typical immune response in most other people.

Boosters have been an easier sell to older residents. Michiganders 50 and older make up 38.2 percent of the state’s population but 69.7 percent of the people who have received boosters.

Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara, another Detroit pediatrician, said she too sees an “uphill climb” in convincing families.

“I appreciate the CDC’s guidelines, but I’m concerned about the implementation,” she said.

“More coordinated, culturally appropriate messaging” can help convince some parents to seek COVID vaccines and boosters for their children, but rates likely won’t significantly improve until schools mandate them along with other vaccines — much like New Orleans has done, she said.


DUGGAN RESTARTS HUNTINGTON PLACE DRIVE-THRU TO BOOST DETROIT’S COVID-19 TESTING

DETROIT NEWS — Mayor Mike Duggan ramped up efforts Wednesday for residents to get tested for COVID-19 amid a surge of omicron variant cases, including reactivating the city’s largest drive-thru center.

In the first press conference of the new year, Duggan was joined by Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair Razo and Dr. Robert Dunn, the city’s acting medical director, at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters. The city officials expressed concern as Southeast Michigan’s proportion of positive COVID-19 tests has soared to 33.3% over the last three weeks.

“Across Southeast Michigan, one out of three people who go in to get tested come back positive,” Duggan said. “After six months, you were seeing the effectiveness of the vaccine wearing out and…began breakthrough cases from those who had not gotten a booster, but cases tended to be mild with a small chance of hospitalizations. … My thought was that by January, we’d be talking about COVID in the rearview mirror.”

While the earlier delta variant remains prevalent in Michigan, it is now diminishing as the omicron variant is believed to be more transmissible.

In response, the city has opened two rapid testing centers for residents to get same-day results. The Joseph Walker Williams Center, located at 8431 Rosa Parks Blvd., is open with PCR testing from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tests are being administered indoors this week but the center will be converted to a drive-thru next week.

Duggan said the Huntington Place convention center is being reactivated as a drive-thru testing center providing antigen tests from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The city expects to operate with 1,000 appointments daily between the two sites.

The soonest appointments available on Wednesday afternoon were on Friday at both centers.

The Detroit Health Department has supplied 41 nursing homes and 10 homeless shelters with 8,000 rapid tests. The city is also operating 12 vaccine/booster centers, Duggan said.

Residents must show they work or live in the city to schedule a test, vaccine or booster. They can make appointments by calling (313) 230-0505.

The city has an ample supply of tests, despite a national shortage, Duggan said.

“We have a supply of 4,500 tests weekly,” Duggan said. “We’re good and if we need to get to 1,200 or 1,400 a day, our problem isn’t the number of tests. Our problem is getting the staff out to do it.”

Over the last seven days, 36% of tests are returning positive in the city, compared to 30% of tests returning positive in the state.

Since March 2020, the city has tallied 96,201 confirmed cases, resulting in 2,747 deaths.

About 81% of Detroit’s hospital inpatient beds are occupied, and 17%, or 469, hold COVID-19 patients.

Those who test positive and have symptoms should isolate until 24 hours after the symptoms are gone and get a second COVID test to confirm, Dunn said.

“We are really encouraging people to get a test to confirm they are no longer contagious,” Dunn said. “We have testing resources available and that is absolutely the safest method. If you test positive and have no symptoms, which can happen 25% of the time, people need to isolate for five days … and get a second test to confirm you’re not contagious after the five days.”

Omicron is evading the cloth masks, said Fair Razo, who is encouraging residents to wear KN95 or surgical masks for protection.

“We know that cloth masks worked for a while, but they don’t work any longer, and we want you to stay protected,” she said. “The cloth masks absorb moisture too quickly, which lessens the protection against omicron, which we know is three times as contagious.”

The state, as of Tuesday, has confirmed 289 cases of omicron by genetic sequencing at the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories in Lansing. But experts say a greater number of people are likely infected because only a small percentage of samples of the virus are sequenced. As of Tuesday, roughly 95% of cases of COVID-19 in the country are caused by the omicron variant, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 63.5%, or 6.3 million, residents have received their first doses of a vaccine, as of Monday. So far, more than 172,000 children ages 5 to 11 in Michigan, or 21%, have received their first dose of the vaccine.

Detroit lags that number, as less than 45% of the city’s population has received one dose of vaccine.

“My job is to give Detroiters options. There is no place in the country where it is easier to get a test or a vaccine,” Duggan said when asked about lagging vaccinations. “This arrogant ‘I don’t need a vaccine’ thing changes when you’re gasping for breath on a ventilator, but all I can do is make vaccines easy and available.”

The mayor said he thinks residents who have gotten their booster and are following protocols can live a reasonably normal life.

“I don’t see a need for any kind of shutdown,” Duggan said, adding the situation could change in the next two weeks.


LAWSUIT FILED AGAINST MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING COMMISSION ALLEGES MAPS UNFAIR TO BLACK VOTERS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Almost three days after a press briefing announcing a lawsuit against Michigan’s redistricting commission, a complaint was filed late Wednesday night alleging that the new congressional and state legislative districts would diminish Black Detroiters’ political power in violation of federal voting rights requirements.

During the Monday morning press conference during, Nabih Ayad, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the lawsuit would be filed in the Michigan Supreme Court that same day.

Ayad told the Free Press that additional plaintiffs signed on to the complaint after the press briefing, delaying the initial timeline. While earlier draft complaints shared with the Free Press named more than 20 plaintiffs, the final complaint lists only five.

They include the Detroit Caucus — made up of state lawmakers who represent the city in the Legislature — as well as the Romulus City Council, Carol Weaver who serves as a member of the 14th Congressional District executive board, former state Rep. Wendell Byrd, D-Detroit, and Wayne County resident Darryl Woods. The complaint includes the signature of former state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, “on behalf of the Detroit Caucus.” She is the former chair of the group. Gay-Dagnogo recently announced a congressional bid in one of the new Detroit-based districts.

The lawsuit asks the state’s high court to order the commission to redraw its maps.

The legal challenge argues that the commission’s decision to eliminate majority-Black districts in the new U.S. House and state Senate maps and reduce the number of those districts in the new state House map violates the Voting Rights Act, the federal law that prohibits racially discriminatory voting districts that deny minority voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates.

The commission’s voting rights attorney Bruce Adelson told the commission that the law does not require drawing majority-minority districts, where the share of nonwhite voters is above 50%. He told the commissioners by spreading out Black voters across more districts, their maps could expand opportunities for Black-preferred candidates to win, especially in the state House.

But the lawsuit counters that Black-preferred candidates would struggle to win in the new districts. The new lines “sets-back the Black population of Michigan generations” and “almost completely politically silence” Black voters, the complaint states.

It alleges that in reducing the number of majority-Black districts, the commission diluted the voting strength of Black voters and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

A previous allegation in earlier draft complaints shared with the Free Press that the commission also violated Section 5 of the law was removed from the final filing. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision essentially nullified that part of the law, and Michigan was not previously subject to its requirements. Earlier drafts also misstated the number of majority-Black districts in the commission’s maps.

The new maps dramatically change the racial composition of districts for Detroit lawmakers facing reelection.

Some state House lawmakers that currently represent districts home to a voting age population that is more than 90% Black were drawn into districts are still majority-Black, but contain far fewer Black voters, according to data from Dave’s Redistricting — an online mapping tool — and a Bridge Michigan analysis that identified where the homes of legislators fall in the new lines.

Adelson has said that many of the Detroit state House districts in place today unnecessarily concentrate Black voters, limiting their ability to influence elections in surrounding districts.

Other Detroit lawmakers who currently represent majority-Black districts were drawn into districts where Black voters no longer constitute the majority.

While some saw the share of white voters expand in their new districts, Reps. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, and Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, were drawn into a district where the share of white voters shrunk along with the share of Black voters. That district consolidated Hispanic voters previously split up in an effort to secure better representation for that community.

The lawsuit appears poised to create tensions among Democrats who have celebrated the maps as their best shot to win majorities and those who argue Black voters were short-changed in the process.

“I hope that my colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle are not being blinded by the fact that they have the opportunity to win the House to where they’re going to allow the disenfranchisement of Black people,” said Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, the chair of the Detroit Caucus.

It’s possible to draw fair maps that contain majority-Black districts, Yancey said.

The Michigan Democratic Party did not answer Free Press questions asking whether Lavora Barnes, the party’s chair, supports the legal challenge and agrees with the allegation that the new maps would illegally disenfranchise Black voters.

“I do not want to see the diversity of Michigan’s lawmakers diminished,” Barnes said in a statement. “The (Michigan Democratic Party) is committed to fighting to ensure fair representation for all Michiganders including giving Black and Brown voters the ability to elect their candidate of choice in a general election and in a primary.”


FLU + CORONAVIRUS = FLURONA. WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CO-INFECTION EXPERTS ARE WATCHING

DETROIT FREE PRESS — “Flurona.”

The name conjures images of cheap cable horror flicks – think “Sharknado” — but the flu-COVID dual infections are real. More cases are likely. And they’re not nearly as terrifying as flying sharks – especially for people who are vaccinated against one or both.

Texas Children’s Hospital announced this week that tests confirmed a child was infected with influenza A and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The patient was not hospitalized and is recovering at home, the hospital said. No other details were given.

“This is one confirmed case and, of course, we’ll be working with our colleagues across the country to see if there are more cases and whether we will see a distinct pattern in these cases,” Dr. Jim Versalovic, pathologist-in-chief and COVID-19 command center co-leader at the hospital, told reporters Monday.

The announcement comes a few days after Israel reported its first confirmed “flurona” case in an unvaccinated pregnant woman at the Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, the Times of Israel reports.

Health experts expect to see more “flurona” amid rapidly rising flu and coronavirus cases, the latter being driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. And this isn’t the first time health care providers have seen co-infections of the flu and COVID-19, as well as other viruses.

Texas Children’s Hospital was also the first children’s hospital in the U.S. to report a co-infection of COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in the summer. Versalovic said dozens of children with co-infections required hospitalization.

But there’s no specific treatment or vaccine for RSV, so experts speculate children with “flurona” may experience better outcomes.

“I expect to see plenty of co-infections (of flu and COVID) going forward, but I don’t see anything that suggests it makes COVID infections worse,” said Dr. Frank Esper, a physician at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases. “Those are two viral pathogens that we actually have medicines for.”

In addition to life-saving vaccines to prevent severe illness, he said, health care providers are prepared to treat the infections simultaneously with Tamiflu and remdesivir.

Immunocompromised people are vulnerable to these infections, but co-infections are more likely to occur in young children, experts say, as their immune system is still unfamiliar with many of these common viruses.

“Hands down, the No. 1 predisposition for having more than one virus at the same time is your age, and it’s really children under 5,” Esper said. “They all have virus running rampant and swap them like trading cards.”

Cold viruses make up the most commonly seen co-infection cases, Esper said, whereas co-infections with influenza are observed less frequently.

“There are certain pathogens that don’t like to dance with anyone, and influenza is one of them,” he said. “When the body gets infected (with the flu virus), it really starts flooding the whole system with a lot of immune components that prevent viral infection,” making it harder for other pathogens to enter the body and cause illness.

Co-infections involving the flu may be rarer than other viruses, but health experts still expect to see rising cases of “flurona” as the U.S. approaches peak flu activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 43% of children six months to 17 years have been vaccinated for the flu as of Dec. 4.

Texas Children’s Hospital said it has diagnosed more than 90 flu cases since Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, weekly COVID-19 cases continue to double due to the omicron variant.

“During the weekend, we shattered prior records that were established during the delta surge in August,” Versalovic said. “Just in a span of two to three weeks, we saw the tremendous impact of omicron overtaking delta.”

It’s still unclear if “flurona” causes more severe disease, but health experts don’t want to take any chances. They urge Americans to get vaccinated against both viruses as soon as possible.

The flu vaccine is available to children over 6 months, and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is available to children age 5 and older.

“Influenza vaccination is the best preventive measure against getting infected and preventing some of the serious influenza associated complications,” said Dr. Gregg Sylvester, chief medical officer at Seqirus, an influenza vaccine manufacturer based in North Carolina. “A flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and those around you from the virus.”


WHITMER’S HUSBAND TESTS POSITIVE FOR COVID; GOVERNOR ISOLATING PENDING TEST RESULTS

DETROIT NEWS — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test after her husband, first gentleman Marc Mallory, earlier Tuesday tested positive for the virus.

Whitmer’s office said Mallory tested positive for the virus “after feeling under the weather.” Whitmer tested negative for the virus after taking a rapid test but is awaiting the results of a PCR.

“Like so many families around the country, the governor and her husband took extra precautions to limit contact with others to stay safe over the holidays as they celebrated Christmas with their immediate family members in Michigan,” said Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer. “Thankfully, the entire family is fully vaccinated and boosted, so the governor has not tested positive and is not experiencing symptoms.”

Whitmer is isolating in a separate area of the governor’s Lansing home until her PCR results come back, Leddy said. She also is working to communicate to all those with whom she’s recently come into contact.

Whitmer’s office said she continues to work to increase testing access, encourage vaccination and masks and secure treatments like monoclonal antibodies.

“We wish the first gentleman a speedy recovery and hope he feels better soon,” Leddy said.

In recent days, Whitmer has had no publicly disclosed events. She is scheduled to give the state-of-the-state address in the coming weeks. While no firm date has been announced, the annual address usually occurs in late January.

Mallory’s diagnosis comes roughly a month after Michigan officials identified the first cases of the highly contagious omicron variant and as Michigan continues a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

When asked about the possibility of reinstating public health orders to slow the spread, Whitmer told reporters last month that the state had different tools, such as vaccinations, masking and treatment options, to help mitigate the effects of omicron.

“In the early days, when we didn’t have tools, the goal was not to come into contact with COVID,” Whitmer said. “We know that there’s an increased likelihood that each of us is going to come into contact with COVID at some point. We’re seeing my colleagues test positive who …they’re triple vaccinated, they mask up, wash their hands, they social distance, but that’s the nature of this particular variant.”

On Monday, the state reported a seven-day average of 12,247 new COVID-19 cases per day over five days. The same day, the state health department reported 3,903 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus in Michigan, a slight uptick from weeks prior but still down from a record high of 4,518 adult hospitalizations on Dec. 13.

UPDATE (1:33 P.M., January 5, 2022) – Governor Whitmer has tested negative for COVID-19.


CAN AT-HOME COVID TESTS BE TRUSTED WITH OMICRON? THERE ARE LIMITS.

BRIDGE MI — Early research indicates rapid antigen COVID tests — the at-home tests relied upon by millions of Michiganders — aren’t as sensitive to detecting the omicron variant as they were to previous versions of COVID-19.

While these tests are still considered useful, it’s a problem that could give some students and workers a false sense of security as they return to classrooms and offices following the holiday break, said Nick Decker, director of laboratory services at Memorial Healthcare in Owosso.

With more people getting tested for COVID and more riding on the outcome, even a small uptick in false negative test results can create big public health problems, he said. “If we’re running a million tests a day,” he said, false results may be “a big number.”

It’s tough to know how many antigen tests are given each day in the state. While they are given in hospitals and clinics, they are also sold at drug stores and markets for people swabbing at home, with most results never reported to the state.

In the middle of the holidays last week, many may have missed the announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that omicron is evading detection in some antigen tests more often than earlier COVID virus variations.

It’s just one more frustration for Michiganders trying to make decisions as COVID case rates rocket ride to unprecedented levels in Michigan, businesses struggle to maintain staff, and schools scramble to make sense of what seem like ever-changing guidelines.

While rising false-negatives are drawing much of the concern, rapid antigen tests may be spitting out false positives, too — a result of user error or, in rare cases, even the common cold caused by a seasonal, less dangerous coronavirus, some lab leaders told Bridge Michigan.

“That’s not super common,” said Robert Tibbitts, associate director of the microbiology lab at Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System

Still, he said, some antigen tests may “cross react with other coronaviruses  or any other viruses for that matter,” he said.

A false positive can take students out of class and workers off production lines or out of restaurant kitchens and offices when they’re actually healthy.

Just a few weeks ago, about 10 to 30 staff a day tested positive for COVID at the Grand Rapids-based, 14-hospital Spectrum Health. This week, there are “60 to 90 a day,” said Chad Tuttle, senior vice president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, which represents 11 of the hospitals.

Last week, 615 workers were essentially off work after testing positive, among a workforce of approximately 31,000.

While it underscores the need for reliable testing results, it also exposes reliability issues in the testing, Tuttle said. The health system requires any positive at-home test to be verified by the more reliable lab-based PCR test, he said.

“We have had several team members who have had a positive at-home test that’s turned into a negative PCR test,” he said.

At Sparrow Laboratories in Lansing, administrative director Jon Baker said his staff has heard the same story from the public — at least anecdotally: “They’ll say ‘you know I got this positive test, and then I got a negative PCR test.’”

Certainly, COVID-19 tests have never been perfect, and antigen tests are a cheaper, faster but less reliable test than the gold-stand, PCR test. And there has long been a problem with people testing too early or “panic testing” after an exposure, which leads to false negatives.

A PCR test is more sensitive than antigen tests, but also more expensive — $100 or more each, said Memorial’s Decker. That’s compared to $25 or less for a pack of two at-home antigen tests.

PCR tests are nearly always administered by medical professionals and read in a lab. And when labs receive a heavy crush of tests to evaluate, results of a PCR test may not be available for days.

Meanwhile, millions of free at-home tests are expected to head to Michigan next month under a federal effort announced just before Christmas to limit the omicron-fueled wildfire spread of COVID.

The Michigan distribution will be among 500 million tests that will be passed out free of charge nationwide.

Some lab officials and doctors say the labs that run PCR tests are getting overwhelmed again. On Monday, the state reported totals for 360,905 PCR tests — some 47,000 more tests than it reported just more than two weeks earlier, on Dec. 15.

So results that, in light times, can take just a couple hours, now can take far longer.

“We can run (tests) in big batches…but we don’t have enough staff to do the nasal swabbing for more and more testing,” Henry Ford’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer, Dr. Adnan Munkarah, said during a news conference Tuesday.

And, Tibbetts said, the Henry Ford lab is starting to receive notices that some supplies are on backorder.

Meanwhile, even as some call for more testing, others have pushed back — arguing that testing should be limited to those who are symptomatic.

“I see both sides. The more tests we have, the more we can see the epidemiological picture and what’s taking place and … when this thing’s going to go away. But from the clinical side, there could be too much testing,” Tibbetts said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed guidelines on quarantines, and much of that hinges on testing, too.

Doctors and other clinicians, he said, frequently call him for guidance on when to test and which tests to use.

Then there’s the general confusion about reinfections and infections even among those who are vaccinated: “It has been really kind of confusing.”

It can feel a bit like the confusion of the earliest testing efforts in 2020: “This omicron surge has just sent it into another whole level of unknown.”


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | CASES AT 12,400 PER DAY; SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN EPICENTER OF OMICRON OUTBREAK

BRIDGE MI — Michigan is now reporting a daily average of more than 12,400 new COVID-19 cases, as the omicron variant spreads rapidly through metro Detroit.

The state reported 61,235 new confirmed infections on Monday for the past five days, pushing the seven-day average to 12,442 per day. That’s a 65 percent increase from the 7,533 cases per day a week ago.

Metro Detroit remains the epicenter of infections involving the omicron variant, with 201 of the 289 confirmed cases in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, including 52 in Detroit.

That is a vast undercount, since the state samples only about 400 cases a week for genetic sequencing to identify variants. Until December the state had been dealing almost solely with the delta variant, considered less transmissible than omicron but more likely to result in severe illness.

The new variant, which has spurred huge surges across the nation and the world, has sent daily case counts in Michigan to their highest levels and has pushed up hospitalizations. Admissions statewide increased 10 percent since last week, as the number of patients rose 399 to 4,339.

Most of that increase occurred in metro Detroit’s six counties which are experiencing the highest rates of new infections.

In Detroit, the city is averaging 229 cases per day per 100,000, far more than the statewide rate of 125 cases per day per 100,000, which is the highest ever.

Suburban Wayne County is at 179 cases per day per 100,000 and Macomb County is at 178. Oakland County is recording an average of 155 cases per day per 100,000.

In northern Michigan, where omicron has largely been undetected, case counts are typically below 50 and even 30 cases per day per 100,000.

The state on Monday also reported an additional 298 deaths. Of those, 24 have occurred this year.

Testing data shows skyrocketing positive rates, with 30 percent of all tests in the past week coming back positive; it was 21 percent a week ago. Community spread is 3 percent.


MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING COMMISSION ADOPTS NEW STATE LEGISLATIVE MAPS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Michigan’s redistricting commission approved new state legislative districts Tuesday that could shape the balance of political power in Lansing for years to come.

For the state Senate, the commission voted for its “Linden” map, with nine commissioners backing the new map. Two Republicans, two Democrats and five independent commissioners voted in favor of the plan. Republican commissioners Rhonda Lange and Erin Wagner and Democratic commissioners Brittni Kellom and Juanita Curry favored different plans.

For the state House, the commission voted for its “Hickory” map, with 11 commissioners supporting the plan. Lange and Wagner preferred different plans.

Commissioners who supported the new maps cited public comments that favored the final redistricting plans compared to the alternative options on the table. But even among the commissioners who backed the new districts, some expressed reservations, voicing particular concerns about the state House maps.

“Are they perfect? No, they’re not perfect,” said independent commissioner Steve Lett during a press conference after the commission adopted new congressional and state legislative districts. But the commission listened to public feedback throughout the process, and the end result reflects that, he said.

“We did the best job we could,” Republican commissioner Cynthia Orton agreed.

The state Senate map gives Democrats their best shot in years to win a majority in the state Legislature’s upper chamber.

It still favors Republicans, according to three out of the four measures of partisan fairness used by the commission based on election results from the past decade. A fourth measure indicates Democratic candidates would have an advantage under the new map.

The state House map similarly chips away at Republican advantage in the current map, but unlike the state Senate map it still favors Republicans, according to all four measures of partisan fairness used by the commission.

Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano said that it could take multiple election cycles to shake up political dynamics in the state.

A delayed redistricting cycle has truncated the timeline for candidates to campaign in the districts they plan to run in.

“The real test of these maps is when everyone knows what the borders are years ahead of time,” DiSano said.

The possibility of litigation might lead to further changes to the maps depending on how a court would weigh a challenge. The commission’s approach to complying with the Voting Rights Act – the federal law that prohibits racially discriminatory districts that deny minority voters an opportunity to elect their preferred candidates – has emerged as a key flashpoint.

Unlike the current map, there is no majority-Black district in the state Senate map adopted by the commission, while the state House map reduces the number of majority-Black districts in place today.

Current and former state lawmakers from Detroit and civil rights leaders are vehemently opposed to how the new district lines reduce the share of Black voters. They argue that the elimination of majority-Black districts disenfranchises Black voters. During a Tuesday press conference, they made a last-ditch effort to persuade the commission to adjust its maps before the final vote. That attempt failed when commissioners voted down a motion Tuesday to go back to the drawing board.

The commission’s voting rights lawyer has argued that the commission’s approach to mapping the city could increase Black voters’ representation by spreading them out across more districts. Commissioners expressed confidence Tuesday night after the votes that their maps can withstand a voting rights lawsuit against the group but noted they encountered some challenges predicting how Black-preferred candidates fare in the new districts based on past election data.

Michigan’s new state Senate map

The 38 state Senate districts adopted by the commission significantly reduce the Republican advantage compared to the GOP-drawn lines signed into law in 2011.

Republicans have held the majority in the chamber since 1984, a status the party maintained even after elections in which Democratic candidates won more votes statewide than Republican candidates.

The state Senate map adopted by the commission brings about major changes to the district lines currently in place. None of the districts in place today pair communities in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, but the commission’s map would combine parts of the tri-county area that are currently divided. The new map also pairs Bay City, Midland and Saginaw in the same district while the current lines separate the tri-cities into three districts.

But the map creates some new divides of its own. It splits Lansing from East Lansing and divides Democratic stronghold Ann Arbor in half.

The map appears to create 19 solidly Democratic districts, 16 solidly Republican districts, one Republican-leaning district and two toss-up districts, according to election results from the past decade.

Unlike the current map, there is no majority-Black district in the map adopted by the commission. The map includes several districts where the voting age population is at least 40% Black.

Michigan’s new state House map

Republicans have held a majority in the state House for the past decade, maintaining legislative control even when Democratic candidates amassed mores votes across the state than Republican candidates.

The new House map also reduces the number of majority-Black state House districts currently in place, a move that has concerned civil rights advocates in the state who worry the map threatens to diminish Black voters’ representation in Lansing.

The House map includes 17 districts where Black residents make up at least 35% of the voting age population, including 13 where they account for at least 40% of that population and seven where they constitute a majority. The current map in place has 11 majority-Black districts.

The new map appears to create 41 solidly Democratic districts, 46 solidly Republican districts, nine Democratic-leaning districts, two Republican-leaning districts and 12 toss-up districts.


SOME SCHOOLS EXPECTING VIRUS SURGE GO ONLINE, CANCEL CLASSES

THE OAKLAND PRESS — The continued rise in coronavirus cases across Michigan and an expected surge following Christmas and the New Year has extended the holiday break for some students.

Classes that had been scheduled to resume Monday in several districts have been cancelled or moved online.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District shut down school through at least Wednesday. Ann Arbor Public Schools in Washtenaw County will go to remote learning Wednesday through Friday.

Just north of Detroit, Oak Park Public Schools cancelled classes Monday and said learning would be held virtually through the rest of the week, while Southfield Public Schools shifted to online remote learning for the entire week.

The Lansing School District also shifted to virtual learning for the week. Teachers and staff in Lansing still will be required to report to their schools.

In Pontiac, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northwest of Detroit, public school classes will be online until Jan. 18.The moves follow the state’s reporting of more than 25,800 new virus cases and 338 deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Michigan has reported more than 1.5 million confirmed virus cases and more than 26,900 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Last week, Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti cited the city’s 36% virus infection rate in the district’s decision to shut down. Teachers, administrators and other employees of the district were being required to get tested for COVID-19 Monday and Tuesday.

“This high rate of infection will inevitably mean that a return to in-person learning on Monday, with nearly 8,000 employees and partners and nearly 50,000 students, will lead to extensive COVID spread placing employees, students, and families at risk, along with excessive staff shortages due to positive and close contact scenarios,” Vitti said on the district’s website.

The district is looking into the possibility of distributing laptops to students this week and expects to announce plans on Wednesday.

“We simply cannot go online districtwide Monday … because all of our students do not have laptops,” he said.

Ann Arbor schools anticipate a return to classrooms on Jan. 10 for students and staff.

“We are using all the tools we have implemented and refined during this past year to maintain the priority of critical in-school learning for our students across … classrooms on as many days as possible, even as we face this current winter surge,” the district said on its webpage.

Health officials have warned that new cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant has the potential to strain hospitals and staff.

In Michigan, the number of hospitalized adults with confirmed infections rose to roughly 3,900 Monday, up more than 240 from five days earlier, according to state health officials.

The figure had been dropping or holding steady for a couple of weeks from a record high of about 4,500 in mid-December.


HERE’S WHAT THE MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING PANEL DISCUSSED IN SECRET

BRIDGE MI — When the state’s redistricting panel met in secret this year, attorneys for the commission pleaded that the group didn’t need to keep current majority-minority districts or create new ones.

In the Oct. 27 closed-door meeting, which lasted about 90 minutes, the commission’s attorneys said reducing the percentage of Black voters in districts that have been predominantly Black would be in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

“Your unpacking work was significant and never happened in the almost 200-year history of this state,” Bruce Adelson, the commission’s voting rights attorney, said in a recording released late Monday following a lawsuit from Bridge Michigan and other news sites.

He was referring to the commission’s work to reverse “packing” — the hyper-concentration of minorities in districts in order to reduce their political power.

Read the memos

Adelson claimed the commission could increase the clout of people of color — and allow them to elect candidates of their choice — by putting them in districts with minority populations of less than 50 percent.

The recording of the secret meeting, along with seven memos kept in private, were released nine hours after the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the commission to make them public.

The arguments aired during the private meeting — and contents of the memos — are essentially the same as statements made in public by Adelson and other members of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

But the commission claimed they were protected by attorney-client privilege and releasing them would make it difficult for the panel to receive unfettered advice from their lawyers in a process fraught with the potential for litigation.

The court disagreed, 4-3, in a suit brought by Bridge, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Press Association against the panel, which was created by voters in 2018 to draw districts every 10 years and do so in a public, transparent fashion.

The high court said the redistricting panel violated the state Constitution when it met in private.

The panel’s 15 proposed state legislative and congressional maps have received significant pushback from Black voters in southeast Michigan and Flint, who have said the planned districts would disenfranchise them.

Currently, Michigan has 17 state legislative minority-majority districts, but under the proposed districts that number would be reduced to a handful.

Over the last few months, the commission has heard from hundreds of Michigan residents, and advocacy groups such as the union group Michigan AFL-CIO, who have said the maps would hurt Black voters.

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has also said the draft plans violated the Voting Rights Act.

But Adelson told commissioners that the information from those groups and the commission were “infused with either misinformation or lack of information.”

The panel’s general counsel, Julianne Pastula, agreed during the private meeting.

“You have advocacy people and I respect their passion, I respect their lived experience,” Pastula said. “But what they’re doing is advocating for the commission not to follow the law and it’s our job, as unpopular as it is, to try to keep you on track with the law and advise you as best we can.”

Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican, told the panel many of the people commenting on the majority-minority districts had an “agenda.”

“I think many of the — many, many, many of the comments that we heard, while they were saying that it was a (Voting Rights Act) issue, it’s a partisan issue,” Orton said. “And we need to be able to spot that and weed that out and not fall for that.”

Commission releases seven memos

Besides the recording of the closed-door meeting, the commission also released seven memos the panel had kept private.

Although they advance no new arguments, the memos give more insight into the advice given by the commission’s attorneys regarding a range of issues, including the Voting Rights Act, population deviations, and the renumbering of the new political districts.

One of the memos is a 30-page history of racism and segregation in Michigan.

In another memo, written by Adelson and discussed in the closed-door meeting, the attorney writes that the Voting Rights Act does not require the creation of any majority-minority districts, nor does it require any state to have a certain number of these districts.

“Instead, the Supreme Court states that the VRA only requires that a compact and politically cohesive minority group, for example, Black voters in Detroit, have the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice, NOT that these voters must live in majority Black districts,” Adelson wrote.

The panel is expected to start voting on the adoption of the new state House, state Senate and congressional maps on Dec. 28.


ELECTION OFFICIAL: WHITMER DID NOT BREAK LAW WITH BIG CAMPAIGN CHECKS, CHARTERED FLIGHT

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign did not violate state laws when it accepted contributions that would typically far exceed limits or when it paid for the governor to go on a chartered flight to see her father in Florida, state campaign finance officials ruled Tuesday.

The decisions clear the Whitmer’s campaign of formal wrongdoing on two hot-button political issues and are sure to enflame her GOP opponents.

“As with any complaint, the professional staff with Michigan’s Bureau of Elections conducted a thorough analysis that included a review of all relevant laws, policies and the facts presented, which resulted in the department concluding that there was no legal violation in either instance,” said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of State

However, the department determined Whitmer came close to violating state law on the flight. And it suggested the department “would like to revisit the decades-old policy regarding fundraising into a campaign committee during a recall effort.”

The recall campaign cash

Whitmer’s campaign received millions of dollars that would seemingly exceed state limits, but for a provision in state law that allows candidates facing a recall campaign to eschew this particular rule.

Critics argued the recall efforts were all but dormant and accused the governor of violating the spirit of the law. Whitmer’s campaign did not deny receiving donations beyond traditional campaign finance limits, bur rather said the recall efforts were active and therefore allowed for her to raise additional funds.

The department has never really dealt with this issue before, acknowledged Adam Fracassi of the state’s Bureau of Elections. He says that while the department does not feel confident issuing a violation against the Whitmer campaign, it could do so if other candidates decide to take similar action in the future.

“Although, when applying existing precedent, there was not a basis to find a violation with regard to the existing complaint, the recall exception as currently defined does create the potential for abuse by allowing otherwise-excess contributions to be used for what would otherwise amount to campaign advertising,” Fracassi wrote in a letter dismissing the complaint.

“Although the record in this complaint does not show that the (Whitmer) committee actually expended funds for that purpose, a future committee could.”

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative advocacy organization, filed the initial complaint about the recall contributions. In a statement, Executive Director Tori Sachs blasted the state department and accused Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson of inappropriately aiding the governor.

“Gretchen Whitmer made the biggest illegal campaign cash grab in Michigan history and Jocelyn Benson is laundering it for her so the millions in donations over the limit can be used for both of their re-election campaigns next year,” Sachs said.

“Benson is encouraging partisans to file recalls in order to game the system and raise unlimited campaign funds.”

The Florida flight

Earlier this year, Whitmer flew to Florida on a private jet to visit her father. She was widely criticized for the trip, as it came during a time when the state largely discouraged travel due to COVID-19 concerns. Payment for the flight was a chief question: initially, a nonprofit Whitmer controls paid for the flight, chartered with a private Republican donor who was not actually allowed to provide such flights under federal aviation laws.

Then in May, the Whitmer campaign announced that it would cover the costs of the flight. However, days later Whitmer herself reimbursed her campaign for that expense to the tune of more than $20,000, according to campaign finance records.

If she had not, she may have violated state campaign finance law, wrote Fracassi.

“If Governor Whitmer was not an elected official, she still would have traveled to Florida — but presumably not on a chartered flight. Because Governor Whitmer would have incurred the cost of domestic airline ticket even if she did not hold office, the cost of that ticket must be paid by Governor Whitmer personally — and Governor Whitmer bore that cost,” Fracassi wrote in a memo dated Tuesday.

“Had Governor Whitmer not reimbursed the committee for the fair market value of commercial plane tickets, or had done so in response to news coverage or a complaint, there may have been reason to believe that a potential violation of the (state law) had occurred. Further, had Governor Whitmer not promptly reimbursed the committee for the cost of the tickets upon learning of the expenditure, there may have been reason to believe that a potential violation of the (state law) had occurred.”

Coyle said there was a “miscommunication” about payment for the flight but it was resolved.

“This complaint was another attempt by a right-wing dark money group to mislead voters, and we’re glad to see the matter closed,” Coyle said.

“A miscommunication occurred with the flight company about the source of payment, and once we were made aware of the issue, it was immediately corrected and the flight was paid for in compliance with (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations and Michigan campaign finance law.”

Fracassi went on to determine the use of a chartered flight was allowed, due to ongoing concerns for Whitmer’s safety. The governor’s campaign team provided the bureau with more than a dozen media reports of threats to the governor, along with dozens of vile and offensive social media messages directed toward Whitmer.

“In this case, the department finds that Governor Whitmer’s stated concern for her safety and security is a direct result of her status as Governor, and that, particularly given the tenor and intensity of the threats included with Governor Whitmer’s response statement, travel via private chartered flight rather than by commercial airline is a response rationally related to those security concerns,” Fracassi wrote.


PETITION EFFORT AIMS TO PUSH MICHIGAN’S MINIMUM WAGE TO $15 AN HOUR

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan’s minimum wage would increase to $15 an hour by 2027 under a petition initiative submitted to Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office Tuesday.

The Raise the Wage Michigan Ballot Committee’s proposal would increase minimum wage in $1 increments over five years, starting at $11 in January 2023 and increasing to $15 by 2027.

The initiative also would require automatic adjustments for inflation every year after 2027.

It would end “sub-minimum wage” for tipped workers, for people younger than 20 or for people with disabilities. The sub-minimum wage would be phased out in steps until it reached parity with standard minimum wage Jan. 1, 2028.

“Every time we put this on the ballot in Michigan, every time we collect signatures, this is the most popular issue that exists in the state,” said Saru Jayaraman, One Fair Wage president and co-founder. “Everybody overwhelmingly agrees people deserve to be paid a fair living wage when they work.”

The group said the pandemic and ongoing battles with customers bucking COVID-19 mandates have driven many people away from minimum wage jobs. But a wage increase at the close of the pandemic could lure them back to those positions.

“The combination of having to enforce social distancing and mask rules on the very same customers from whom they had to get tips was the breaking point for thousands of restaurant workers,” Jayaraman said.

The group says it has about half a million dollars in contributions set aside to launch the initiative and is confident it can gather the 340,047 signatures needed to obtain certification.

“We’ve got access to this incredible base of underemployed workers who won’t go back to the industry until they get a livable wage,” Jayaraman said.

In 2018, organizers gathered enough signatures to put a similar minimum wage increase on the ballot. But the Republican-led Legislature instead adopted the proposal before it made it to the ballot and amended it to slow implementation.

The Legislature’s changes resulted in minimum wage increasing from $9.25 to $12.05 per hour by 2030, slowing the initial proposed increase to $12 by 2022. The minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers will rise to $4.58 by 2030 instead of $12 by 2024.

The Legislature’s so-called “adopt and amend” strategy is currently wrapped up in litigation, but attorney Mark Brewer said that regardless of the outcome of adopt and amend, it is unlikely to affect current efforts.

“They would have to get the governor’s signature on the bill to amend it and gut it,” Brewer said. “We do not believe the governor would be party to such a scheme to gut the minimum wage.”

The minimum wage petition joins an increasingly crowded initiative field, now one of seven petition initiatives seeking a place on the 2022 ballot or adoption by the Legislature. Other initiative petitions deal with prohibitions on public health orders, tightened voter ID rules, caps on short-term loan interest, tax-incentivized education scholarship programs, sentencing law changes, and a forensic audit of the 2020 election.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | HOSPITALIZATIONS DROP TO 4,105; 13,999 NEW CASES OVER THREE DAYS

BRIDGE MI — Michigan’s hospitals continue to discharge more COVID-19 patients than they are admitting.

The state reported on Monday that 4,105 patients are currently being treated, down 283 from Friday and nearly 700 below the peak hit a week ago of 4,782.

Hospitals in every region of the state are experiencing declines, with the hospitals in metro Detroit’s six counties treating 311 fewer patients than a week ago.

Infections also are down to 13,999 cases on Monday, or 4,666 a day for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

It’s the first time the daily average has been below 5,000 since it was 3,142 on Nov. 11.

But there were worrisome data points as well: Cases are rising markedly in Detroit.

The city has averaged 85 cases per 100,000 for the past week, up from 69 a week ago. Only two other counties — Gratiot and Ontonagon — also are experiencing increases. The statewide rate is 55 cases per 100,000 per day, down from 62 cases per day per 100,000 a week ago.

Detroit and Gratiot County also have some of the biggest jumps in the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive. Detroit, which has had one of the lowest rates in the state for months, has seen the rate rise from 8.5 percent to 11.5 percent. In Gratiot County in central Michigan it’s risen from 13.6 percent a week ago to 22.9 percent this past week.

The statewide rate of 16.2 percent over the past week, down from 17 percent a week ago.

The state reported an additional 160 COVID-19 deaths on Monday, and many occurred in November, which now stands as the third worst month from COVID-19 deaths, with 2,375. It is surpassed only by April 2020 (3,945) and December 2020 (3,640).


SUPREME COURT ORDERS REDISTRICTING PANEL TO RELEASE 7 MEMOS, MEETING RECORDING

DETROIT NEWS — The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Monday that Michigan’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission violated the state Constitution by meeting in closed session and keeping some legal memos from the public.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court ruled the commission is required to conduct all of its business at open meetings and should have published seven of 10 legal memos that constituted “supporting materials” for map drawing under the Michigan Constitution. The four justice majority ordered recordings of the meeting be released along with the seven legal memos.

The majority opinion, written by Republican-nominated justice David Viviano, was joined by Republican-nominated justices Brian Zahra and Elizabeth Clement and Democratic-nominated justice Richard Bernstein.

The suit was filed by The Detroit News, Bridge Michigan, the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Press Association earlier this month following an Oct. 27 closed session where commission members discussed two memos titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and Its Influence on Voting.”

In other circumstances, the communication from the commission’s experts and lawyers might be considered protected by attorney-client privilege were it not for the clear command of the constitution requiring the panel to “conduct all of its business at open meetings,” according to the high court’s ruling.

“Mere anticipation of likely litigation is not enough at this stage of the process to overcome the constitutional mandate that business be conducted in the open,” Viviano wrote. “Indeed, allowing the simple prospect of litigation to shield the commission’s discussions on how to make a map would threaten to swallow the open-meeting requirement altogether.”

News outlets hailed the decision as a win for transparency for all those involved in or observing the process.

The news organizations requested the documents and recordings after an Oct. 27 closed session where the commission discussed confidential legal memos with the titles “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and Its Influence on Voting.”

The more than hour-long meeting was held as Detroit area leaders raised concerns about efforts to “unpack” Metro Detroit majority-minority districts — an effort that resulted in smaller concentrations of minority voters and decreased chances that a minority candidate could make it through a primary election or win a general election.

The commission is nearing the end of its map-making process and is currently more than halfway through a 45-day public comment period ahead of a final vote on Dec. 28.

The media outlets filed suit over the release of the memos and recording of the meeting earlier this month, seeking expedited review of the case. The commission also asked for an expedited review since it felt “hamstrung” by the possibility that future legal memos and closed sessions could be made public down the road.

Viviano’s majority opinion argued, based on the titles of the memos, it is “beyond dispute” that the meeting and memos discussed Oct. 27 comprised “business.” The maps themselves and any contributing advice that shapes them are considered “legal products,” whose “content and construction is determined by law,” the justice wrote.

But Viviano noted there were limits to which memos comprised “business” and ultimately concluded three related to litigation did not constitute business.

“…concluding that ‘business’ encompasses all ongoing litigation would result in a radically uneven playing field in court,” Viviano wrote. “The litigants on the other side of the case would enjoy the ability to have confidential communications with their attorneys concerning the litigation, while the Commission would be forced to conduct its planning and strategizing in public.”

Clement dissented in part Monday, agreeing that the remaining three memos were not supporting material but arguing that they should have been released anyway because of “the commission’s obligation to conduct business at open meetings.”

Justices Elizabeth Welch, Bridget McCormack and Megan Cavanagh, all Democratic-nominated justices, dissented from the majority on the argument that the commission was guaranteed representation under the Constitution and attorney-client privilege was part of that guarantee. By deciding otherwise, “the majority put its own views above those of the voters,” who in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment creating the commission, said Welch, who wrote the dissent.

Welch called Monday’s decision a “Trojan horse” that would have unanticipated effects on a commission that has largely conducted its business in public. With Monday’s decision, the majority deprived the commission of attorney-client privilege enjoyed by “every other government entity, every legal entity, every person and indeed every other similar independent redistricting commission,” she wrote.

Welch also argued the decision left the commission with no guidance on how to handle confidential communication once it is sued.  “The Constitution guarantees the commission ‘legal representation,’ not legal representation without confidentiality or legal representation-lite,” Welch said.


ST. CLAIR SHORES MIDDLE SCHOOL STAFF MEMBER ARRESTED, ACCUSED OF LEAVING THREATENING NOTE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — A staff member at Jefferson Middle School  in St. Clair Shores was placed on administrative leave and arrested Friday after district officials said she placed inappropriate, hand-written notes, including a threat against the school, in teacher work areas.

The suspect, whose name is not being released pending charges, was discovered via school security camera footage, said Lakeview Public Schools Superintendent Karl Paulson, in a letter to families.

“One of the notes appeared to be an attempt at making a false threat in the hope of closing school,” Paulson wrote. “Based on the facts, information and timeline, the team was confident everyone was safe, and there was no need for initiating any lockdown or other safety protocols.”

This threat comes after the Nov. 30 Oxford High School shooting left four dead, seven injured, and a wave of copycat threats in its wake.

Paulson said he is “extremely” disappointed in the staff member.

The school district takes any “potential disruption” seriously, he said, and is cooperating with the police.

Although the investigation is still ongoing, Macomb County Prosecutor Peter Lucido told The Detroit News that he has questions about the staff member’s motives. The arraignment will likely be Monday, he said.

“This doesn’t reflect on all teachers; it’s only one teacher — but don’t we have enough problems in schools right now?” Lucido said.

Lucido told The Detroit News that there’s enough evidence to charge the suspect with several crimes.

“Of course, she’s innocent until proven guilty, and all of this will come out in court. But this doesn’t help with everything that’s been going on recently,” he said. “If you’ve got teachers making threats, how safe do you think the parents are going to think that school is?” The ripple of threats across the state has left students, families and school employees uneasy, but Paulson said they will continue to investigate any and all threats.

“Our schools stay safe when we work together,” he said. “Remember, see something — say something.”


MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY, U-M WILL REQUIRE COVID BOOSTER SHOTS

BRIDGE MI — Students, staff and faculty at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan will be required to get COVID-19 booster shots, beginning in January.

Several universities and colleges already require COVID vaccinations for those without approved religious or health-related exemptions. MSU was the first public university in the state to announce booster requirements, followed hours later by U-M.

The U-M booster requirement applies to the Ann Arbor campus, as well as UM-Dearborn and UM-Flint.

The MSU requirement affects about 70,000 people who are employed by the MSU or are enrolled in classes.

According to a letter sent Friday by MSU President Samuel Stanley, students, staff and faculty who have received their two-dose COVID vaccinations more than six months ago, or a one-dose regimen more than two months ago, are eligible for a booster and should arrange to get the jab before classes resume Jan. 10, after the holiday break.

“Those who fail to receive a booster when eligible will be considered noncompliant with MSU’s vaccine directives,” Stanley wrote. “You can find a vaccine booster near you by visiting our Together We Will website.”

MSU required proof of COVID vaccination for the current fall semester. About 91 percent of students are vaccinated, according to data collected by the university, with a similar rate at the University of Michigan. With many universities requiring vaccinations, COVID outbreaks that were common on campuses in the fall of 2020 were almost nonexistent this fall.

By November, MSU had terminated two employees and suspended 16 students for noncompliance with school COVID policies.

Some students, staff and faculty have approved exemptions. Those with current exemptions will continue to have exemptions to the booster requirement.

All students, staff and faculty will continue to be required to wear face coverings while inside campus buildings.

“CDC (The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) data suggests COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against Omicron and other variants and will be essential for continued in-person learning and operations,” Stanley wrote. “We know our COVID-19 directives are working to mitigate the spread of the virus, and this is an important next step.”

In a separate recent statement about the university’s pandemic response, Stanley said “I know the past 20 months have been difficult for so many of us, and I realize that we all wish this pandemic was behind us. But it’s not, and we will continue to make decisions based on our commitment to health and safety.”

Both universities referenced concerns about the omicron variant in their statements. U-M said the omicron variant “has been detected within the U-M community.”

In-person classes begin in Ann Arbor Jan. 5, and students, staff and faculty have until Feb. 4 to get the additional shot.

There will be heightened testing protocols for U-M students living on campus, and students will be expected to wear masks in common areas of residence halls regardless of vaccination status.

Winter commencement for graduating U-M students will continue as planned Dec. 19, with everyone required to wear masks.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered guidance Friday that K-12 students who have been exposed to the coronavirus from close contact with someone who has tested positive, but who have not tested positive themselves, can continue in-person learning if they are regularly tested for the virus at school.

That guidance does not immediately impact Michigan schools, which are following recommendations from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Quarantines of K-12 students who’ve had close contact with classmates who’ve tested positive have wreaked havoc in Michigan schools, which are trying to maintain in-person learning this school year.


COVID-19 TESTING FOR SHORT VISITS REINSTATED BY CANADA

DETROIT NEWS — Canadian authorities announced on Sunday that they will be reinstating the COVID-19 negative test requirement for all travelers leaving the country for less than 72 hours in response to the omicron variant.

That means anyone traveling and returning to Canada must have a negative COVID-19 test before entering the country. The rule goes back into effect on Tuesday, officials said.

Authorities had relaxed the rule last month and only required a negative test after more than 72 hours.

“As of December 21, the requirement for pre-arrival testing will be in place again for trips of all durations. It is important to note that this pre-arrival test MUST be taken in a country other than Canada,” the rule stated on the country’s government website.

Canada has begun to limit capacity at restaurants, bars, malls and retailers to 50% and limiting social gatherings inside restaurants to 10 people in an effort to stem the spread of the variant that is rapidly spreading since being detected in November.


MICHIGAN LAWMAKERS CREATE A PATHWAY FOR SCHOOL SUPPORT STAFF TO SUBSTITUTE TEACH

DETROIT FREE PRESS — School bus drivers and cafeteria workers soon could be in front of classrooms instead of behind steering wheels and serving counters.

Lawmakers passed a bill late Tuesday temporarily allowing school support staff to substitute teach even if they don’t have a single college credit.

The Republican-sponsored bill passed on near party lines. It’s unclear if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, will sign it into law. Her spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

If she signs, school staff members who want to substitute teach this school year need only a high school diploma or equivalency certificate. That’s a temporary reprieve from the requirement that substitute teachers have an associate degree, 60 college credits, or, in the case of career and technical courses, subject-matter expertise. Substitutes who are not school staff members would still have to meet those requirements.

Districts have long struggled to find enough substitute teachers, but the problem worsened during the pandemic when many teachers retired and those who remain are sometimes forced to quarantine because of coronavirus exposure.

The nationwide problem has forced temporary school closures and prompted pay hikes to attract substitutes. Before the pandemic, substitute teachers in Michigan were typically paid $80 to $85 a day but some districts are now offering much more.

Under the legislation, staff members who earn more than the daily substitute rate would be paid their normal hourly rate. Those who normally earn less than substitutes would receive the higher rate. The state Department of Education opposes the bill.

So do Democrats on the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, who expressed concerns that the change would diminish the quality of education and would exacerbate staffing shortages in other areas.

“It’s a staffing shell game. It also has no guarantee that the substitute will be teaching our kids the content that they’re there to learn,” Democratic Sen. Erika Geiss of Taylor said during a floor speech Tuesday evening.

“Staff members who are not educators are wonderful people,” said Geiss, a former teacher. “They are valued, hardworking members of our school communities, but for the most part, especially when we have a situation where a long-term substitute might be needed, they aren’t the ones who should be substitute teaching.”

Whitehall District Schools Superintendent Jerry McDowell said bus drivers could teach in between their morning and afternoon routes. His district serves 2,000 students north of Muskegon.

The Senate voted 23-13. Republicans Ed McBroom of Vulcan and Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City voted no along with most Democrats. Democrats Winnie Brinks of Grand Rapids, Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing, Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, and Sylvia Santana of Detroit crossed party lines to vote yes.

The House, which already approved a different version of the bill in July, had to vote again because of a technical change made last week in the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness. The House voted 55-48. Jewell Jones of Inkster was the only Democrat joining Republicans in voting yes.


MICHIGAN CONFIRMS MORE OMICRON COVID-19 CASES, COULD BECOME DOMINANT STRAIN BY JANUARY

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The omicron variant is quickly gaining ground in the U.S., health officials warned Wednesday, as two more confirmed cases of the coronavirus strain were identified in Michigan.

Although the strain is now estimated to make up only about 3% of coronavirus cases in the U.S., “early data suggests that omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At that level of growth, omicron could be the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. before the new year.

“My guess is that omicron will become the dominant variant in early January 2022,” said Dennis Cunningham, Henry Ford Health System’s medical director of infection control and prevention.

The omicron variant is quickly gaining ground in the U.S., health officials warned Wednesday, as two more confirmed cases of the coronavirus strain were identified in Michigan.

Although the strain is now estimated to make up only about 3% of coronavirus cases in the U.S., “early data suggests that omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At that level of growth, omicron could be the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. before the new year.

“My guess is that omicron will become the dominant variant in early January 2022,” said Dennis Cunningham, Henry Ford Health System’s medical director of infection control and prevention.

The Genesee County residents initially had tested positive for coronavirus Dec. 1 and Dec. 2. Their test samples underwent genetic sequencing and the county health department was notified they were infected with the omicron variant.

Both cases were associated with domestic travel and neither of the Genesee County residents was hospitalized. Health officials have conducted contact tracing and case investigation.

The rapid spread of the omicron variant, Walensky said, “means that it is vital for everyone to get vaccinated and boosted if they are eligible.

“Given the increase in transmissibility, this also means continuing to be vigilant about masking in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission. And as of now, this represents about 90% of all counties in the United States.”

All counties in Michigan already have high rates of transmission, according to the CDC, and the state remains among the worst coronavirus hot spots in the nation with a seven-day case rate of 502.2 per 100,000 people as of Tuesday afternoon.

Michigan hospital leaders are concerned about what a surge in omicron cases could mean as they’re already confronted with record high hospitalizations from COVID-19 and other diseases.

On Wednesday, 4,404 adults and children were hospitalized in Michigan with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to state health department data. About 86% of the intensive care beds statewide were full and 640 patients with COVID-19 were on ventilators.

“We are in a crisis. There’s no way around it. There’s no way to sugarcoat it,” said Bob Riney, chief operating officer and president of health care operations for Detroit-based Henry Ford. “On any given day, our emergency departments are either at capacity or close to it, and oftentimes serving as inpatient units because we don’t have any beds available in our standard inpatient units or our ICU.

“There are many sick people coming through the doors, and the majority of them are with COVID. Our worry, of course, is that as we gather for the holidays, and we’re all exhausted of all the protective measures … things could even get worse.”

The state reported 100 new coronavirus deaths Tuesday and Wednesday, and 230 additional deaths identified from a vital records review.

Although some early studies have suggested the omicron variant may lead to less severe illness than earlier strains of the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the president, said it’s too soon to draw any conclusions.

About 75% to 80% of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 are unvaccinated across Henry Ford’s hospitals, Munkarah said, and more than 85% of patients in the ICU and on ventilators are unvaccinated.

“This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said.

“People who are vaccinated are 30 times … more likely to survive COVID admission than … unvaccinated patients.

“So this means that vaccines will protect you from an infection, but even if you get the breakthrough infection, the outcomes are going to be much, much better and you are going to leave the hospital alive.”

Americans ages 16 and older are eligible for boosters if they got the second dose of a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.

Those who are unvaccinated are eight times more likely to be hospitalized from a COVID-19 infection and 14 times more likely to die from the virus compared with someone who’s vaccinated, said Jeff Zients, the White House Coronavirus Response Team coordinator.

“If you’re eligible for a booster shot, it’s critical that you go get a boost today,” he said. “Don’t wait. And please get your kids and yourself fully vaccinated if you haven’t already. It’s safe and effective, free and easy as the best way to protect yourself or loved ones and your communities this holiday season in winter.”

Dr. Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson, a Henry Ford critical care and emergency medicine physician, said health care workers are losing hope as the pandemic drags on, and the crisis deepens.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I think the majority of the patients that I’ve talked to you who are sick with COVID who did not get vaccinated have one regret and it’s not getting vaccinated.”


COPYCAT THREATS AFTER OXFORD SCHOOL SHOOTING LEAVE JUVENILES FACING DRASTIC CONSEQUENCES

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Weeks after shots rang through the hallways of Oxford High School, waves of anxiety are still ringing through school districts in metro Detroit and beyond.

Dozens of individuals, mostly juveniles, in the tri-county area have been issued charges in connection with copycat threats of violence toward schools. County prosecutors, seeking to make examples of these incidents as a means to end the madness, have levied charges ranging from threats of terrorism to disturbing the peace.

Children as young as 11 years old, regardless of their intentions, are now facing legal ramifications of their actions.

While the Michigan juvenile system’s philosophy is shaped around rehabilitation rather than punishment, children are still subjected to life-altering consequences that can drastically shape the course of their lives.

The message from authorities boils to four words: This isn’t a joke.

“Parents, please talk to your children,” said Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy during a news conference addressing the influx of copycat threats. “Let them know this is serious. Let them know even if they intend it to be a prank, it isn’t a joke.”

In the aftermath of the Oxford shooting that left four students dead, schools have been shaken with monitoring for threats and the subsequent disruption to learning. A Wyandotte student brandished an army knife in a bathroom fight, injuring an upperclassman, and a Southfield student was arrested after getting caught with a semi-automatic pistol in his pocket, to name few of many recent examples.

This introduction into the juvenile system can be devastating for children, said Robyn McCoy, a criminal defense attorney with decades of experience defending and advocating for juveniles.

“When they come into the system, it’s like a cry for help. It’s a cry for attention,” she said.

Thus far, 38 individuals have been charged by Worthy’s office for threats of violence, with two other cases still under review; in Macomb County, it’s reached 30 and Oakland County has issued charges in 17 cases. Juveniles as young as 11 have been hit with charges, and the majority of cases are still in preliminary stages.

Continued media coverage coupled with stress-riddled parents has led law enforcement officials to pursue every threat with equal fervor.

“There have been a ton of copycats, and we’re investigating every one, because we never want to take anything for granted,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, adding that they’ve investigated nearly 140 threats. “We’d rather check out 1,000 nothings than miss one real deal.”

This heightened scrutiny fixed on county officials makes it difficult to predict what consequences family court judges will assign to juveniles, which could include time in juvenile homes and rehabilitation programs.

“As their attorneys, what we’re trying to get across to them in the community is that the consequences are so devastating,” said Lynda McGhee, co-executive director of the Michigan Children’s Law Center. “That if you think this is funny, you’ve got to give this a second thought.”

Investigations of threats could result in recommendations for counseling or warnings, but due to the severity of the charges, McGhee said it may end with juveniles on probation or removed from their homes. Too many factors are at play to accurately predict what may be in store for juveniles.

Prosecutors have emphasized that the intention behind the threats or the ability to act on it, under state law, is not a viable defense.

In Muskegon County, nearly a three-hour, cross-state drive from Oakland County, 19 cases — all involving students, with one charged as an adult — have been pursued involving copycat threats, with five more under review.

“The message that we’ve been sending across the state is that no threat, regardless of whether the intent was a joke or prank, will be taken as such,” said Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson. “In other words, we are taking these things very seriously.”

Time away from home spent in juvenile centers leaves children jaded, McCoy said. It places a burden on their shoulders, a weight that children shouldn’t have to carry.

“These kids are having to deal with adult problems like worrying about where their next meal is coming from, worrying about where they’re going to live, if they get assaulted and molested, getting pregnant, getting beat up,” she said, listing the realities juveniles face.

Beyond rehabilitation programs and juvenile homes, having a record may pose an obstacle for juveniles even after they become adults, McGhee said. Michigan is one of few states to allow juvenile records to be public, and those records may be revisited if an individual commits an offense as an adult, or even affect their educational, career and housing opportunities.

“It follows you,” McGhee said. “This goes far beyond the school threat itself; it goes beyond getting a day out of class. Everything around (you) would be disrupted, and it’s not worth it.”

Advocates and experts agree that Michigan’s juvenile system is in disrepair. A ProPublica investigation uncovered flaws in the state’s decentralized system that poorly tracked data and lacked county oversight.

However, legislation approved by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer serves as a beacon of hope for juveniles in Michigan. The bills, which have yet to go into effect, aim to seal juvenile court records from public view and create a process to automatically expunge juvenile records for those who stay out of trouble.

Regardless of progress in juvenile justice on a policy level, the goal remains to keep kids out of the system to begin with, said McCoy.

“It starts with the parents, but the reality is, not everybody has parents,” she said. “We need to just give our kids a hug and wrap them because what they’re dealing with is insanity.”


NATIONAL POPULAR VOTE COMPACT WON’T MAKE MICHIGAN 2022 BALLOT

BRIDGE MI — A bipartisan group pushing to elect presidents based on the national popular vote is pulling the plug on plans for a 2022 ballot proposal in Michigan, organizers confirmed Thursday.

The “Yes on National Popular Vote” committee is halting immediate plans for a petition drive but isn’t giving up on the effort altogether.

“We will continue to educate the public, build our coalition, build support and work toward passing the National Popular Vote law in Michigan in 2024,” former state Republican Party Chair Saul Anuzis said in a statement.

“We will remain steadfast in our efforts to bring about this necessary reform that will apply the principle of ‘one person, one vote’ to our presidential elections.”

The group’s proposal sought voter authorization for Michigan to join an interstate compact that would upend — but not technically undo — the Electoral College system that has five times produced a president who got fewer votes than a competitor, most recently Republican Donald Trump in 2016.

The compact would only take effect if enough states pledged their Electoral College votes to ensure election of the candidate who received the most individual votes nationwide.

Fifteen states and Washington D.C. have joined the compact since 2006, and a successful 2022 ballot proposal would have made Michigan the 16th.

Anuzis and former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer announced plans for the initiative in September.

Legislative Republicans, however, made clear they would fight the initiative, arguing it would encourage presidential candidates to focus on higher-population states and stop campaigning in rural areas.

And the Michigan GOP’s state central committee this month voted to formally oppose the effort.

“The National Popular Vote campaign threatened to take away Michigan’s voice in choosing the leader of the free world, turning it over to liberal elitists and coastal cities in California and New York”, state Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser said Thursday in a statement.

“The road to the White House runs through Michigan and this is the first big victory of many for us coming into the 2022 cycle.”


MICHIGAN IDENTIFIES TWO MORE CASES OF OMICRON VARIANT OF COVID-19

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan’s health department has identified two more cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 in the state, bringing the total to three cases, officials said Wednesday.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had identified two additional omicron cases in Genesee County, said Lynn Sutfin, the health department’s spokeswoman. There were no other details immediately available about the cases.

Michigan’s first case of the omicron variant was detected last Thursday in a fully vaccinated Kent County resident more than a week after the variant was first reported in the United States on Dec. 1.

The west Michigan patient tested positive for COVID-19 on Dec. 3, and genomic sequencing confirmed it was the highly contagious omicron variant and was reported to the state, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Vaccine records indicate the Kent County adult was fully vaccinated but had not received a booster dose, according to the state health department’s release.

Michigan last week became at least the 22nd state to report the variant. Omicron was named and designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26, about two weeks after it was first detected in Botswana and South Africa.

“We are concerned, although not surprised, about the discovery of the omicron variant in Michigan,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement last week.

“We continue to urge Michiganders ages 5 and up to get vaccinated and continue participating in measures we know slow the spread of the virus by wearing well-fitting masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and testing for COVID-19. Vaccines are our best defense against the virus and how we can manage the spread of COVID-19.”

The detection of the new variant in Michigan came as the state is grappling with a spike in COVID-19 cases that’s testing the capacity of hospitals.

The surge in delta variant cases is still the most overwhelming factor that Michigan is facing. But public health experts have worried that the more contagious omicron could cause the state’s current surge in COVID cases to continue as it spreads.

Based on specimens collected last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said omicron accounted for about 3% of genetically-sequenced coronaviruses nationally. Percentages vary by region, with the highest – 13% – in the New York/New Jersey area. But Harvard experts said these are likely underestimates because omicron is moving so fast that surveillance attempts can’t keep up.

Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how well it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that early data suggests omicron is more transmissible than delta, with a doubling time of about two days.

In Britain, where omicron cases are doubling every two to three days, the variant is expected to soon replace delta as the dominant strain in the country.


HIGH WINDS TAKE OUT MICHIGAN POWER LINES, JUST DAYS AFTER CREWS FINISHED RESTORING THEM

DETROIT FREE PRESS — High winds are knocking out power lines — again.

As of about 8 a.m., high winds had knocked out power to more than 146,000 Michigan customers. About 139,000 were Consumers Energy’s customers with about 7,000 DTE Energy’s customers.

The National Weather Service has issued a wind advisory, calling for gusts up to 50 mph — which are knocking out power lines to tens of thousands of customers — until 4 p.m. Thursday.

The outages, however, are likely to last even longer.

At least, forecasters said Thursday, the weather is warmer than it normally would be, in the upper 50s.

But the outages will add to holiday frustrations, days after crews repaired lines.

Wind gusts up to 60 mph this past weekend took out power to about 200,000 customers.

The Lexus Velodrome, an indoor cycling racetrack, in Midtown Detroit collapsed Monday and its inflatable dome was severely damaged following a power outage and the failure of its backup generator.

Moreover, Michigan’s utilities also faced criticism this summer that it had been too slow to restore electricity, with the state attorney general calling on DTE to credit customers who had to deal with outages after severe weather.

Why are some car controls so hard to use? Blame Tesla, for starters

Consumers Energy began predicting outages as early as Wednesday, warning that gusts could exceed 65 mph, and likely would bring down wires, break poles and create other safety issues.

Restoration from last weekend’s storms was completed Monday afternoon, the company said.

“Personnel are getting sufficient rest while we are restocking our mobile storm units and essential materials,” it added. “The company is making other preparations to quickly respond to any service interruptions.”

DTE said Thursday that it anticipated “outages in Southeast Michigan,” and crews “are ready to act quickly and safely to restore power.” The utility added it would  “call in additional support as needed to speed this work.”

It also urged people to stay at least 20 feet from downed lines and assume they are live.


SCAMMERS TARGET DETROIT EVICTION HOTLINE, POSSIBLY HARMING RESIDENTS ALREADY AT RISK

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Scammers have targeted a hotline for Detroiters facing eviction or in need of housing resources, potentially harming residents in already dire situations and exposing serious security flaws in using toll-free hotlines for social service outreach.

For 48 hours, some callers seeking assistance through the 1-800 hotline advertised on a City of Detroit web page were instead routed to scammers attempting to get personal information under the guise of a survey for a chance to win a gift card.

Officials at Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, the hotline’s operator, do not know whether callers turned over personal information or money in the scam.The Detroit eviction hotline has been operated by Wayne Metro since the organization took over its operations from Lakeshore Legal Aid, a not-for-profit civil law firm, in March. The call center receives more than 1,000 calls a day on average.

Upon learning about calls to the hotline being intercepted, Wayne Metro shut down the line and rerouted calls. Call volumes remained consistent during the early November incident with more than 2,700 calls in 48 hours.

“Our purpose and mission is to alleviate the causes and conditions of poverty,” said Louis Piszker, CEO of Wayne Metro. “It’s hard to put into words what people are going through during this pandemic. The pandemic has really ravaged those that are most vulnerable in our community and our response is that our agency has more than tripled in the amount of staffing and resources that we have to make sure that we could support our most vulnerable through this pandemic.”

Attempts to understand how scammers were able to intercept calls are inconclusive. According to Wayne Metro, the hotline’s operator, 800.com, said the calls that were routed to scammers never reached their service, and Verizon — one of the carriers of callers being interrupted — said it was a localized issue, perhaps involving cell towers.

Multiple requests for comment from Verizon and 800.com were not answered.

“Since we are so far removed, and can’t even identify individual affected towers — because they don’t publish any information — it’s very hard to track down, but this is the first time I’ve heard of something like this,” said Victor Ratajczyk, Wayne Metro’s IT director, adding that the organization doesn’t have access to information involving cell towers used in calls to the hotline.

“There’s nothing at all that we could have done to prevent or mitigate it,” Ratajczyk said.

Since the incident, which is the first of its kind since Wayne Metro inherited the hotline, the organization has implemented heightened security measures and protocols.

Piszker described the incident as terrible. “It’s not the spirit of the season. It’s very Ebenezer Scrooge-ish,” he said. “At this time of year, especially with the holidays approaching, people in charitable organizations, we all need to be vigilant to take measures to protect our data and to make sure that people feel safe and comfortable approaching us for services.”

The holiday shopping season is a particularly busy time for scam artists, with consumer protection agencies issuing advisories regarding new scamming methods and tips on avoiding being targets. Those in vulnerable situations can be especially susceptible for scams, said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP Fraud Network Support.

“If you are in a situation of perhaps being evicted, unemployed, if you have just recently become a widow or a widower, those are certainly emotional situations that might have you thinking more emotionally than cognitively,” she said. “It has nothing to do with your intelligence, it all has to do with your environment, your emotions, and then the scam that’s pitched to you. So people really need to pay attention to the red flags.”

In Michigan, Attorney General Dana Nessel alerted Michiganders of a new phone scam Monday that employs public official impersonations. The caller identifies himself as a member of the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and says a Venmo payment between $1,500 and $2,000 will prevent the call recipient from being arrested.

In an effort to further warn residents of scams this season, Nessel is hosting 16 Days of Scams to educate Michiganders about how to stay safe. Scam tactics center on concerns of shoppers this season like package protections, in-store rebates and gift cards.

For tips on scam safety, visit the AG Office’s website here. Suspected fraud can be reported with the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Michigan Attorney General Consumer Protection Division.


OXFORD PARENTS PLEAD WITH SCHOOL BOARD TO MAKE SURE THEIR CHILDREN ARE SAFE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Brian Cooper sat quietly in the middle of Oxford Middle School’s common area, watching and listening to the school board discuss all it was doing in reaction to a shooting that killed four students two weeks earlier at the district’s high school.

Then, about 90 minutes in, it was his turn to talk. The parent of fourth graders, a seventh grader, a ninth grader and 10th grader in Oxford Community Schools urged the school board to be more transparent and to communicate better. He said the community needs to be involved in the response and any plans.

Then, as a light flashed to show his speaking time was up, he added one more piece of advice: “Don’t tell me I have to trust anyone. You have to earn my trust back.”

Cooper was among about 70 parents and community members to attend the meeting. It was the first public school board meeting since the Nov. 30 shooting.

The crowd, distanced out due to COVID-19 protocols, was quiet and somber. The meeting began with the board president reading the names of the four students killed.

Then the room was silent in their memory.

A few minutes before the meeting started, school officials, including Superintendent Tim Throne, faced the media for the first time since the shooting. Throne’s voice was quiet as he began.

“We have been shaken to our core.”

Parents were emotional in their comments to their board, pleading with members to regain the trust of the community. They asked the board to get life back to normal.

“Every day we live in fear, (the shooter) wins,” Anna Sommer, the parent of elementary and middle school students, said. “To live in fear is no way to live. Our children need to get back to their normal routines. That is how we remain Oxford strong.”

Another parent detailed the impact the shooting has had on his children.

Shane Gibson said his daughter asked him the other day as she got ready for school if she was going to die. “My heart absolutely broke,” said Gibson. “My daughter, my son, are going to live with this the rest of their lives.”

He also wondered about the future.

“What are we going to do to make sure there’s not another loss — the loss of their education?”

Several other parents pointed out how the school has cracked down on students not wearing masks, in contrast to what they believe was not acting swiftly enough to stop a troubled teen from killing.

The board didn’t respond to any of the comments.

Earlier in the meeting, the board approved starting a process to hire a third-party firm to review the school’s actions before and after the shooting. They also detailed security plans, including having students carry clear backpacks and not allowing locker use.

Throne did not speak Tuesday night to details of what happened inside the high school that day, but did announce classes won’t reopen as soon as school officials had hoped.

In a meeting earlier Tuesday at the high school, officials decided they likely wouldn’t be able to meet an internal goal of reopening the high school when students are slated to come off the holiday break early in January.

The high school has been closed since the shooting that killed four students and wounded six others and a teacher. School officials had described the scene inside the school as a “war zone.”

“Our main focus, besides sharing in this grieving process, has been on reopening of our schools,” Throne said.

Throne also said the school district has been working to turn over all files and information to police and prosecutors.

He didn’t answer a question about why the teen charged in the shootings, Ethan Crumbley, was permitted to return to class after teachers reported troubling behavior and a meeting was held with his parents.

Tuesday night was also the first time the board had met since the family of 17-year-old Riley Franz filed a lawsuit in federal and state courts against the district, alleging that district officials could have done more to prevent the attack.

Teachers spotted Crumbley viewing images of ammunition on his cellphone and spotted a gruesome drawing depicting gun violence, according to prosecutors.

Counselors spoke to Crumbley the day before and the day of the shootings. School officials have said very little publicly about the rationale behind returning him to class. His parents resisted taking him away from school the day of the shootings, prosecutors said.

Throne has said that Crumbley did not have a disciplinary record and counselors did not believe he posed a risk to himself or others when they released him.


WIND WARNINGS ACROSS MICHIGAN FOR WEDNESDAY NIGHT, ALONG WITH RECORD WARMTH

DETROIT NEWS — High wind and storm warnings go into effect Wednesday night for west Michigan, as a system builds across the state.

Record high temperatures are possible late Wednesday and early Thursday, before they take a plunge in a return to normal.

“We expect some gusts over 60 mph late tonight, mostly along Lake Michigan, but with some isolated gusts that strong possible inland on Thursday morning,” the National Weather Service says. “Impacts are expected to be similar to the last wind event with numerous power outages, but this time concentrated further north, from Muskegon to Big Rapids and north of there.”

Power outages for hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents from a storm system Friday night and Saturday for some lasted nearly three days.

A high wind warning will be in effect for Benzie, Grand Traverse, Manistee Mason, Lake, Leelanau, Osceola, Clare, Oceana, Newaygo, Mecosta, Muskegon, Ottawa and Wexford counties in west and northern Michigan, including the cities of Ludington, Baldwin, Reed City, Clare, Hart, Fremont, Big Rapids, Muskegon, Grand Haven, Traverse City and Jenison, from 7 p.m. Wednesday until 4 p.m. Thursday.

Southwest winds 25-35 mph with gusts up to 60 mph are expected.

A similar warning is in effect for northern and eastern areas starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday until 4 p.m. Thursday. Those areas include the cities of Petoskey, Cheboygan, Rogers City, Mancelona, Gaylord, Atlanta, Alpena, Kalkaska, Grayling, Mio, Harrisville, Lake City, Houghton Lake, Paradise, Sault Ste. Marie, Brimley, Kinross, Sugar Island, Detour Village, Goetzville, Drummond Island, St. Ignace, Brevort, Les Cheneaux Islands, Mackinac Island, St. James and Charlevoix.

A storm warning is in effect from 7 p.m. Wednesday through 10 a.m. Thursday all along the state’s Lake Michigan coastline, with southwest winds 25 to 35 knots and gusts up to 55 knots and waves 10 to 15 feet possible, according to the weather service.

A gale warning is in effect from Wednesday night through Thursday for Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay and for Lake St Clair and for the Michigan waters of Lake Erie from the Detroit River to North Cape. Maximum winds are expected around 8 a.m. Thursday with the largest waves, up to 4 feet, expected around 9 a.m., the weather service says.

For southeast Michigan, a wind advisory is in effect from 10 p.m. Wednesday until 4 p.m. Thursday with southwest winds 15 to 25 mph with gusts up to 50 mph expected for areas including the cities of Midland, Bay City, Bad Axe, Saginaw, Caro, Sandusky, Owosso, Flint, Lapeer, Port Huron, Howell, Pontiac, Warren, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Adrian and Monroe.

A window of warmth will accompany the wind until the front passes.

The weather service says southeast Michigan will be “noticeably warmer Wednesday afternoon as highs climb into the mid-upper 50s or about 20 degrees above climatological normals.” Those temperatures will persist into early Thursday, when the high could approach 60 degrees.

Normal temperatures for the Detroit-Flint-Saginaw area for mid-December are around 35 degrees. A record high of 61 for Detroit on Dec. 15 was set in 1933, and of 60 degrees in both Flint and Saginaw in 1971. Records for Dec. 16 were set in 1984 for all three cities: 65 in Detroit, 62 in Flint and 60 in Saginaw.

Similar records hold for west Michigan.

With temperatures plunging during the day Thursday and a return to more typical December weather on Friday, the weather service says the forecast hints “at an opportunity for some late-day accumulating snow north of Metro Detroit, and into the overnight hours.” Light accumulations also are possible later Saturday in west Michigan.


ON EVE OF COURT CASE, MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING PANEL SAYS IT HAS RIGHT TO SECRECY

BRIDGE MI — Attorneys for Michigan’s redistricting panel argued in a court filing Monday that the group has a right to keep legal advice private because it falls under attorney-client privilege.

Attorneys for the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission argued in a state Supreme Court brief that releasing documents discussed in private “would negatively impact” the commission’s ability to receive legal advice.

“More plainly stated, the ability of the commission’s legal team to provide full, frank, and candid legal advice, consistent with their ethical obligations, is under direct threat, as is the commission’s right to receive that advice,” the filing said.

The filing was in response to a lawsuit filed last week by Bridge Michigan, The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Michigan Press Association over the release of two memos used by the commission to draw legislative and congressional maps.

Oral arguments before the Michigan Supreme Court are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

The memos, titled “Voting Rights Act” and “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting,” were used by the commission to help draw proposed districts, at least one commissioner acknowledged recently.

For much of the fall, issues about minority representation have dominated debate among the commission, which must abide by the federal Voting Rights Act, which guarantees minorities can elect candidates of their choosing.

The commission’s voting rights attorney and other experts hired by the panel have suggested the panel decreases the number of minority-majority districts in southeast Michigan, prompting a backlash from African-American voters and leaders.

The 13-member commission is expected to approve the maps at month’s end. The districts last 10 years and set boundaries for the state House and Senate and Michigan’s congressional delegation.

The commission was created in 2018 after 61 percent of Michigan voters supported a constitutional amendment that was meant to create a more fair and transparent process.

Until this year, the party in power in the Michigan Legislature drew the maps in secret, and created some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country.

The lawsuit by Bridge and other news outlets claim the redistricting commission is violating the Michigan Constitution, which states that all of the commission’s business shall be made public.

The constitution also states the panel “shall publish the proposed redistricting plans and any data and supporting materials used to develop the plans.”

But attorneys for the commission said that the constitutional requirement that all business shall be conducted in public “does not abrogate the commission’s ability to invoke the attorney-client privilege or prevent the commission from receiving confidential legal advice during the map-making process.”

The attorneys also claimed the commission needs to be able to communicate confidentially with its lawyers in order to fulfill its constitutional mandate.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | 16,143 CASES, 160 DEATHS; CASES, ILLNESSES MAY BE STABILIZING

BRIDGE MI — Michigan reported 16,143 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, or 5,381 over each of the past three days.

That lowered the daily average over the past seven days to 6,187 cases from 6,251 on Friday and 7,284 a week ago.

Statewide, case rates are declining in all but six of Michigan’s 83 counties.

Even so, case rates have ebbed and flowed a few times in the past month amid Michigan’s fall surge. On Nov. 24, the daily average rose to 7,427 on Nov. 24 before falling to 5,980 on Dec. 1, then spiking to 7,366 on Dec. 6.

The rate of hospitalizations also appears to be slowing, as Michigan added 21 COVID-19 patients since Friday to 4,782. For much of the past month, the state was adding more than 300 patients a week.

The percent of positive tests, meanwhile, fell to 16.7 percent over the past week from 19.5 percent a week ago.  Michigan also reported 160 deaths from the virus on Monday.


MORE THAN 10K SIGN PETITION PUSHING FOR OAKLAND COUNTY SCHOOLS TO GO VIRTUAL AMID INCREASE IN THREATS

CBS DETROIT — A petition started by a group of Oakland County students is calling for an end to in-person learning and a switch to virtual learning for the rest of the semester due to an increase in copycat school threats.

The petition on Change.org has garnered more than 10,000 signatures as of Monday evening in wake of the deadly shooting at Oxford High School.

Students cite the increasing threats that have already canceled classes at several schools over the last few weeks and the toll it’s taking on their mental health.

The petition also calls for district administrators to release “detailed and concrete plans or keeping students safe in district buildings prior to the return to in-person school.”

Days following the Nov. 30 shooting that killed four students and injured six others and a teacher, multiple schools in Michigan have closed down due to the flood of threats.

On Monday, West Bloomfield students were sent home from school after a threatening social media post led to a heavy presence of police officers patrolling the schools.

The district announced the closure of the schools in an email, in which they said they could not “confirm or deny the credibility of the threat.”

Last week, the Plymouth-Canton Educational Park was on lockdown as authorities investigate a “potential threat.”

Wayne County officials say more than 20 students have been charged in connection with school threats or bringing a weapon to school. Officials in Oakland and Macomb counties have also arrested students — from elementary to high school — in relation to threats.

“Much has been written about these types of cases lately yet still these serious events continue to happen,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said last week. “Quelling school threats is going to take the work of all of us. It is also going to take facing head on the access our children have for guns and their fascination with them.”

Meanwhile, students at Oxford High School stepped back into the building Monday for the first time since the shooting. Oxford Community Schools district is allowing the students to pick up their belongings this week that were left when the shooting happened.

Students in kindergarten through eighth grade returned to the classroom Friday.

The school district announced a “soft reopening” to return students and staff back to school following the shooting.

School officials said extra security and therapy dogs will be on-site through the end of the fall semester.

Oxford High School will remain closed until at least January.


WEST BLOOMFIELD SCHOOLS GO VIRTUAL AFTER THREAT; SUSPECT APPREHENDED

DETROIT NEWS — West Bloomfield Schools will move to online learning through Friday following a Monday morning social media threat against the district, school officials said in an email to parents.

The suspect behind the threat was apprehended by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department in conjunction with the West Bloomfield Police Department, West Bloomfield Schools Superintendent Gerald Hill said in an email.

The district had contacted West Bloomfield police Monday morning when it was alerted of the social media threat. Some students were already in school while others were on their way, Hill said.

The police department in a morning post to its Facebook page noted detectives were actively investigating the threat and that the department had assigned extra patrols to West Bloomfield Schools “in an abundance of caution.”

Parents and families of students were notified before 9 a.m. that the district was on lockdown due to threats, and they received notification around 9:45 a.m. to pick up students from school.

Teachers will be in contact with parents with further directions, Hill said, adding that the students would be engaged in synchronous learning for the remainder of the week.

“This means that students will be online, learning with their teachers all day, every day,” said Hill. “Students will follow their normal school day, zooming into each of their classes.”

Parents of children who do not have a computer at home can pick up a device between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, at ACS, located at 6810 Commerce Rd. in West Bloomfield. They can call (248) 865-6489 upon arrival.  Extracurricular activities and after-school activities will still take place for the remainder of the week, Hill added.

Along with the West Bloomfield School district anonymous chat tool, the following resources are available for children or parents who need support:

  • Common Ground for community members in crisis. Call or text “Hello” to 1 (800) 231-1127 to talk with a crisis counselor.
  • Oakland County Crisis/Suicide Line. 1-800-231-1127
  • OK2SAY. Students are encouraged to talk to a trusted adult if they see or hear something that doesn’t seem right. They can also report information anonymously using OK2SAY. Call 855-565-2729; text 652729; or email OK2SAY@mi.gov. For emergencies, dial 911.

CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | MICHIGAN PASSES 25,000 COVID-19 DEATHS

BRIDGE MI — More than 25,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in Michigan since the pandemic began. With 235 deaths reported Friday, the state’s confirmed COVID death toll stands at 25,080.

As the year closes, the death count for 2021 is approaching the first year of the pandemic. There are now 12,039 COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to 13,033 in 2020 (though the virus didn’t hit Michigan until March, 2020).

The latest surge of cases has proven to be the most deadly this year, with over 4,700 people dying since Sept. 1. Just over 4,000 died during the late winter-spring surge.

Nationally, Michigan ranks No. 10 in total COVID-19 deaths, both confirmed and suspected, with 26,914. It ranks 16th in the number of deaths per 100,000 people. The state has the 10th most people among states.

Related: As COVID-19 surges in Michigan, no new restrictions planned by state

The death toll is likely to rise, with the state reporting Friday that 4,761 patients are being treated in Michigan hospitals for confirmed or suspected COVID-19, extending the peak COVID-19 hospital census that has the state asking the federal government for 200 more ventilators to treat patients.

There was some hopeful news Friday. COVID case counts were down again, with the state reporting 11,783 new cases, or 5,892 a day. That puts the seven-day rate at 6,251 daily cases, a significant drop from the 7,167 case average a week ago.

And the state reported that 15.6 percent of new coronavirus tests came back positive, the lowest since it was 14.7 percent on Nov. 5. T

DETROIT NEWS — Consumers Energy and DTE crews are making progress in restoring power in Michigan, but more than 200,000 customers remain without power Saturday evening after wind gusts of 60 mph or more tore through the state.

Severe weather started hitting West Michigan and the lakeshore Saturday morning and swept through mid-Michigan Saturday afternoon, felling trees, limbs and power lines.

At 4 p.m. 244,055 Michigan customers were without power but by 6:30 p.m. that number had been lowered to 212,599.

Consumers Energy reported 2,303 customers without power at 12:45 a.m., and DTE reported 85,117.

Dave Guerney, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in White Lake Township, said a high wind warning is in effect until 8 p.m. tonight due to a cold front moving in and causing wind gusts.

Gusts of 60 mph and higher were reported in several locations Saturday.

Temperatures will continue to fall throughout the day, dropping to about 40 degrees by early evening, Guerney.

At 12:45 a.m. Sunday DTE said it had 247 crews in the field and Consumers Energy said it had 255 crews working to restore power.

“Our crews in the field are seeing significant damage with trees snapped and lines down across our service territory,”  Melissa Gleespen, Consumers Energy’s Officer in Charge for the storm event, said in a press release. “We thank customers for their patience as we wait for the winds to die down so crews can safely restore power.”

The strong winds made access to pole tops and power lines dangerous from bucket trucks, Consumers Energy said. A majority of affected customers are expected to be restored by the end of the day Monday.

DTE said severe wind gusts of up to 65 mph caused extensive damage, including 700 downed wires, broken poles and tree-related damage.

DTE crews are assessing damage and working to provide restoration estimates, which will be available on the DTE Energy Outage Map throughout the day.

In Dearborn, high winds toppled a huge tree in the 7300 block of Coleman Street. The trees’ roots lifted up the sidewalk, and the trunk and limbs blocked the street but somehow missed neighboring houses.

In Pontiac, which had wind gusts of 53 mph, the awning over the Phoenix Center was ripped to shreds. Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman said traffic in the area was  rerouted as a  precaution.

Waterman said the damage shows the need for the city to make needed improvements to the Phoenix Center, which was built in the 1980s.

“This brings to our mind again that we have to do the repairs and the refurbishing of the Phoenix Center like we planned to do all along. This of course is unfortunate and unexpected but right now we just want to alert people to the safety measures,” Waterman said.

The city of Warren pushed back its Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony, which was scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Saturday, to 4:20 p.m. Sunday due to numerous power outages.

Traffic lights were out in many areas, including at the Lincoln and 11 Mile intersections along Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak.

DTE customers should report outages or down power lines online at outage.dteenergy.com or with the DTE Energy Mobile app, or by calling 800-477-4747.

Consumers Energy customers can report an outage and check the status of an outage by visiting www.ConsumersEnergy.com/OutageCenter.

Customers can also sign up to get outage alerts and restoration times sent to a phone, email or text message, Text ‘REG’ to 232273 or visit www.ConsumersEnergy.com/alerts.


MDOT WANTS TO TRANSFORM DETROIT’S ‘CRAMPED’ AMTRAK STATION INTO $57M HUB WITH RETAIL, MORE

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Rail passengers traveling into and out of Detroit via Amtrak could see a new train station rise in the city’s New Center area in coming years.

The Biden administration has announced a $10 million grant — money not connected to the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill — to help fund the Michigan Department of Transportation’s longtime goal of building a new train station. The aim is a station that would not only provide a more fitting gateway to the Motor City for rail passengers but one that would also bring other modes of transportation, including buses operated by Greyhound and Indian Trails, taxi and ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber, as well as bike-sharing, into a centralized hub just west of Woodward Avenue.

The Detroit New Center Intermodal Facility would be built at the current train station location on Baltimore Street and add a new, enclosed intercity bus station to replace the one about 3 miles away on Howard Street near the Lodge Freeway. Access to more transportation options is considered key for the New Center neighborhood, where, according to MDOT, one in three households does not have access to a car.

The federal grant money will not pay for the whole project, so the state will still need to provide the rest of the approximately $57 million total estimated price tag, with gas tax revenue and registration fees a possible source.

“We’re hoping our (almost) $60 million will be the seed money for a lot of other stuff,” said Jim Schultz, the project manager for MDOT.

Schultz described his hope the development would also include restaurants and shops, even a model railroad exhibit. He said the state has talked with the Detroit Historical Museum about the possibility of opening an annex there.

He has been eyeing transit-related developments in other cities that go beyond just functional buildings.

“We just need to dream. There’s other places building fantastic architecture. That’s what we need to do,” Schultz said, noting that the state is open to partnering with local officials on design.

Currently, Schultz said the goal is to have a request for proposal to build the center issued in 2023 with an opening date in 2025.

Rail advocates say it’ll be well worth the investment and is a much-needed upgrade.

“The (train) station is pretty cramped. The platform is real narrow,” said John Guidinger, chair of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers, who noted the current Detroit station platform, which MDOT would like to widen from 5 to 12 feet, can’t currently accommodate baggage carts. “The whole thing needs to be re-laid out … to make it more user-friendly. This is the start of that.”

Current platform limits also force the trains to stop twice, so all passengers can board or exit, according to MDOT, adding time to each trip for a service that is already challenged with delays, often caused by the way freight and passenger rail must share track.

The station has an elevator, but it’s too slow to move passengers efficiently from the 1,696-square-foot waiting room on the main floor to the upper-level platform for boarding, so most have to haul their luggage up a stairwell to catch a train or down after they arrive at the station. Neither the current train nor bus stations comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, according to MDOT.

“Customer amenities are limited to seats, a ticket window and a bathroom. The nearest food option is a White Castle store across busy Woodward Avenue. Passengers board out in the open, exposed to Michigan’s weather. The platform narrows at key junctures, a hazard for everyone, but particularly those who use wheelchairs,” according to a description of the train station from MDOT’s grant paperwork.

For comparison of what Detroit lacks, one only needs to look to Dearborn. That’s where the $28.2 million John D. Dingell Transit Center, farther west on the same route, opened in 2014. The 16,000-square-foot center dwarfs Detroit’s station at 3,500 square feet. Nearby dining options to the Dearborn site include a Tim Hortons and Ford’s Garage.

The difference in scale might not be surprising. The Detroit train station was never meant to be permanent.

“The current Detroit Amtrak rail station was built as a temporary facility in 1992 and opened for service on May 5, 1994; 30 years later, this facility meets neither customer expectations nor operational requirements,” MDOT spokesman Michael Frezell said.

The station is on Amtrak’s 15-stop Wolverine route, which connects Pontiac to Chicago via cities including Troy, Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo. According to MDOT, the three-decade-old train station served more than 72,000 passengers in 2019; Greyhound averaged more than 39,000 passengers that year from the Howard Street station, which MDOT bought in 1989.

The pitch for the new station doesn’t just rest with boosting amenities for rail passengers, however. Space for mixed-use development, including retail, would be envisioned in an area with access to QLINE stops, local DDOT and SMART bus service, and more parking close to key institutions including the Detroit Institute of Arts, TechTown and Wayne State University.

MDOT would also sell off the almost 30-year-old Greyhound station on Howard Street — the department pegs the value of the property at $3.3 million — and move those buses to an enclosed 12-berth building on the opposite side of the railroad tracks, connecting the train and bus stations by tunnel. MDOT had previously planned to relocate buses from Howard Street to the existing Amtrak station but abandoned that effort in 2019 when it determined the available space was insufficient. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist described the connections that a true intermodal station, one that connects multiple modes of transportation, could mean for the city.

“This is going to be a hub for innovation when it comes to better connecting our communities and our people. I can’t wait to see the connections and relationships that are built because we have this center of excellence, frankly, here in the heart of the city. I’m excited about what that means and what the professionals and innovators are going to be able to deliver for transit users and for people who are doing business in that part of the city,” Gilchrist said in a recent interview for an MDOT podcast.

In an interview with Fox 2 Detroit (WJBK-TV), Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the United States would “always” be a car country, but “you shouldn’t have to take 2 tons of metal with you anywhere that you need to go.”

Funding the Detroit project means more options for travelers, he said.

“This means you could take a bus and then a train and connect directly, which means that from any number of destinations really around Michigan that serve Detroit by bus, that’s just a two-seat ride — one on the bus and then one on the train to get to just about anywhere else in the country. That helps people get to where they need to be. It creates options and alternatives, and that’s good for economic growth, too,” he said.


INTERFAITH COMMUNITY LEADERS REACH OUT TO MOSQUE AFTER VANDALISM

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Interfaith communities across southeast Michigan expressed their sympathies following vandalism to a Rochester Hills mosque.

A window in the front doors of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Mosque, located at 1730 West Auburn Road in Rochester Hills, was shattered after evening prayers around 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8.

Muhammad Ahmad, director of outreach at Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Michigan, said broken glass was found inside and outside the mosque.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s department is investigating. Deputies said surveillance video showed a male near the mosque around the time of the incident. A similar incident occurred that same evening at a nearby Walgreen’s. It is unknown whether the incidents are related.

“Our community is a very peaceful community,” Ahmad said Monday. “We have a relationship with all of our interfaith leaders, as well as our community leaders. We have not seen an incident like this in the past 20 years, since we’ve been here in this community.”

Ahmad said the evening prayer was the last of five that day. His 8-year-old son was among children and adults present when the window was broken. When the night concluded, everyone left through a side door.

It wasn’t until members showed up around 5:15 a.m. Saturday that the damage was realized.

“It’s kind of a bit rattling that we were still there when the incident happened,” he said.

On Monday, Oct. 11, the mosque’s members extended an open invitation for the suspect to meet with the community and its members. Ahmad said the group wants to talk, and that doors remain always open for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

“We believe in forgiveness,” he said. “We don’t want revenge or to harbor any negative feelings.”

Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, said the incident seemed isolated.

“We have a great relationship with the folks there and want to make sure they feel safe and secure and are an important part of our community,” he said.

Messages of resilience

Messages of support have poured in from neighboring communities.

Lynne Muth, Faith in Justice chair of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, said she read the news with sadness.

“You and your leadership and members work hard to build bridges in southeast Michigan,” Muth wrote to Ahmad. “I want to share my sadness and prayers of hope that love and goodness will conquer hate. May you feel the love and hope from others at this time.”

Patty Rehfus, board president of the Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, said she was grateful nobody was injured and that her congregation stands in solidarity.

Carol Cooper, of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, said she is praying that the Muslim community will not live in fear and that they feel the prayers and support.

“I hope that whoever did this will not be able to rest until they come forward and confess and that the police may find clues so that justice can be served,” Cooper said.


NO CLASSES AT WALLED LAKE CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOL WEDNESDAY AFTER FALSE REPORT OF SHOTS FIRED

WDIV-TV (DETROIT) — Walled Lake Central High School is closed for the day on Wednesday after going into lockdown Tuesday over a false report of shots fired.

District Superintendent Kenneth Gutman announced Tuesday that the high school in Commerce Township would be closed Wednesday, Dec. 8, “to allow our students, staff, and their families time to process today’s events.” The announcement came after law enforcement cleared the scene at the high school following a 911 report of shots fired Tuesday morning.

According to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, a 911 call was made at 8:31 a.m. Tuesday of shots fired at the school. Following several searches, police said they found that no shots were fired, there were no injuries and there was no threat. School was still dismissed early on Tuesday.

“… at no time were any students or staff in any danger, and those within the building did an exemplary job of putting their training into motion,” Gutman wrote Tuesday. “Following the sweep of the building and subsequent dismissal, students were reunited with their families. Please accept my sincere appreciation for everyone involved with this process.”

The school will resume in-person classes on Thursday, Dec. 9. Officials say social and emotional support services will be available to students in need.

Police said Tuesday that they were investigating the source of the 911 call. No update on the investigation has been provided yet.


BLOODY DRAWINGS, A CRY FOR HELP AND OXFORD’S CHOICE BEFORE SCHOOL SHOOTING

BRIDGE MI — In the eyes of Oxford Community Schools, it was a judgment call.

Fifteen-year-old Ethan Crumbley had been scrolling online for ammunition at school, drew a disturbing picture of a gun, a bullet and someone bleeding, and wrote that his “thoughts won’t stop, help me,” and “the world is dead.”

But the teen also had no history of disciplinary issues at school and appeared “calm” when he met with school counselors, according to a letter released Saturday by the Oxford superintendent.

When Crumbley’s parents, who had been called to the school for an emergency meeting, refused to take their son home, counselors made a decision, apparently on their own: they sent the sophomore back to class.

Hours later, three students — Hana St. Juliana, 14, Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Tate Myre, 16 — were dead and eight injured in a shooting spree. One of those injured, Justin Shilling, 17, died the next day.

That meeting and its tragic aftermath illustrate the push-pull faced by school officials, who must weigh potential security threats facing students and staff against a concerted trend in public education to be more thoughtful about when to remove students from school grounds.

Education and law-enforcement experts interviewed by Bridge Michigan say Oxford High officials had the legal right to remove Crumbley from the school based on the graphic violence in the note found by one teacher and his online search for ammunition noticed by another. But the district’s discipline policy also emphasizes that administrators are to consider expulsion or suspension as a last resort.

While Oxford’s code of conduct allows officials to search student property and make “snap suspensions” to remove students when necessary, experts and former school leaders differed on whether Oxford had enough evidence at the time to credibly suspect that Crumbley posed a danger worthy of removal from school.

Crumbley is accused in the deadliest school shooting spree in the U.S. since 2018. He and his parents have been charged with felonies; the teen with murder, and the parents with involuntary manslaughter for, among other things, failing to notify officials their son had a gun.

The school’s actions in the days and hours leading to the rampage raised questions about school officials’ judgment in returning him to class, rather than searching his backpack or locker, calling police or sending him home.

Oxford Community Schools said over the weekend that it would seek a third-party investigation of the school’s handling of the case, saying “our community and our families deserve a full, transparent accounting of what occurred.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel said the district rejected her offer to have her office lead that investigation. Tuesday, Nessel said her office may do so anyway and will review the school’s policies, evidence and take other actions before deciding whether to launch a full investigation. Nessel told reporters she hasn’t “seen information that points to culpability on the part of anyone in the school district, but that’s not to say that doesn’t exist.”

Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald, who has been critical of the school’s threat response, said she has not ruled out charges.

In hindsight, the school’s correct course of action is obvious. But with the information the school had at the time — there is no evidence school officials knew Crumbley had a gun — the district is asking the public to extend it the benefit of the doubt.

“While we understand this decision has caused anger, confusion and prompted understandable questioning, the counselors made a judgment based on their professional training and clinical experience, and did not have all the facts we now know,” Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne wrote in a letter to families Saturday.

Throne defended Oxford’s decision to leave Ethan Crumbley in school after counselors met with the teen and his parents. Throne said Crumbley was “calm,” and that counselors had no reason to believe the 15-year-old might harm others “based on his behavior.”

The letter went on to say that, “despite media reports, whether or not the gun was in his backpack has not been confirmed by law enforcement to our knowledge nor by our investigation at this time.”

The school’s judgment has invited criticism.

McDonald has said repeatedly Crumbley should never have been allowed to return to class.

“We all should be looking at the events that led up to that horrific event,” McDonald told Good Morning America Monday. “And in this case, a lot could have been done different. I mean, at that meeting he was allowed to go back to (class). We know that he either had that weapon with him or someplace where he could have stored it in the school, but he had it in the school.”

Some school safety experts agree.

“The school, in my opinion, had the right and probably the obligation to remove him from school,” said Amy Klinger, director of programs for The Educator’s School Safety Network, a national nonprofit that provides schools with safety training and resources.

Schools have broad leeway to search student property if they have a reasonable suspicion their backpack or other belongings contain drugs or weapons.

One day before the shooting, a teacher caught Crumbley looking at images of ammunition on his phone. He was brought to the school office for a meeting. According to Throne’s letter, Crumbley told school officials “he and his mother recently went to the shooting range and that shooting sports are a family hobby.”

Authorities say they would later discover that the mother, Jennifer Crumbley, wrote on her social media account days before the shooting the handgun was an early Christmas gift to 15-year-old Ethan.

But aside from the dueling statements of the prosecutor and superintendent, details remain scarce on what was said in Crumbley’s meetings with school officials, or why officials decided he should be allowed to return to class, his backpack and school locker apparently un-inspected.

A trend away from suspensions

Like many school districts, Oxford has increasingly moved away from discipline that takes students out of the classroom. The district’s code of conduct cites “exclusionary discipline’s negative impact” on students, and says it will “reserve exclusion for only the most serious offenses.”

The district did not implement these changes in a vacuum. Studies indicate that, in most instances, removing students from classroom instruction for disciplinary reasons does little to change the objectionable behavior and can have a long term negative impact on the student’s academic and social success.

Expulsions and suspensions have declined across Michigan schools in recent years, after laws passed in 2016 encouraged schools to move from so-called  “zero tolerance” discipline policies to restorative justice, a tenet of which is to keep students in classrooms and reduce the disparate rate of suspension and expulsions meted out to more vulnerable student groups, including homeless students, Black students, and members of other marginalized groups.

Statewide, expulsions and suspensions declined 18 percent from the 2015-16 school year to 2018-19, the most recent school year uninterrupted by the pandemic. Oxford Community Schools, a district with about 5,500 students, reported no expulsions or suspensions in 2018-19, according to state data.

Many school leaders consider the movement away from zero-tolerance expulsion policies as good for students.

“If you were in a small rural community and you inadvertently left your hunting rifle in your car, you were expelled,” Scott Menzel, former superintendent of Washtenaw Intermediate School District, told Bridge Monday. “If you brought a butter knife (to lunch), you were expelled. Context didn’t matter.”

The movement away from expulsion and suspension doesn’t stop a school from taking action in more concerning situations, said Randy Liepa, former superintendent of Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency.

“Schools have the ability to take action if they think it’s necessary,” Liepa said.

But deciding when action is necessary is challenging, especially in cases such as school shootings, which remain exceedingly rare.

In 2018, the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center issued guidelines on preventing school violence, citing factors schools should consider in deciding whether to notify police. While most troubling student behaviors can be handled by school personnel, “those that do warrant law enforcement intervention include threats of violence and planned school attacks.”

Reports of student behaviors “involving weapons, threats of violence, physical violence, or concerns about an individual’s safety should immediately be reported to local law enforcement,” the guidelines say.

And yet, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said his department received no notice of Crumbley’s concerning behavior, which included drawings a teacher allegedly found on his desk the morning of the shootings of a semi-automatic handgun pointing at the words, “The thoughts won’t stop, help me.” A second drawing showed a bullet, with the words, “Blood everywhere.” And a third showed a person who appeared to be shot twice and bleeding.

The Secret Service guide also notes “key themes” schools should look for in analyzing potential threats, including “evidence of desperation, hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts and gestures.”

Crumbley’s morning note said: “My life is useless” and “The world is dead.”

But by the time he and his parents were called in to meet with counselors later that morning, Crumbley had scratched out some of the images and words, and told school officials the drawings were intended for a video game he was designing, school and law enforcement officials have said.

Further complicating counselors’ decision making process: they would have been sending Crumbley home to an empty house after his parents refused to take him home, according to Throne’s letter.

In March, a new Secret Service analysis of U.S. school shootings revealed that many of them featured circumstances similar to the Oxford shooting: A boy with easy access to firearms at home, who exhibited mental health problems and gave some warning before commencing an attack.

Nearly all shooters shared their intentions beforehand, and nearly a third conducted research. Crumbley allegedly did both — scrawling disturbing messages and images on his school worksheet and searching for bullets online.

After the tragedy, investigators also discovered videos on Crumbley’s phone, recorded the night before the attack, in which he vowed to shoot up the school the next day, Lt. Tim Willis of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said at the suspect’s arraignment Wednesday. A journal recovered from his backpack contained similar threats, Willis said, and Crumbley had posted photos of the gun and a target on social media. There is no evidence indicating school officials knew beforehand of the videos or the journal.

The Secret Service recommended immediate intervention if a student shows an interest in violence or hate-filled topics. But its analysis also acknowledges the limitations of simply sending students home.

“Simply removing a student from school, without appropriate supports, may not necessarily remove the risk of harm they pose to themselves or others,” the analysis noted.

Preventing the next shooting

In the days after the Oxford tragedy, Michigan school safety officials say they have mailed resources to school administrators across the state to help them better evaluate potential threats and take preventative measures.

School safety experts contacted by Bridge said perhaps the most effective measure would be greater use of school threat assessment teams.

The teams, typically made up of school administrators, counselors, school resource officers or local police and possibly others, are tasked with determining how to respond when a student poses a possible threat. They work to “connect the dots,” said Klinger of the The Educator’s School Safety Network, to see whether the behavior that triggered an assessment represents an isolated incident, or portends a dangerous threat.

The U.S. Department of Education sees threat assessments as a more reliable and objective measure of potential violence.

But despite their widespread embrace by school safety experts, Klinger said threat assessment teams are “tragically, not very common.”

“The thing that actually saves the most lives is the thing that is in least demand,” she said of the team approach, in part because it requires lots of training and resources that cash-strapped schools typically lack.

For its part, the Secret Service acknowledges schools are rightly concerned with making sure discipline isn’t levied disproportionate against particular groups of students. But it said “the best data available demonstrate that this is not the case with threat assessment programs, which are based on an understanding and addressing student behavior, rather than on profiles or types of students.”

Kelly, the Northville attorney, warned that schools looking to ramp up security after the Oxford shootings run the risk of taking it too far, violating students’ rights in the process. On Monday morning, he said, a client came to him for help. His son had just been removed from school for asking whether the building has metal detectors.

“They’re overreacting,” Kelly said of schools. “Because nobody wants to be in the position that Oxford was in.”


GOV. WHITMER SAYS PRESIDENT BIDEN’S COVID-19 VACCINE MANDATE A ‘PROBLEM,’ REPORT SAYS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in her strongest public remarks to date about President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for employers, said Monday that the requirement is “a problem” for her and state government, according to a published report.

The Daily News in Greenville reported Whitmer as telling business leaders in Montcalm County that she had the same concerns as some of them that the mandate, if enforced, could lead to workers, including those in state government, walking off the job.

“We’re an employer too, the state of Michigan is,” Whitmer was reported as saying. “I know if that mandate happens, we’re going to lose state employees. That’s why I haven’t proposed a mandate at the state level. Some states have. We have not, we’re waiting to see what happens in court.”

“But we have a lot of the same concerns that you just voiced and it’s going to be a problem for all of us,” Whitmer added.

The governor made the remarks in response to a comment from the head of a home health care provider during a meeting with business leaders in Howard City, about 35 miles north of Grand Rapids.

Whitmer has generally been mum on the vaccine mandate, the rules for which were issued early last month by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). It calls for private companies with 100 or more employees to require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or wear masks and undergo regular testing.

Michigan is one of more than two dozen states that despite having set up its own workplace safety rules is required to have state and local government workers meet standards as rigorous as those put in place by OSHA, meaning the mandate applies.

A federal appeals court has at least temporarily halted enforcement of the mandate, however.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer has been a key ally of Biden’s but in recent months she has been circumspect in terms of venturing any opinion about the mandate. On Tuesday, her press office said she shares the concerns of businesses and that they and the state will work through any mandate if required to do so.

“Our top priority remains slowing the spread of COVID-19 so that businesses can keep their doors open, schools can keep students in the classrooms and the state can continue our strong economic progress,” said a statement from her office. “While the federal government’s vaccine rule is currently halted, Governor Whitmer continues to urge Michiganders to receive one of the safe and effective vaccines because this is the best way for Michiganders to protect themselves and keep our economy growing.”

Whitmer has refused so far to attempt to issue any statewide masking or vaccine mandate, though earlier in the pandemic her office took several steps to try to slow the spread of the virus through stay-home orders. Last month, the state Legislature filed legal briefs in support of efforts to block the Biden mandate.


BREAKTHROUGH COVID DEATHS, ILLNESSES MOUNT, AS BOOSTERS LAG IN MICHIGAN

BRIDGE MI — Six months after most vaccinations, a quarter of all COVID deaths and hospitalizations are breakthrough cases. Most severe cases, though, are among the unvaccinated.

Earlier this year, the fully vaccinated accounted for 10 percent to 15 percent of all cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In the past month, they account for 24 percent of deaths and 28 percent of hospitalizations.

Experts say that’s partly because the delta variant is more virulent than the traditional COVID-19 strain and because, records indicate, at least 2.5 million Michigan fully vaccinated residents have yet to receive a booster shot.

New research shows the vaccines’ effectiveness decreases after six months, prompting widespread calls for booster shots. Other research indicates the vaccines may be less effective against the delta strain of the virus.

“Should you freak out? No,” said Dr. Vikas Parekh, associate chief medical officer at the University of Michigan’s hospital system.

“Should you consider getting a booster? Yes.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed boosters Oct. 21 for everyone 65 and older and those 18 and older who have underlying health conditions or work in long-term care facilities or in high risk settings. Less than a month later, that eligibility was expanded to everyone 18 and older who had been fully vaccinated for at least six months.

But so far in Michigan, 1.6 million people of the more than 4.2 million who were fully vaccinated six months ago have received boosters. Many of the fully vaccinated who have contracted COVID-19 also are not eligible for the booster yet as well and officials across the state are nervous.

“We are concerned with our booster uptake by our seniors and those that are immune compromised,” said Eric Pessell, health officer for the Calhoun County

Pessell said they are urging residents — especially those 65 and older — to get the boosters and have arranged a mass clinic in Battle Creek for Tuesday.

Michigan is now enduring among the highest infection rates in the country, and hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been at any point of the pandemic.

With a higher percentage of breakthrough cases among the current surge, officials acknowledge there’s a public perception disconnect about the effectiveness of vaccines.

“I certainly have seen people misinterpret this as vaccines (are not) effective,” said Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the state’s top epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

In fact, the opposite is true, she said.

“The vaccines still make a big difference in terms of community spread and the risk of severe outcomes for individuals.”

The overwhelming amount of research backs up the contention, and vaccinations were credited with dramatically reducing nursing-home deaths among residents who were among the first to get the vaccines.

Fewer ventilators

Despite the rise in breakthrough cases, new data from the Michigan Health and Hospitals Association and other sources show that COVID patients who are fully vaccinated are less likely to be in intensive care or on a ventilator.

Although 76 percent of all COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, they make up 87 percent of those in intensive care units statewide and 88 percent of those on ventilators, who are the most seriously ill.

National data show the unvaccinated, meanwhile, have between a six and 21 times greater risk of death.

The most recent national data indicates 8 of every 100,000 unvaccinated people ages 50 to 64 were dying from COVID-19 in mid-October, compared to 0.4 deaths per 100,000 for the vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For those over 80, the rate is 38.3 deaths per 100,000 for the unvaccinated compared to 6.5 deaths per 100,000 for the vaccinated.

This year, 11,454 people have died of COVID in Michigan.

Of those, the state has researched vaccination status of 8,574: 1,170 were fully vaccinated and the vast majority of those deaths, 1,004, were people 65 and older.

Cases spike among elderly

Beaumont Health Dr. Matthew Sims said almost all of the COVID patients he sees who are vaccinated are elderly, have compromised immune systems or serious lung ailments.

“I haven’t seen any healthy 40-year-olds get a breakthrough case,” Sims, who leads the system’s infectious diseases research.

Officials from the Henry Ford Health System said Friday that of the vaccinated who were hospitalized, 1 percent were not elderly or suffering from other health ailments. Of the unvaccinated, 11 percent had no so-called “comorbidities,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer for the metro Detroit-based health system.

Parekh and Sims said they were seeing similar breakdowns among the vaccinated and unvaccinated at the U-M medical centers and at Beaumont.

At Beaumont, Sims said that of the 12 COVID-19 patients he saw recently three were fully vaccinated — and two of them did not receive a booster.

Without vaccines, many more people would be in Michigan’s hospitals, which are now at their peak since the pandemic began, he said.

“It works. It very clearly works,” he said.


AG: SCHOOL DISTRICT DECLINED OFFER TO REVIEW OXFORD SHOOTING

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Monday night that school officials have rejected her offer to review the shooting at Oxford High School last week that left four students dead and injured seven other people.

Nessel, the state’s top law enforcement official, communicated her offer to the Oxford Community School District via email Saturday after Superintendent Tim Throne requested a third-party review of the incident and the events leading up to it.

“I am extremely disappointed that the school district chose to decline my offer to devote the full resources of the Department of Attorney General to review the events leading up to and on November 30th,” she said in a statement. “This tragedy demands a united effort from all of us who serve the Oxford community.”

Oxford Community Schools spokeswoman Danielle Stublensky did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night.

Throne has worked to address rumors surrounding the shooting Tuesday, which happened hours after the 15-year-old suspect, Ethan Crumbley, met with his parents and school counselors. During the meeting, they discussed a drawing a teacher found on the teen’s desk that reportedly included a bullet and the words “blood everywhere.”

In a letter to the community on Saturday, the superintendent said counselors found the youth “calm” and didn’t believe he would harm others. The parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, were asked to take their son home but “flatly refused,” he said.

School officials had wanted him removed until undergoing counseling. Throne has said Crumbley had not been disciplined before the attack.

The teen remained in school after the meeting with a semi-automatic gun presumably inside his backpack, prosecutors allege.

The superintendent wrote in his letter Saturday that the district wants a third party to investigate the events before the shooting “so we leave no stone unturned, including any and all interaction the student had with staff and students.”

He added an independent security consultant would review the district’s safety practices and procedures.

Nessel has said a probe by her office could determine criminal intent and civil liability, including whether certain school, district or state policies were violated.

The department has statewide jurisdiction and does not need the district’s voluntary participation to conduct a review, the attorney general has said, although its involvement would help produce a “much more meaningful” investigation.

The offices of the Oakland County prosecutor and sheriff investigate only criminal conduct.

In her statement Monday night, Nessel said her team would “continue to support the ongoing criminal investigation in Oakland County and looks forward to meeting with parents, students and teachers when they are ready to share their thoughts. To that end, we also remain committed to evaluating opportunities for our department to ensure that students in Oxford — and across Michigan — receive the protection they deserve and that guns are kept out of our schools.”

Karen McDonald, the county prosecutor, left open the possibility on Monday that school officials also may face charges.

“In this case, a lot could have been done different,” she said in an interview Monday with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The findings of an Oakland County Sheriff’s Office probe would determine whether school officials are charged.

On Saturday, Sheriff Mike Bouchard said school officials were not specifically under investigation.

Ethan Crumbley is being held in the Oakland County Jail without bond. He has been charged with one count of terrorism causing death, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

The teen was charged as an adult and is facing up to life in prison.

His parents were arrested early Saturday and charged with involuntary manslaughter related to the shooting. They have a combined $1 million bond and have pleaded not guilty.


COFFEE CLEARS THE AIR BETWEEN OAKLAND COUNTY PROSECUTOR AND SHERIFF

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald and Sheriff Michael Bouchard met for coffee Sunday, clearing the air between them after a public dustup over their roles in the Oxford High School shooting case.

“I’ve been on the phone with Mike Bouchard at least five times since this morning,” McDonald told the Free Press on Monday afternoon. “We made a point of sitting down yesterday afternoon to try to open the lines of communication to make sure that we are on the same page.”

McDonald said she was confident the two offices were cooperating on the case and will continue.

“I feel really good about it actually,” she said.

Bouchard wasn’t available Monday afternoon but Undersheriff Michael McCabe said the relationship between the two offices is professional.

“The sheriff and the prosecutor are in regular communication and yesterday they spent time together over coffee,” McCabe said. “They’re working together hand-in-glove on this investigation.” The comity is a switch from Friday when McDonald announced involuntary manslaughter charges against James and Jennifer Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, the defendant in the shooting at the school on Nov. 30.

The Crumbleys were not in custody when the charges were made public and didn’t appear for an afternoon arraignment, despite assurances from their lawyers that they would. That prompted a manhunt that ended early Saturday in the dark of night when the couple was found in an industrial building in Detroit near the Belle Isle bridge.

McCabe blasted McDonald publicly, telling the Free Press: “In my entire 44-year career, I have never, ever seen a prosecutor announce charges in a major case without the suspect being in custody first.”

McDonald told CNN that night that the Crumbleys fleeing “wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” adding it was unfortunate that there was a discussion on national TV “about who is to blame” for the couple’s disappearance.

“I don’t care who is to blame,” she said. “What I really care about is the victims.”

The two offices need to work together on cases every day, not just major ones like the Oxford High shooting.

McDonald said that they do, though there has been a bit of a learning curve.

Bouchard, a Republican and former state senator who once ran for U.S. Senate, has been sheriff since 1999. McDonald, a Democrat, took office in January after giving up a safe seat as a judge to run for prosecutor.

McDonald trounced incumbent Jessica Cooper by an almost 2-1 margin in the Democratic primary last year, before easily beating Republican Lin Goetz in the November general election.

She ran on a platform of transparency and communication and fashioned herself as a more progressive prosecutor.

She brought new scrutiny of the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies over their use of jailhouse informants in criminal cases. She reexamined the handling of informants, who had sometimes had a dubious history. Ultimately, Juwan Deering, who had been convicted of murder and arson in a fire that killed five children, was released and charges dropped after he spent 15 years in prison in a Sheriff’s Office case that relied heavily on informants with questionable credibility. She put a new policy in place that all use of informants must be with her approval.

“Keep in mind that Jessica Cooper was in office for 12 years and that this is a new relationship,” she said. “I’m not just a new prosecutor, but I’m a different kind of prosecutor.”

McDonald said that about 20% of her office’s cases come from the Sheriff’s Office, with the rest coming from local police departments. She said she’s established a Law Enforcement Advisory Council and meets regularly with police chiefs from across the county.

She is a different prosecutor, but she said she’s confident that police across the county recognize her commitment to public safety.

“It’s unfortunate that there was a public perception, even for a small period of time, that we were at odds,” she said. “We just have to be on the same page and we have to work together to try to bring justice to these victims, and also to help support the people in both of our offices and in this community.”


ARTIST WHO SHELTERED CRUMBLEYS ‘HADN’T HEARD ANYTHING ABOUT CHARGES,’ ATTORNEY SAYS

DETROIT NEWS — An attorney for the artist linked to an Oxford Township couple whose son is charged in the shooting deaths of classmates said Sunday his client was only trying to provide a place for friends who said they had received death threats.

Clarence Dass described Andrzej Sikora, a 65-year-old artist and Polish immigrant, as having no knowledge that his friends had been charged with a crime or were the subject of a manhunt last week.

“They knew he had a studio in Detroit and they wanted to put some distance between themselves and Oxford because of death threats,” Dass said. “They called and asked if they could stay with him for a while, and he met them at his studio Friday afternoon. When he left to go home about 5 p.m. he told them to lock up with they left … He had no idea they planned to spend the night there.”

The couple failed to appear for their arraignment Friday on involuntary manslaughter charges related to the shooting allegedly by their son on Nov. 30 and dropped out of sight, leading to a multi-agency manhunt for them.

“He hadn’t heard anything about charges or press conferences or really anything about what was going on until the next day,” Dass said. “When he did hear about it Saturday morning, he immediately called Detroit police, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and my law firm.”

James and Jennifer Crumbley were arrested at the warehouse studio in the 1100 block of Bellevue early Saturday by Detroit police, who had been tipped by the building’s owner that there was a vehicle matching the description of one being sought inside his fenced parking lot.

Dass said he was arranging an interview this week with detectives to discuss his client’s relationship to the incident. A release Sunday night by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the interview will take place Monday afternoon.

“He is offering his full cooperation,” Dass said. “There is no way he was obstructing justice or harboring fugitives. He was just temporarily giving them a place where they felt safe and could figure out what they were going to do next.”

Dass said Sikora and the Crumbleys had met on a ski trip several years ago and  Jennifer Crumbley had provided marketing services for his art work.

Ethan Crumbley, 15, is being held in the Oakland County Jail without bond and faces charges of terrorism causing death, four counts of first-degree murder, seven counts of assault with intent to murder and 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony.


WAYNE PROSECUTOR CHARGES 7 JUVENILES WITH SCHOOL THREATS

ASSOCIATED PRES — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy has charged seven juveniles in separate incidents recently for making threats against schools or having a weapon in school.

The charges, issued Thursday and Friday, follow a school shooting at Oxford High School earlier in the week which left left four students dead and six other students and a teacher wounded.

“There is a stranglehold on Southeastern Michigan now,” Worthy said in a news release. “School threats naturally put everyone on edge.

Those charged include a 14-year-old male student at Parcells Middle School in Grosse Pointe Woods, who was charged with a false report or threat of terrorism. Also, a 13-year-old male student at Fisher Magnet Upper Academy in Detroit, was charged with possession of a weapon in a school weapon free zone. He was given bond of $5,000 cash with 10% down and was due in court Dec. 13.

“Thankfully, these matters were all thwarted and no one was harmed,” Worthy said.


MICHIGAN HOURLY MINIMUM WAGE WILL RISE 22 CENTS TO $9.87

DETROIT NEWS via ASSOCIATED PRESS — Michigan’s minimum wage will rise by 22 cents to $9.87 an hour on Jan. 1.

State law requires annual increases in the wage until it reaches $12.05 in a decade. The 22-cent raise was supposed to occur in 2021 but was automatically delayed because of high unemployment early in the coronavirus pandemic.

The state announced this past week that the minimum wage for 16- and 17-year-olds will increase by 19 cents to $8.39 an hour. Employees who make tips will earn a base wage of $3.75 per hour, 8 cents more.

Employers must pay any shortfall if the gratuities plus the minimum wage do not equal or exceed the standard minimum wage.


SLEW OF COPYCAT THREATS ACROSS METRO REGION TROUBLE ADMINISTRATORS, PARENTS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Waves of chaos continued to descend upon metro Detroit on Thursday, two days after the rampage at Oxford High School that left four students dead and seven others injured.

With copycat threats circulating on social media, districts in Oakland County and beyond canceled classes out of caution for students’ safety. Law enforcement leaders continued to emphasize the severity with which they will pursue all reports of threats.

But behind the goose chase of threats and social media rumors of a “hit week” are parents who are walking a fine line of ensuring their children’s security without affecting their kids’ mental and emotional health.

“I felt like I was going to throw up,” said Jill Dillon, 51, of Canton, recalling dropping off her 14-year-old son to school Wednesday morning. “It was nauseating, thinking that I’m supposed to be taking him someplace safe, and is he really going to be safe?”

It’s a mix of emotions to process, Dillion said. The thoughts never stop racing through her mind, she said, but pause at the reasoning: Statistically, the chances of a school shooting happening at Canton High School — where her son attends — are low, but not impossible.

“When something happens this close to home, it brings it closer to your heart and makes you really wonder, how safe are we?”

Reining in these worries, Dillon said she instead focuses on conversations with her son, Aidan, and practical advice, like staying alert of his surroundings and following his teachers’ instructions, imparted through active shooter drills.

“It’s not necessarily about location, or what the school is or isn’t doing — it’s about an individual or individuals,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to think it can’t happen in your community because it certainly can.”

Administrators nationwide — even globally — have been stretched thin for nearly two years, between keeping students healthy during a pandemic and devastating staffing shortages, and now Michigan educators are having to face guiding students through another crisis. Not to mention the long-term, lasting impact all this has on students, Webber said.

“We’re already seeing behavioral struggles with kids because of the trauma of the pandemic, and now we have this,” he said. “The fall of 2021 has been, hands-down, the most difficult four to five months of my educational career,” Webber said, adding that he has taught in prisons and in Africa.

A flood of threats across the region was far-reaching, with some being suspicious posts online, others tangible. On Thursday, a 17-year-old Southfield student with a semi-automatic pistol was arrested and a bomb threat was made at South Lake High School, prompting a police investigation.

“If you’re making threats, we’re going to find you,” Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said during a news conference Thursday, specifically called to address the estimated hundreds of copycat threats reported. “It is ridiculous you’re inflaming the fears and passion of parents, teachers, and the community in the midst of a real tragedy.”

Bouchard said the pursuit of threats has exhausted his office’s resources but will continue nonetheless. He said he has enlisted the assistance of the FBI and Secret Service to tackle threats. This week has been the most challenging for FBI Detroit Special Agent Tim Waters, who has worked in the community for 21 years, he said during Thursday’s conference.

In Macomb County, Prosecutor Peter Lucido echoed Bouchard’s sentiments in a promise to prosecute threats to the fullest extent.

“Anyone thinking of issuing such a threat should know that as Macomb County Prosecutor, I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to issuing terroristic threats against our schools, and if you do so you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Lucido said in a statement issued Thursday.

Despite the influx of threats, prosecutors encouraged residents to direct reports of threats to their offices, not to post on social media.

It’s the confusion of what’s real and what’s not that’s scariest for 14-year-old David Roden, a freshman at Northville High School, which stayed open Thursday.

“Everyone was on edge. It’s just kind of weird, being close to the situation,” he said, “because it’s never been close to home, but this one’s closer than they’ve (school shooting) ever been.”

His social media sphere is flooded with rumors of more shootings, Snapchat screenshots, and blurry Instagram stories, promising that Tuesday’s horror was just the beginning. But teachers are having open conversations in his classes, helping him and his classmates to parse the confirmed facts from the fake.

David’s mom, Jodie, said she used to worry about her kids reaching school safely with her daughter, 16-year-old Emily, behind the wheel.

“It’s sad that you’re nervous sending them off to school and hoping that the person sitting next to them isn’t the person that could, you know, do something to them,” she said, laughing nervously.


OXFORD SCHOOL CHIEF: DISCIPLINE NOT NEEDED FOR [SHOOTER] BEFORE SHOOTING

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS VIA THE OAKLAND PRESS — A teenager accused of killing four students at an Oakland County high school was called to the office before the shooting but “no discipline was warranted,” the superintendent said Thursday in his first extended remarks since the tragedy.

Tim Throne, leader of Oxford Community Schools, said Oxford High School looks like a “war zone” and won’t be ready for weeks. But he repeatedly credited students and staff for how they responded to the violence Tuesday.

“To say that I am still in shock and numb is probably an understatement. These events that have occurred will not define us,” Throne, grim-faced and speaking slowly, said in a 12-minute video.

“I want you to know that there’s been a lot of talk about the student who was apprehended, that he was called up to the office and all that kind of stuff. No discipline was warranted,” Throne said. “There are no discipline records at the high school. Yes this student did have contact with our front office, and, yes, his parents were on campus Nov. 30.”

Throne said he couldn’t immediately release additional details.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has said Crumbley’s classroom behavior was a concern on the day of the shooting.

In his remarks, the superintendent said he was asking the sheriff’s office to publicly release school video from Tuesday.

“I want you to be as proud of your sons and daughters as I am,” Throne said.

Earlier Thursday, a prosecutor repeated her criticism of Crumbley’s parents, saying their actions went “far beyond negligence” and that a charging decision would come by Friday.

“The parents were the only individuals in the position to know the access to weapons,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said. The gun “seems to have been just freely available to that individual.”

Four students were killed and seven more people were injured. Three were in hospitals in stable condition.

The semi-automatic gun was purchased legally by Crumbley’s father last week, on Black Friday, according to investigators.

Parents in the U.S. are rarely charged in school shootings involving their children, even as most minors get guns from a parent or relative’s house, according to experts.

There’s no Michigan law that requires gun owners keep weapons locked away from children. McDonald, however, suggested there’s more to build a case on.

“All I can say at this point is those actions on mom and dad’s behalf go far beyond negligence,” she told WJR-AM. “We obviously are prosecuting the shooter to the fullest extent. … There are other individuals who should be held accountable.”

Later at a news conference, McDonald said she hoped to have an announcement “in the next 24 hours.” She had firmly signaled that Crumbley’s parents were under scrutiny when she filed charges against their son Wednesday.

Jennifer and James Crumbley did not return a message left by The Associated Press.

The sheriff disclosed Wednesday that the parents met with school officials about their son’s classroom behavior, just a few hours before the shooting.

Crumbley stayed in school Tuesday and a couple of hours later emerged from a bathroom with a gun, firing at students in the hallway, police said.

“Should there have been different decisions made?” McDonald said when asked about keeping the teen in school. “Probably they will come to that conclusion. … I have not seen anything that would make me think that there’s criminal culpability. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy.”

William Swor, a defense lawyer who is not involved in the case, said charging the parents would require a “very fact-intensive investigation.”

“What did they know and when did they know it?” Swor said. “What advance information did they have about all these things? Did they know anything about his attitude, things of that nature. You’re talking about a very heavy burden to bring on the parents.”

Just over half of U.S. states have child access prevention laws related to guns, but they vary widely. Gun control advocates say the laws are often not enforced and the penalties are weak.

“Our laws haven’t really adapted to the reality of school shootings and the closest we have are these child access prevention laws,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady gun control advocacy group.

In 2000, a Flint-area man pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in prison. A 6-year-old boy who was living with him had found a gun in a shoebox and killed a classmate at school.

In 2020, the mother of an Indiana teen was placed on probation for failing to remove guns from her home after her mentally ill son threatened to kill students. He fired shots inside his school in 2018. No one was injured but the boy killed himself.

In Texas, the parents of a student who was accused of killing 10 people at a school in 2018 have been sued over his access to guns.

Meanwhile, dozens of schools in southeastern Michigan canceled classes Thursday due to concerns about threatening messages on social media following the Oxford shooting. Others planned to join them and close on Friday.

“We know from research and experience that learning is nearly impossible when students and staff do not feel safe,” Grosse Pointe Superintendent Jon Dean told families.

Bouchard said no threats in Oakland County were found to be credible. Just to the north in Genesee County, a Flint teenager was charged with making a false threat when she recorded a video while riding a school bus and posted it online.

“If you’re making threats, we’re going to find you,” Bouchard said. “It is ridiculous you’re inflaming the fears of parents, teachers in the community in the midst of a real tragedy.”


‘IT’S THE WAY WE COME TOGETHER’; OXFORD FINDS UNITY AFTER TRAGEDY

DETROIT NEWS — A little girl in a pink fleece arrived at the memorial to four dead children Thursday afternoon just as a woman in a pink parka was easing out of her car.

The little girl laid flowers at the sign at the entrance to the Oxford High School parking lot, and then she drew her hands back inside her sleeves so they flapped wildly as she jumped up and down in excitement over being part of something she didn’t understand.

The woman laid a bouquet atop some of the others, lingered only for a minute and then walked away, wiping her eyes with the heel of her hand. She understood too well what had happened, even if no one understands why.

A 15-year-old sophomore named Ethan Crumbley stands accused of shooting 10 students and a teacher Tuesday at just about the same time the two mourners in pink were paying their respects. He is locked away at the Oakland County Jail in Pontiac, alone, accused of killing four fellow students.

In Oxford, there was a sense Thursday that everyone was united.

“We can’t be judged by one goofball,” said Amanda McFarland, searching for a word and finding one far more playful than what she really meant. “It’s the way we come together afterward.”

McFarland, 35, owns Valor Salon in the city’s small downtown. She graduated from Oxford High in 2004, when it was housed in what’s now the middle school, and she’s the mother of third-, fifth- and seventh-graders in the district.

“I love the small-town feel,” she said. She loves being surrounded by people who’ve known her since she was born and loves knowing that people were expecting her salon team to do a crazy dance even wilder than the last one on Saturday in the annual Christmas parade.

Maybe next year. The parade and the Friday night Soup and Sweets Stroll through downtown have been canceled, replaced by a 6:30 p.m. Friday prayer vigil half a block from her shop.

The light poles along the strip already bore wide ribbons Thursday in blue and gold, the colors of the Oxford High School Wildcats. Placards had sprouted in yards: “Thank You Teachers & First Responders. #OxfordStrong.”

At the Meijer store where bewildered students reunited with frantic parents Tuesday afternoon in the hours after the shooting, the parking lot was crowded. Along one aisle, three cars in a five-space span bore stickers asking motorists to be patient with their student drivers.

Inside, a teenage boy with a small bouquet in one hand was using the other to punch buttons on an ATM.

“Dude,” his friend said. “You need to borrow money?”

The friend was carrying flowers of his own. They were headed to the school, where two Oakland County deputies in separate SUVs watched clusters of kids stand quietly near the sign along Oxford Road that had become a shrine.

Flowers. Stuffed animals. Balloons. Candles. A gold angel in a snow globe. Tears.

Dan Hooker, 59, of Livonia stood with them in a fluorescent yellow vest marked, “Chaplain.”

The kids generally weren’t saying much. Neither was he.

“It’s mostly, ‘How are you holding up?'” Hooker said. “Most of them have very few words.”

Hooker, a retired General Motors power train engineer, is a volunteer with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team. He’s been to hurricanes, fires and floods, but this was his first mass shooting.

Across 24 years as an Oakland County deputy, Lee Van Camp has become more accustomed to violence. Thursday, he experienced something new.

A man with two small children approached his black and gold SUV and introduced the kids. Their mother, the dad explained, works at the school. The kids thanked him and presented him with a sack lunch.

“How amazing is that?” Van Camp asked.

As darkness set in, about 200 people attended a candlelight vigil in neighboring Lake Orion honoring those who died and were wounded at Oxford High School.

Lake Orion High School students Hadley Socha, Lilla Bonner and Layla Thompson, all 15, lit candles at the event in Children’s Park. The two high schools are separated by about seven miles.

“It’s very tragic and traumatizing towards all the other people, not just those in Oxford but towards the whole community,” Socha said of Tuesday’s shooting.

Added Thompson: “School should be a safe place to learn. You shouldn’t be scared to go,” she said.

As the vigil was beginning, the U.S. House of Representatives took a break from their partisan deliberations to hold a moment of silence for the victims at Oxford High School.

U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the Holly Democrat whose district represents Oxford, requested the moment of silence as she was surrounded by Michigan and other colleagues.

“Mr. Speaker, this has been one of the darkest and most painful weeks our state of Michigan has had in recent memory,” Slotkin said on the House floor. “We stand here, the Michigan delegation of Democrats and Republicans along with other honorary Michiganders, to ask Congress to recognize that pain and to ask members here to see your own children in the pictures of those who were lost in yet another school shooting.

“In less than five minutes, the small town of Oxford, Michigan, was changed forever when a gunman opened fire on his fellow high school students. In that momentary flash, four innocent teenagers, students with their entire lives ahead of them, were taken from us in yet another senseless act of violence.”

earlier in the day, the mundane counted as a victory. McFarland’s salon was bustling.

“I don’t think things will ever be the same,” she said. “Hopefully, we can grow from it.”

Only time will tell, McFarland said, and the wounds are too fresh to know what it will be.


15-YEAR-OLD OXFORD SUSPECT COULD FACE TERRORISM, FIRST-DEGREE MURDER CHARGES: WHAT THAT MEANS

DETROIT FREE PRESS —  Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald is seeking numerous charges against 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley, the suspect in Tuesday’s rampage at Oxford High School that left four students dead.

If convicted, Crumbley could spend the rest of his life behind bars without the possibility of parole.

Charges include four counts of first-degree murder, terrorism, and firearm possession charges, McDonald announced Wednesday afternoon. McDonald is seeking to charge Crumbley as an adult and may pursue charges against his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley.

Crumbley, a sophomore at Oxford, is accused of killing four people — Hana St. Juliana, 14, Tate Myre, 16, and Madisyn Baldwin, 17, and Justin Shilling, 17 — and injuring seven others Tuesday.

Here are the charges McDonald is seeking against Crumbley:

  • One count of terrorism causing death
  • Four counts of first-degree murder
  • Seven counts of assault with intent to murder
  • 12 counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony

Crumbley was arraigned in district court in Rochester Hills Wednesday afternoon, he joined via video from Oakland County’s Children’s Village, a juvenile center. The charges

The investigation thus far has pointed investigators to believe Crumbley’s actions were not impulsive, contributing to McDonald’s desire to charge the teen as an adult, she said. Further, under Michigan law, some crimes are so severe that they require the suspect to be automatically treated as an adult — foremost, first-degree murder.

“Charging this person as an adult is necessary to achieve justice and protect the public,” McDonald said Wednesday, hours before Crumbley was arraigned. “I’m committed to seeking justice for the victims of the Oxford High School shooting and all Oakland County kids who face violence.”

The terrorism charge, McDonald said, is in relation to the horrors inflicted upon the rest of the school’s community who weren’t direct victims but still faced trauma.

“What about all the children who ran screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?” McDonald said.


SCHOOL DISTRICTS CLOSE TODAY DUE TO THREATS

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Thousands of students are staying home today as districts have closed out of “an abundance of caution” following a wave of threats shared on social media.

The threats follow the Tuesday afternoon shooting at Oxford High School, where four students were killed and seven other people injured. A 15-year-old male sophomore has been charged —as an adult — with first-degree murder and terrorism along with other charges.

Closed are schools in Rochester, Southfield, Lake Orion, Troy, Bloomfield Hills, Auburn Hills, Clarkston, Huron Valley, Warren, and Holly.

Oxford Community Schools had already announced its buildings would be closed all week.

“Nothing is more important than the well-being of our school community, and we are committed to doing all we can to keep students and staff safe,” Rochester Community Schools announced on their Facebook page.

“There have been rumors circulating on social media indicating that other high schools may be at risk of experiencing a tragedy similar to the one that occurred recently at Oxford High School. At Rochester Community Schools, we take all threats very seriously. All rumors continue to be thoroughly investigated by our local law enforcement. Although there appear to be no credible threats at this time, we are pausing in-person and virtual learning for the day out of an abundance of caution.

“We appreciate families encouraging their students to continue talking with a trusted adult if they see or hear something that doesn’t seem right. Families can contact a school administrator or use the Talk to Us feature on the RCS website. Information can also be reported anonymously using OK2Say at (855) 565-2729.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said such threats will be investigated and charges will be levied even if the threat is not credible.

“If you make a threat, we’re gonna seek charges,” Bouchard said. “That’s how it broadens this whole anxiety and depression that many parents and students are feeling, and it’s incredibly disturbing.”

In Southfield, the district attributed its closure to threats along with a “significant number of student absences.” In the city, police said a student brought a gun into a school building.

Holly Area School and Clarkston Community Schools are closed Thursday and will be closed Friday as well.

“The Holly Police Department and Holly Schools administration have been receiving and jointly investigating numerous reports of threats on various social media platforms that ‘someone is going to shoot up Holly Schools,’” Holly police said on Facebook. “We have received dozens of screen shots of Holly School students sharing various screen shots of a report that ‘someone heard someone say’….. We have spoken to numerous students who have shared these posts; however, no one can identify the original source of the threat.

“Parents: Please assist us by advising students to stop posting and sharing these messages.

“We are asking any parent or student who has information that would identify the person(s) who are making or verbalizing threats to contact the Holly Police Department by calling (248) 858-4911.

“Making threats to shoot up a school is a crime. Sharing and posting unknown threats is extremely traumatizing to a community already traumatized by a very real tragedy.”

In Clarkston, the district reported “dozens of indirect threats reported to the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office throughout the county this evening.”

“At this time, none of the threats investigated have been deemed credible. However, the volume of indirect threats in the county makes it impossible for law enforcement to investigate each threat thoroughly,” Clarkston schools said. “The safety of our students and staff is our top priority, and at this time, we cannot take the risk. We will continue to work with the OCSO and keep you informed.”

In Bloomfield Hills and Bloomfield Township, students are home on Thursday.

“The safety and security of our students is our top priority. We are in constant contact with Bloomfield Township Police who take every report or rumor seriously,” Pat Watson, superintendent of Bloomfield Hills schools, said. “We will follow up with you tomorrow with any updated information.

“Please take care of yourselves and one another.”


MICHIGAN ADDS 16,530 CASES, 358 DEATHS FROM COVID-19 OVER TWO DAYS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan added 16,530 cases and 358 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday, including cases from Tuesday.

The additions bring the state’s totals to 1,318,123 confirmed cases and 24,090 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The state averaged 8,265 cases over the two days. Of the latest deaths reported, 160 were identified during a vital records review, state health officials noted.

Michigan hit a new record of adult hospitalizations from the virus Monday, and 80% of all hospital inpatient beds are full.

Michigan broke the weekly record of new cases Nov. 13-19, setting a seven-day total of 53,575 — a new high not seen through the entirety of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, the state has added 34,011 cases and 363 deaths from the virus from Nov. 20 through Wednesday. Then, 25,329 cases and 137 deaths from Thursday through Monday.

Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory earlier in November recommending people wear masks at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status. It will remain in effect until further notice.

The state also encouraged businesses to impose policies to ensure that all people entering, including employees, wear masks and advised individuals who are not fully vaccinated or who are immunocompromised to avoid large crowds or gatherings.

More than a year ago on Nov. 15, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her administration’s “pause to save lives,” bringing wide-ranging restrictions limiting gatherings at high schools, colleges and restaurants to combat what she described as the “worst moment” yet in the COVID-19 pandemic. Those restrictions ended in June.

But the uptick in cases and deaths has not resulted in any new mandates at the state level. Whitmer officials have preferred to encourage local and county officials to issue public health orders such as mask mandates.

Michigan’s latest data

Michigan remains at a high transmission rate and the state’s percent of tests returning positive has increased from last week. Michigan reported the second-most cases in the country over the last seven days.

Last week, 18.9% of Michigan’s COVID-19 tests were positive, a jump from 17.4% last week.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association sounded the alarm last week over near-record hospitalizations.

As of Monday, 4,181 adults and 48 children are hospitalized with positive cases. Another 205 adults and 139 children are hospitalized with suspected cases.

John Karasinski, a spokesman of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, has said the growth is concerning as hospitals have experienced a 40% increase in daily emergency department patients since October 2020. Overall bed occupancy in Michigan hospitals is 10% higher than what Michigan experienced in the fall surge when the state peaked Dec. 1, 2020, with 4,283 COVID-19 hospitalizations, he said.

About 23% of hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, up from 13.9% the week prior. There has been an average of 2,430 emergency room visits related to COVID-19 every day in the state.

Nine hospitals are 100% full, according to the latest state data. They include Beaumont in Wayne, ProMedica CV Hickman in Adrian, Spectrum Health’s Hospitals in Grand Rapids, Hastings, Reed City, Freemont, St. Joseph Mercy in Ann Arbor, Livingston and Sturgis Hospital. Another 20 hospitals are above 90% full.

About 71% of residents aged 16 and older have received their first doses of a vaccine. When including children ages 5 and older, 61% have received first shots in the state.

Roll out of the vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds is occurring after Pfizer’s vaccine for children was approved by the FDA and more than 840,000 children of that age are in Michigan. So far, more than 106,000 children, or 13%, have received their first dose in Michigan.

More than 1.2 million booster doses of the vaccine have been administered in Michigan. Of those, more than 35% of 65-74-year-olds have received a booster; 20% of 50-64-year-olds and 75 and older; 9% of 40-49; and 8% of 30-39-year-olds. The majority of boosters administered have been concentrated in southeast Michigan. Oakland County has the most boosters administered, according to state tracking data.

Case rates among children are higher in counties where school districts do not have mask policies, according to the state health department.

In Michigan, over 50% of children hospitalized for the virus have no reported underlying conditions.

Outbreaks have led to an increase in multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. MIS-C is a condition in children where multiple organ systems become inflamed or dysfunctional. There are 183 cases in the state, and the majority, or 71%, are in the ICU. There have been five deaths.


3 KILLED, 8 INJURED IN OXFORD HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING — EVERYTHING WE KNOW SO FAR

WDIV TV — Three students were killed and eight other people were injured in a shooting at Oxford High School on Tuesday, officials said.

Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe said a 15-year-old sophomore student is the suspected shooter. The shooting happened at 12:51 p.m. in an area of the school where many history classes take place.

More than 100 calls were made to police during the shooting. McCabe said the suspect was in custody within five minutes of officials receiving the first 911 call.

Investigators recovered a semi-automatic handgun and found multiple spent shell cases. It is believed the suspect fired between 15-20 rounds.

All schools in the Oxford Community Schools district, including OELC, will be closed for the remainder of the week, officials announced.

911 received more than 100 calls

Officials said the first call to 911 was made around 12:51 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 30). Within five minutes of that first 911 call, the suspected shooter was in custody.

More than 100 calls were made to police during the shooting. A handgun was recovered at the scene and police believe between 15-20 rounds were fired.

The suspect is being held at Pontiac Children’s Village and is being lodged as a juvenile. McCabe said the prosecutor’s office could charge him as an adult if it decided to.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the suspect had a loaded pistol when he was arrested. The suspect was not injured.

“I believe they (responding officers) literally saved lives,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard said the weapon the suspect used had been purchased on Nov. 26 by the boy’s father. The gun had three magazines with 15 rounds each. Two of those magazines have been recovered by police and Bouchard believes the third will be found at the scene.

Bouchard said they believe 12 rounds were fired. That information is based on casings observed on the ground. The scene is being processed and will continue to be processed throughout the night.

“We will release as much information as we can, as soon as we can, that won’t jeopardize any prosecution,” Bouchard said.

The identities of the victims have been released to the public by officials.

14 year old Hana St. Juliana

16 year old Tate Myre

17 year old Madisyn Baldwin

Injured:

  • 14-year-old boy who suffered jaw and head wounds.
  • 14-year-old girl in critical condition with chest and neck gunshot wounds. She is on a ventilator after surgery.
  • 15-year-old boy in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head.
  • 15-year-old boy in stable condition with a gunshot wound to the left leg.
  • 17-year-old boy who is in stable condition with a gunshot wound to the neck.
  • 17-year-old boy with gunshot wound to his hip.
  • 17-year-old girl in critical condition with a gunshot wound to her chest.
  • 47-year-old teacher who has been discharged from the hospital with a grazing wound to their shoulder.

The victims were transported to several different hospitals in the area including McLaren Lapeer, McLaren Oakland and St. Joe’s in Pontiac.

How the school district is responding

All Oxford Community Schools are closed for the rest of the week.

The district’s crisis team is working to implement a response plan to support those in the school community. Officials said more details on the response will be sent as they become available.

Helpline volunteers from Common Ground have made a 24/7 resource and crisis helpline available to those impacted by the shooting. The number to call or text is 1-800-231-1127.


COMMUNITY GATHERS TO PRAY FOR PEACE IN WAKE OF OXFORD HIGH SCHOOL SHOOTING

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Hundreds of people, shell shocked and in tears from the deadly shooting rampage at Oxford High School that left three dead and eight more injured, showed up at three different prayer services Tuesday night, looking for comfort and meaning amid the devastation.

They spanned the ages — students in Oxford varsity jackets and sweatshirts in blue and gold, the school’s colors; parents with worry etched on their faces; community members who never thought anything like this could happen in their little enclave  in northern Oakland County.

“This is the thing you read about on the news, that happens in other places,” said Kim Kozel, 51, of Lake Orion, one of about 300 people who attended a prayer vigil at Kensington Church in Lake Orion. She’d spent much of the afternoon worried about her son, an employee of the school district’s IT department who travels between schools during the day, only to learn that he was on lockdown at the middle school during the shooting.  “I don’t think I’ve processed it yet,” Kozel said, rattled. “It’s been a lot.”

“Just about all of Oxford hurts,” Pastor Jesse Holt told a crowd of more than 200, at LakePoint Community Church in Oxford Township. When seating ran out, dozens stood for the service. Several held onto each other for comfort. Then, sharing a common flame, they lit candles each had been given. And they wept.

It’s impossible to know how every student, every teacher, every parent will be affected  by the shooting, which police say was carried out by a 15-year-old student armed with a semiautomatic handgun. But later in the service, Holt asked students who were at the school Tuesday— including Ashley Bales, a senior at Oxford, who, along with other students, escaped the school’s locker rooms and ran down a slippery hill toward a nearby Meijer store — to stand.

“Father,”  Holt said, “I pray that you would bless (these students) in what they do. I pray for the next coming days that if there is anxiety, there are nightmares, there are difficulties that come from  it, that you will give them peace as I have prayed.” The message was similar at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lake Orion. “Our whole community, our whole family of faith has been affected,” said the Rev. John Carlin.  “We’re offering up this Mass for the repose of their souls, for the comfort of those who are wounded and for the family members.

“This Mass is offered especially for them as a Mass of peace, and asking the Lord to give us his peace.”

Carlin said he heard about the shooting Tuesday afternoon during a penance service. “The Lord was calling me, saying I’m really supposed to be with my people right now,” Carlin said, adding that the St. Joseph parish school went into lockdown upon getting word of the shooting at Oxford High School. “Something told me, that as a priest, as a father of a community, I’m supposed to be there for them. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do.”

He said he drove to the Meijer store, to which the students and staff from the high school were evacuated, praying along the way.

“I am asking the Lord. I’m just in prayer with the Lord, asking, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ … I don’t have superpowers. I can’t fix everything that’s going on. What kind of peace am I supposed to bring to anybody, let alone to my heart?” Carlin said.

And that, he said, is when he realized the answer was to comfort them with faith and trust in the Lord in the darkest of times.

“Every time we experience a loss of friends or loved ones or something that we don’t understand, the Lord wants not only to walk with us through that darkness but to let us know that he is there, and he’s not going anywhere and he never will,” Carlin said.


WHAT PARENTS NEED TO KNOW, AND HOW THEY CAN HELP AFTER SHOOTINGS LIKE OXFORD HIGH SCHOOL

DETROIT FREE PRESS — It is essential, after a school shooting, that parents and other adults control their emotions around their children to restore a feeling of calm and safety and limit anxiety, according to medical experts interviewed by the Free Press.

“In general, children, especially younger ones, do not have a good ability of threat detection or appraising the level of the danger. The most important thing is to control our own fear or negative emotions around kids — all kids,” said Dr. Arash Javanbakht, a psychiatrist and director of the Stress, Trauma and Anxiety Research clinic at Wayne State University. “Parents must show they’re in control. For parents to create an atmosphere of safety is very important.”

Watching the news, which may include graphic video, should be avoided at home when children are in the vicinity as it can fuel anxiety, he and other psychiatrists said. Repeated exposure, especially for younger children, might lead to them believing the events are recurring. “Do not deny kids’ fears or thoughts or questions. Be open to the kids. Listen to them, see what are their concerns and address those concerns. Remind them they are safe at home, and that there are many adults including parents, teachers and police, working every day to keep them safe,” said Javanbakht, an expert on psychiatry surrounding shootings.

Basic facts can calm fears and alleviate a sense of chaos, and create a sense of control, medical experts said.

Children of all ages may respond to trauma in different ways. They may feel anxious when separating from caregivers, find it hard to concentrate, have nightmares or not want to sleep alone. These are issues that may need professional attention. ‘No right or wrong way’

Dr. Zakia Alavi, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Human Development at Michigan State University who is board certified in child and adolescent psychiatry, said she had been talking with parents all afternoon Tuesday about how to handle the Oxford High School shooting situation as events unfolded.

“The first thing to know is, there is no right or wrong way to address this. Any talk is better than no talk in terms of allowing children to express themselves and their concerns,” Alavi said.

She suggested organizing advice into three major categories:

  • Providing reassurance regarding safety.
  • Regulating parents’ expression of angst or fear.
  • Being proactive — things you can do rather than just worry.

Preteens and younger children generally see events as related to them, because of them or for them, Alavi said. Teenagers generally want to know how events will affect them and what could have been done differently.

Parents must be aware of their own anxiety and regulate that emotion in front of children because it goes a long way toward a feeling that everything will be OK, Alavi said.

“We want kids to feel the adults in their lives can keep them safe. There is nothing more terrifying for kids than thinking that their family is not in control,” she said. “Also, limit the consumption of social media and TV. Repeated coverage can be re-traumatizing.”

Symptoms of trauma

After traumatic events, parents may notice changes in the behavior of students at home.

“They may feel a wide range of feelings and that’s normal. They may find themselves struggling now and in the days to come with intense feelings — fear, depression, anxiety, anger,” said Dr. Peter Langman, a psychologist based in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and author of “Warning Signs: Identifying School Shooters Before they Strike.”

“An incident like this has a big impact on us as people,” he said. “For some, they may seem more agitated, irritated, may act out more. They may show more of a temper or have trouble sleeping. Kids may be more quiet or withdrawn. You may see crying or an unwillingness to even go back to school or participate in normal activities. Or they may seek more support.”

Symptoms of anxiety may present as loss of appetite or increased appetite, in addition to sleep disruption.

Children should be encouraged to talk with anyone who provides a feeling of safety,  whether it’s adults at home, teachers, coaches, counselors — connection is essential.

“You cannot always see the attack coming, especially when you talk about juvenile school shooters,”  said Langman, who is also a researcher with the National Threat Assessment Center of the U.S. Secret Service.

“What’s so heartbreaking in studying these cases over the years is how many people knew something and didn’t take action,” he said. “It’s so important that people know there are typically warning signs and if they’re reported, authorities can intervene effectively. You can prevent these incidents. I encourage students, faculty, parents and anyone who comes across a warning sign to take action and report it to the school.”

Early news reports confirmed that some students who attended Oxford High School did, in fact, stay home on Tuesday because they felt uneasy. Parents interviewed by the news media confirmed concerns about rumors involving potential violence.

‘Little kids concerned’

Stephanie Hartwell, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State, is a medical sociologist who has researched gun violence. On Tuesday, her daughter texted news of the shooting to her.

“My kids were 8 and 5 when the Sandy Hook school shooting happened. And that was first graders. I was completely traumatized. It changes your perception of how safe the world is. So you start to question everything,” Hartwell said.


Michigan: 25,329 new COVID-19 cases, 137 more virus deaths over past five days

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Michigan public health officials reported Monday 25,329 new COVID-19 cases over a five-day period, Thursday-Monday, and 137 additional virus deaths over the past five days.

That case total brought the state’s total confirmed number to 1,301,593 and deaths to 23,732 since the onset of the pandemic. Of the 137 deaths announced Monday, 57 were identified during a vital records review. Normally, the Monday COVID-19 data only includes Saturday-Monday. But due to the Thursday Thanksgiving holiday, numbers were not released Friday, resulting in the five days worth of data Monday.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), those totals represent testing data collected Thursday-Monday. MDHHS publishes new case, death, and vaccination numbers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with new outbreak-related data published every Monday.

Locally, since Thursday, Macomb County has reported 2,829 new cases and 15 additional deaths. In Oakland County, there were 3,125 new cases and seven additional deaths. In Wayne County, there were 3,181 new cases and nine additional deaths.

The state’s vaccination coverage rate for residents 16 and older is 70.9%, up 0.1% since Wednesday, with more than 5.74 million residents receiving at least one dose. The vaccination coverage rate for residents 5 and older is at 60.7%, up 0.4% since Wednesday. Michigan’s number of hospitalized adults with confirmed COVID-19 cases reached a new pandemic high Monday, nearly 4,200, as the state continued to confront surging infections.

The total of 4,181 surpassed the previous record of 4,158, which was set seven months ago during the state’s third wave.

Only Minnesota had a higher seven-day case rate than Michigan as of Sunday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and to wear masks in public settings to limit the spread of the coronavirus amid the fourth surge. The federal government has deployed military medical staffers to help Michigan hospitals cope.


MICHIGAN SCHOOLS STRUGGLE WITH REMOTE DAYS

BRIDGE MI w/CHALKBEAT DETROIT — Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti spent much of the last year preaching the importance of in-person learning for students’ emotional well-being.

But getting students back in the classroom was only the first step in what is proving to be a long, uphill battle to help students recover from the emotional and academic effects of the pandemic.

Detroit Public Schools Community District is going remote for three days in December and closed schools for an extra two days before Thanksgiving.

The closures help show that students and educators are under duress as COVID outbreaks and staff shortages pile on top of nearly two years of virtual learning, quarantines, masking battles and COVID fears.

Those disruptions, compounded by growing staff shortages, mean “this year is harder for kids and educators than last year,” said Kevin Polston, superintendent of Kentwood Public Schools, who led a council appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to develop Michigan’s educational comeback. “We knew it would be a multiyear process of recovery.”

School closures this fall make clear that efforts to rebuild relationships with students and reestablish academic routines will be a long-term project for Michigan schools. Outside of Detroit, districts such as Southfield, Eastpointe, and Ann Arbor have gone remote for days at a time in response to staffing shortages and outbreaks. The Grand Rapids district cancelled classes on two Fridays in December, calling them COVID wellness days.

Dozens of districts across Michigan canceled school through the Thanksgiving week in response to spiking outbreaks, including in Grand Haven, Muskegon, and Ypsilanti.

Although Vitti said he strongly favors in-person instruction, he argued that Detroit’s three remote learning days in December are necessary given the mental health challenges teachers and students face.

“The online Fridays will give students a break from mask wearing, the stress of COVID, the anxiety of returning to school with peers and adults they have not seen or known in two years,” Vitti said. “It’s not a long term solution but it provides a much needed break from all of the newness and challenges of returning to school.”

Schools across the country have reported an uptick in disruptive student behavior and social-emotional challenges, seen by many as a reflection of the acute stressors the pandemic has placed on children.

Changes to school schedules add additional stress on working families — one Detroit parent said the Thanksgiving closures could cost her a job.

Even though closures can be “impossibly difficult” for families, they may be necessary given the pressures on teachers related to student mental health and staff shortages, said Elizabeth Koschmann, a researcher at the University of Michigan who leads TRAILS, a mental health program for schools.

For teachers, that crisis has meant ballooning responsibilities amid shortages of classroom aides and substitute teachers. At the same time, many students need more support than ever as they readjust to learning in classrooms.

On social media in conversation with Chalkbeat, teachers spoke about the challenges of more teachers calling out sick, and re-teaching lessons to students who had been in quarantine.

“As I communicate with teachers, most of them say the burnout rate this year is much higher” than last year, said Carrie Russell, a Detroit high school teacher. “I’m hearing horror stories of teachers who are covering every single prep, who had to give up classroom spaces.” The school year has brought an “extraordinary load” for educators, Russell added, as they navigate COVID safety protocols and contact tracing responsibilities.

“Because you’re back in the building, you’re being asked to do more, because you have fewer subs, and teachers are having to be quarantined. And when other teachers are out the burden becomes higher for you,” she said.

Returning to the classroom has been challenging for many students, adding to the pressure and workload for educators. Russell believes the remote instruction days could better support educators adjusting to the increased workload.

The increasing number of school outbreaks is adding to the challenges teachers and school administrators face. After reporting roughly 10 new cases linked to outbreaks every week through September and October, the district saw 128 new cases last week.

As Detroit leaders move to give students and teachers a break, they are considering whether to pour more federal COVID funds into hiring staff, such as guidance counselors and social workers, who will directly support students. The district has already planned to invest $34 million to address the mental health needs of students, families, and staff.

“We don’t have an indefinite amount of time to try to support students through this,” said Detroit school district board member Sonya Mays in a recent finance committee meeting.

“At some point, if we don’t make the biggest, most impactful investment in social-emotional wellbeing” … students “are not going to hit the achievement levels that they otherwise could have.”

“If the choice is putting more money in schools, or doing as much as you can to support students and teachers, quite frankly, to get through this moment, we really have to have an honest conversation about that.”

The remote instruction days have also been described as a time to thoroughly clean school buildings — something many parents and teachers have called for. The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends cleaning in facilities, however the agency makes it clear that the risk of infection from touching surfaces is low.

Even under pressure from staffing shortages, there are steps schools can take now to support students emotionally and pave the way for academic recovery, said Melissa Schlinger, vice president at Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a consulting company that helps schools improve student mental health.

“We need to get back into routines and connect with each other,” she said. “Give teachers and staff members permission to focus on rebuilding relationships and not be so stressed out about learning loss. If we don’t address these social emotional pieces first, it will be a lot harder to get kids to lean into the academic rigor.”

But supporting students isn’t easy, and existing staff are already stretched thin.

“I’m trying my hardest to keep track of who is supposed to be where and provide education to all my students both in person and virtual,” said Marnina Falk, a Detroit district teacher who spoke during November’s school board meeting about her challenges tracing close contacts in her classroom.

“Doing that on top of everything else on my plate is becoming impossible.”


LAWMAKER: PPO VIOLATES FREE SPEECH, SEPARATION OF POWERS, LEGISLATIVE PRIVILEGE

DETROIT NEWS — A Harrison Township lawmaker accused of sending threatening texts to another legislator has asked a judge to dismiss a personal protection order, arguing his statements were protected by freedom of speech, legislative privilege and separation of powers.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Lisa McCormick is expected to hold a hearing on Rep. Steve Marino’s request to dismiss the PPO this week, about two and a half months after Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, was granted the order.

Marino, 32, who had a prior romantic relationship with Manoogian, 29, that ended in 2019, has not been to session since the PPO was issued in mid-September. Though the order bars him from being in the same room with Manoogian, Republican House leadership and Manoogian agreed to an arrangement that allowed Marino to attend with a security escort.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, had removed Marino from his committee assignments after Manoogian showed him texts Marino had sent her.

In the texts, Marino said he would make it his “life mission to destroy” Manoogian, said he hoped Manoogian’s “car explodes on the way in” and warned her to “hide on the House floor.” The texts also discussed business related to the House Commerce and Tourism Committee, on which they both served, according to records.

Michigan State Police investigated the texts — including about 300 additional pages supplied by Marino’s lawyer — and forwarded their report to Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, whose office declined criminal charges in late October.

Marino’s lawyer, Mike Rataj, has maintained the texts were taken out of context and argued in his filing requesting the dismissal of the PPO that Marino’s statements were “far removed from any potential violence” and were protected by his rights to freedom of speech and expression.

The texts were “certainly discourteous on both their parts” over the years, the motion said, but didn’t meet the standard needed to show the commissioning “of an unlawful act of violence.”

“Calling someone names, however crude, does not translate into imminent lawless action, and Mr. Marino’s intent was not to induce anybody, including himself, to violate the law,” the motion said.

Rataj also invoked Michigan’s constitutional protection of lawmakers’ speech during legislative session, committee hearings or work groups — a legislative privilege known as the “speech or debate clause” in the state and federal constitutions. Because Manoogian and Marino at times discussed House and committee issues in their texts, those communications should be protected from “civil arrest and civil process,” the motion said.

“These communications are protected by the legislative privilege and cannot be used to entwine Mr. Marino in a civil action where he is required to defend himself,” the motion said.

Lastly, Rataj argued that the state’s separation of powers prevents the judicial branch from restricting actions in the legislative branch.

“While Mr. Marino has no interest in communicating with the petitioner, this court does not have authority to restrict the work-related communications of a legislator and infringe on the Legislature,” the motion said.

Rataj also submitted to the court copies of polygraph tests administered to Marino by three different companies over a two-week period in October in which the lawmaker said he never forced Manoogian into hugs.

Manoogian told McCormick in September, while requesting the PPO, that Marino had hugged her against her will despite knowing she didn’t like hugs.

Polygraphs are not generally admissible in Michigan in criminal proceedings, but can be used during other aspects of an investigation and in some court hearings.


85% OF MICHIGAN INPATIENT AND ICU BEDS ARE FULL, SOME PATIENTS TURNED AWAY

BRIDGE MI – More than 85 percent of Michigan intensive care unit (ICU) beds and hospital inpatient beds are full, a dangerous and potentially deadly level of overcrowding as the state’s health system is strained by a fourth surge of COVID-19 cases.

At least eight hospitals are 100 percent full, according to the latest state data. west Michigan’s largest system, Spectrum Health, reached a system-record number of patients in both its hospitals and ICUs, as statewide hospitalization levels continue to climb.

Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, Spectrum’s president, stood at his computer Friday afternoon in his Grand Rapids office, next to a row of windows looking out on a cold, gray day. Normally, Spectrum would take up to 50 transfer patients each day from smaller hospitals or rural emergency rooms, he said. But now, it can’t.

“We’ll get phone calls saying we’re the 15th hospital they’ve called, and can we please help? And very often right now, the answer is no,” he said. “Because we have to take care of those people in front of us before we can take care of people that are coming from a distance. And that’s really heartbreaking, and it’s hard.”

St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital are both 100 percent full, a spokesperson confirmed Friday.

“St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston have been managing day-to-day ICU operations either at capacity or above standard capacity throughout much of November,” Dr. David Vandenberg, chief medical officer at the two hospitals, said in a statement. “While patient safety remains our No. 1 priority, the unrelenting volume of COVID-19 patients with advanced illness makes managing their care very difficult on our medical teams.”

Hospitals say they’re also being hit by waves of non-COVID patients whose conditions have worsened after months of delayed care during the pandemic. Emergency room waits are getting longer, ambulances are overwhelmed by demand, and patients are being sent greater distances to find a hospital that can take them.

“You could be at a hospital in the U.P. and not have someone to accept you at a bigger, more capable health system right now because of this,” said Elmouchi of Spectrum. “You can get in a car accident, you can have a heart attack, and you don’t get the care that you otherwise would have at the right time. Things can be delayed or changed as a result of this. Every health system, every hospital, every doctor across the state is trying to do their best for everybody. But it’s hard to do that when you’re stretched in capacity.”

Across the state, more than 4,000 adults and 58 children are hospitalized for confirmed or suspected COVID cases. And as of Wednesday, the most recent state data available, 2,651 of the state’s 3,114 ICU beds were occupied.

Overcrowding at these levels isn’t just inconvenient. It can kill people. Once hospitals hit 75 percent ICU capacity, more patients are likely to die for medically-preventable reasons, according to a CDC study published last week in “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly.”

Examining a year of hospital records ending in July of this year, researchers predicted that once the nation’s ICU beds were at 75 percent capacity, an estimated additional 12,000 excess deaths would occur two weeks later. And “as hospitals exceed 100 percent ICU bed capacity, 80,000 excess deaths would be expected 2 weeks later,” the authors said.

Those national models are hard to drill down to a state level: Neither the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services nor the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, an industry group, tracks deaths linked to hospital overcrowding.

“MDHHS does not have a model for excess deaths, but we work with facilities to monitor morgue capacity and have mobile resources to support additional morgue capacity if needed and requested,” spokesperson Bob Wheaton said Friday via email.

Asked if any health systems have adopted crisis standards of care (an emergency mode to help health care workers determine who gets life-saving care when resources are scarce), Wheaton said while they “aren’t aware of any facilities in full crisis standards of care…several have reported being between contingency and crisis.”

On Nov. 9, Munson Healthcare announced it was moving to “Pandemic Level Red Status” for the first time in the organization’s history. That means it will prioritize “pandemic-related care…above all other issues,” including pausing some services and assessing “non-urgent surgeries on a case-by-case basis to shift staff and resources to where they are needed most.”

Some Michigan ER patients are being “placed in hallways or conference rooms,” while hospitals divert others away “because there is no physical room or medical staff available to accept more patients,” the Michigan Health and Hospital Association said in a letter from chief medical officers across the state earlier this week.

“…Just as hospitals and the staff working inside are and have been working at capacity, our emergency medical services (EMS) are also stressed and overworked. There may be times when capacity in the system is not adequate to accommodate the usual response and speed of transport, especially for out-of-area transfers.”

As previously reported, the U.S. Department of Defense has agreed to a request from Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration for federal medical teams to assist Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids and Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn.

Meanwhile, health leaders continue to plead with the public: please, get vaccinated and follow basic safety protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing.

“Every day folks say, ‘Well, but you know, people with vaccines can still get COVID,’” Elmouchi said. “They can. But our data, as recently as two days ago, shows that 91 percent of those that are hospitalized…in our 14 hospitals are… unvaccinated. And so the key to this in my mind is not, ‘we’re never going to get rid of [COVID].’ But if we can minimize it and make it much less of a severe illness, we’ll do better.”

It would be one thing if COVID cases and hospitalizations showed signs of leveling off, Elmouchi said. But the trend lines keep rising, with the state poised to break a record number of COVID inpatients.

“The COVID numbers day by day just keep creeping up,” he said. “And at this point, there’s not an end in sight to that.”


CANADA, AUSTRALIA REPORT CASES OF OMICRON; FAUCI SAYS NEW VARIANT MIGHT ‘EVADE IMMUNE PROTECTION’: COVID-19 UPDATES

ASSOCIATED PRESS via DETROIT FREE PRESS — The omicron mutation of the coronavirus “strongly suggests” it is easily transmitted and might elude immunity protections gained by previous infections and even vaccination, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Sunday.

“It’s not necessarily that that’s going to happen, but it’s a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for that,” Fauci said on “Meet the Press,” adding that omicron ” just kind of exploded” in South Africa.

Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, lauded the efforts of South African public health officials, who he said were completely transparent from the beginning. U.S officials were getting real-time information last week and continue to receive updates, he said.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health, told Fox News Sunday that it will take two or three weeks to tell whether antibodies from vaccines or previous infections will be effective against omicron.

“We expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection,” Collins said. “And especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection.”

Collins and Fauci both said the troubling emergence of omicron is yet another reason for Americans to get vaccinated and obtain booster shots.

“Whether or not we’re headed into a bleak or bleaker winter is really going to depend upon what we do,” Fauci said. “So this is a clarion call as far as I’m concerned of saying let’s put aside all of these differences that we have and say, ‘if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted, and get the children vaccinated also.’ We now have time.”

WHO lobbies against flight bans targeting South Africa

The World Health Organization on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations because of concerns over the new omicron variant. WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations. The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday.

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive and should be scientifically based.”

Too soon to know details of omicron variant, WHO says

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, was one of the first doctors in South Africa to detect the new omicron variant. She told Reuters that the symptoms were “very mild” and could be treated at home. However, initial reported infections were among university students – younger individuals who tend to have relatively mild symptoms, according to the World Health Organization.

“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants,” WHO said in a statement released Sunday. It could take weeks to determine whether there is any difference, WHO said.

Preliminary research did show that people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with omicron compared to other variants of concern, the statement said.   – Michelle Shen

Canada, Australia report cases of omicron variant

Two cases of the Omicron variant were detected in Canada after travelers returned from Nigeria, the Ontario government said Sunday.

The Netherlands confirmed 13 cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus on Sunday and Australia found two as the countries half a world apart became the latest to detect it in travelers arriving from southern Africa.

Israel barred entry to foreigners and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming air travel for two weeks starting Monday – the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scramble to slow the variant’s spread.

“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

The French Ministry of Health announced eight possible cases of the Omicron variant on Sunday.

Confirmed or suspected cases of the new variant have already emerged in several other European countries, in Israel and in Hong Kong, days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa.

New York declares state of emergency amid surge, new variant

Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency in New York amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and the looming threat of the omicron variant. The move by Hochul comes as hospitals are again warning of being overrun with COVID-19 patients and as the state’s positivity hit 3.8% on Thursday, the highest since mid-April. In some regions, the rates were even higher: nearly 10% in western New York and almost 9% in the Finger Lakes.

Hochul said the omicron variant that has stoked fears of a new spread across the globe has yet to be found in New York, or anywhere in the U.S., but warned it is likely to arrive. By declaring a state of emergency, the state Department of Health will be allowed to limit nonessential, nonurgent procedures for hospitals or systems “with limited capacity to protect access to critical health care services.”


FIREFIGHTERS, ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES PUSH FOR SAFER FOAM

CAPITOL NEWS SERVICE via DETROIT NEWS — Michigan has disposed of more than 50,000 gallons of potentially harmful firefighting foam since 2019.

Firefighters and environmental advocates say that isn’t enough.

The foam targeted for removal contains PFAS, an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of manufactured chemicals used since the 1950s, but that scientists now link to harmful effects on people and the environment. Because of this, Michigan is working to limit their use.

Exposure to modern fires means higher cancer risks, said Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond. Consistent exposure to PFAS foam increases that risk.

“When I was a firefighter, we weren’t aware this foam was that bad for us,” Yaroch said. “Now that we know, we need to take action.”

Michigan is one of the leading states on PFAS issues, especially as it relates to firefighting foams, Yaroch said.

The foam is no longer allowed for training or calibration of equipment, Yaroch said. But it’s still needed to put out what are known as class B fires, the kind that involve substances like gasoline, oil and jet fuel.

The state assists with disposal and encourages purchases of safer foams.

The free collection and education programs have cut down unnecessary usage, said Scott Dean, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s communication adviser.

But disposal still has substantial costs for many communities, said Wixom’s fire chief Jeff Roberts, president of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.

“Sure, they took it away free of charge,” Roberts said. “But you lose the investment, and foam is not cheap to begin with.”

Also, some fires still require it, he said. This includes airport fires where, previously, hazardous Teflon-based foam was used.

The fire service is searching for alternatives, Yaroch said. Dow Chemical in Midland is researching alternatives.

Meanwhile, firefighters report the use of PFAS foams to a Michigan pollution hotline.

“We use the reports to make sure cleanup is done,” Dean said, “and that the site is documented as a potential contaminated site.”

Alternatives already exist, said former Oscoda Township Supervisor Aaron Weed. The Oscoda Fire Department changed manufacturers when its previous supplier was vague about ingredients.

“We found one that is very readily committed to being PFAS-free,” Weed said. “So we switched to make sure we were on the safe side.”

Other departments may be less aware of these alternatives, he said. Or they may be too busy to address these issues.

Other groups encourage the military and Federal Aviation Administration to switch to PFAS-free options.

A study by the Environmental Working Group found PFAS-free foams are commonly used to fight class B fires at airports, chemical companies and military installations across the globe. The group says there is no reason to delay the switch.

Michigan is moving in the right direction, Weed said. It may seem it has more PFAS than other states, but that is because of the large amount of testing done here.

PFAS issues are important in Oscoda due to the now-decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Weed said. After the local fire department switched foams, the Air Force continued using the PFAS-based supply.

Weed believes that is because the Air Force wants to use its stockpile and avoid the costs of replacement.

Given the involvement of the Air Force and Oscoda’s smaller population, Weed feels the issue is often overlooked.

“We seem to kind of get treated like we’re just some people in the woods,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about them, that’s a federal problem.”

But all Michigan residents should be concerned, Weed said. Once it hits a body of water, PFAS can quickly spread across the Great Lakes and even contaminate municipal systems.

Moving to new foam options is important, Yaroch said. “This is better for our firefighters and it’s better for the environment.”

PFAS in firefighting foams will be discussed at the Great Lakes Virtual PFAS Summit Dec. 6-10.

The summit will be on the virtual conference platform Whova and hosted by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. For information, visit the EGLE website.


AMID SURGING COVID-19, DETROIT CASINOS REINSTALL MASK MANDATES

DETROIT NEWS — If you want to gamble, Detroit’s three casinos would prefer you do it with your cash, not your health.

MGM Grand Detroit, MotorCity Casino Hotel and Greektown Casino have reinstalled mask mandates, effective at noon Tuesday, after the state last week issued a recommendation, but not a mandate, for everyone over the age of 2 to be masked up indoors amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

MGM Grand Detroit and MotorCity Casino Hotel made announcements on their websites and via emails to customers. An operator at Greektown Casino said it, too, is bringing back the mask mandate, and a spokesperson confirmed the decision.

“MGM Grand Detroit remains committed to the health and safety of our guests and employees,” David Tsai, Midwest group president for MGM Resorts International, said in a letter to casino guests Monday night. “To prepare for your visit, please wear a face mask at all times unless you are actively eating or drinking.

“As we approach the holidays, we hope you stay well and wish you a healthy and happy holiday season. I look forward to welcoming you back safely on your next visit.”

The three casinos are requiring the masks regardless of vaccination status.

All casinos provide masks to customers who don’t have one.

“Face masks must be worn by customers, associates, and other visitors,” MotorCity said in a statement.

The mask mandates for the casinos include hotel guests who are in public spaces. At MotorCity, masks will not be required for customers attending banquets or events at the Sound Board theater.

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan applauded the moves, which were voluntary.

“What private companies are doing makes great sense,” he said Tuesday. “If I were running a casino, I’d do the same thing.”

Detroit’s three casinos shut down for several months, starting in March 2020, amid the early wave of COVID-19, missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits. They reopened in December, with strict health measures in place, including mask mandates and no more smoking indoors. Mask mandates were lifted in June, and most customers haven’t worn them since. The smoking ban has remained.

The three downtown casinos reported $114.1 million in revenues for October, with the state taking in $9 million in taxes and the city of Detroit $13.8 million. In the same period, Michigan’s online gaming and sports betting operators reported $134 million in gross receipts, with nearly $21 million in taxes going to the state and nearly $6 million going to the city of Detroit. Online gaming in Michigan was legalized in January.


REDISTRICTING MAY OUST HALF OF INCUMBENTS IN MICHIGAN, ANALYSIS FINDS

BRIDGE MI — In the state House, Flint is represented by Democrats Cynthia Neeley and John Cherry, even though they live less than 3 miles apart within the city.

But starting next year, they would be consolidated into the same district, according to all four maps under consideration by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The Rev. Alfred L. Harris of Flint called those proposals a “disgrace,” and he worries that Flint, a city that’s 54 percent Black, could be without a Black representative in the state House. Neeley is African American.

“I mean, that’s just going backwards,” Harris told Bridge Michigan.

Similar changes could come next year throughout Michigan, as up to half of all seats in the state House and Senate next year could have new representatives because of redistricting and term limits, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis.

Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years after the completion of the U.S. Census. This is the first year an independent panel — rather than politicians — is drawing the districts, and it’s clear the group’s 13 members didn’t take incumbency into consideration.

The commission is weighing 15 maps total, and the public can comment on them until Dec. 28, when the panel is expected to adopt districts for the state Legislature and Michigan’s delegation to the U.S. House.

Bridge Michigan analyzed the commission’s maps, compared them to current addresses of lawmakers, and found there are up to three dozen proposed state House and Senate and U.S. House districts without an incumbent when the maps take effect in 2022.

Similarly, the commission has created as many as 11 districts where state lawmakers would have to move or face off against each other. In Saginaw County, for instance, Reps. Rodney Wakeman, R-Saginaw Township, and Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw, would live in the same district in three of the four proposed maps. They live less than 5 miles from each other.

The proposed changes are far more sweeping than previous rounds of redistricting, which were controlled by the party in power in Lansing and resulted in some of the most Republican gerrymandered districts in the nation.

Much of that process was behind closed doors — but ultimately had to be approved during an open vote of the Legislature, and the districts had to abide by a framework established by the courts.

Some of those old rules, such as drawing lines that keep county boundaries intact, no longer apply with the citizens panel.

Nor does the commission have to worry about wooing incumbents to vote for the new districts.

New maps, many new faces

Unless dozens of legislators intend to move, any of the 15 proposed maps could lead to an influx in inexperienced lawmakers in the Legislature.

Bridge’s analysis found that no fewer of 55 seats in the 110-district House will have new representatives in 2022 (24 because of term limits), compared to 18 who didn’t seek re-election in 2012.

In the 38-seat Senate, at least 17 districts will get new senators (six because of term limits) under the new maps, compared to 10 in 2014, the first election after the last redistricting.

“When you have a lot of new people that come in, there tends to be a lot of sort of ideological fervor and not a lot of expertise about how to accomplish stuff,” Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist, told Bridge Michigan.

The new maps would appear to increase Democrats’ chance of flipping the state House or Senate, based on vote tallies from the 2020 and 2016 election. The congressional delegation, which is now 7-7, also may have a slight advantage for Democrats.

This is a significant change: Republicans have had the majority in the Legislature for years, despite sometimes getting fewer overall votes than Democrats in some elections.

Already, lawmakers have said they will move because of redistricting, including Dingell and fellow Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly — even though U.S. House members are not required to live in their districts.

State lawmakers are required to do so, however, and [Sen. Rosemary] Bayer said she may move to an open district just northwest of her home in Beverly Hills in Oakland County rather than face fellow Democrats Bullock and McMorrow.

“Part of our major goal has to be — and I can’t decide if it’s No. 1 or No. 2 — but making sure that we win enough seats in Michigan, flip the Senate,” Bayer said. “So, none of us want to run against each other.”

Open seats

A big roster change in Lansing could create challenges, said Meghan Reckling, a GOP strategist who also serves as chair of the Livingston County Republican Party.

In a city already marked by gridlock, next year’s Legislature may have to allocate billions of dollars in infrastructure through COVID-19 relief funds or consider whether to tighten election laws.

“When we have such a large turnover, and you have a lot of legislators in both caucuses that don’t know the legislative process, that puts a lot of power in the hands of staff and the people who have been in Lansing significantly longer than the legislators themselves,” Reckling said.

Bernie Porn, a longtime Michigan pollster who worked with Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s redistricting cycles, told Bridge new people could mean the candidates have to work harder to get votes.

Porn said eliminating partisanship was one of the reasons why voters approved the 2018 constitutional amendment that created the independent commission.

“The only way to get around (partisanship) is to have as many competitive districts where candidates have to try and appeal to both their own party and independent voters in order to win,” Porn said.

Regardless of incumbency or new faces, all of the proposed maps are already creating conversations among lawmakers regarding fundraising.

It’s clear that the next election cycle could be one of the most expensive ones in the state. Primaries, Reckling said, are the ones to watch closely.

“Under almost all of the maps, that majority is genuinely going to be in play,” Reckling said.

“So you’re going to see both caucuses swinging for the fences to try to gain majority control over the Michigan House … You have many sitting members that are raising money and they’re going to spend a lot of money to come out of this.”


DETROIT CITY COUNCIL OKS NEW TRANSIT CENTER AT OLD STATE FAIRGROUNDS SITE

DETROIT NEWS — Plans to preserve historic structures for a new transit center at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds site will move forward in the city.

Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved the new $18.6 million price tag for the future transit center, which includes plans for an outdoor park and renovated historic structures to replace the current bus hub on Woodward Avenue south of 8 Mile.

The initial $7 million plan was to raze existing historic structures for a new transit center that would complement the Rosa Parks station but preservationists urged officials to save them. Developers plan to restore the Dairy Cattle Building to serve as the main access for drivers and passengers. The 1924 Coliseum will be demolished but the facade will remain as an entry point, COO Hakim Berry said at a news conference earlier this month.

“We’re trying to retain that as an anchor to the what we call right now ‘Coliseum Park.’ It could be called something else in the future. But it creates that outdoor space on this kind of desert place where nothing else is happening,” Berry said.

More than 10 callers either raised concerns about demolishing the Coliseum or supported the new plan during City Council’s public comment session, including Councilmembers-elect Angela Calloway and Latisha Johnson. Calloway urged councilmembers not to move forward with a vote and to instead explore outside funding to preserve the Coliseum.

“The Coliseum is a historical and cultural gem,” Calloway said.

Johnson, who is replacing former Councilman Andre Spivey, said she is concerned about the environment.

“In District 4, we are actively dealing with environmental issues surrounding Stellantis. It’s important to make sure that when we bring industry to our communities that we do right by the residential community,” Johnson said.

Officials were divided on the project. Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López, who attempted to send it back to the public health and safety committee, said she was against the proposal since the beginning because of air quality and noise concerns, and urged council to table the proposal until the new term beginning in January to deliberate.

“I know firsthand the impact of having 200-plus additional trucks go through a specific area,” Castañeda-López said. “The other piece missing is the protection around noise pollution … we have residents that have experienced hearing loss because of the amount of noise pollution in areas that have a high concentration of trucks.”

President Pro-Tem Mary Sheffield, who said she “wholeheartedly” supports investing in Detroit’s transit, also opposed the project to allow more negotiations to address environmental concerns and save the Coliseum.

“We are also assuming more debt to pay for the transit center when infrastructure funding is expected from the federal government,” Sheffield said in a text message to the Free Press. “There needs to be more of an effort to save the Coliseum Building and support the community ask … delaying a month will not derail the process in my opinion.”

Castañeda-López and Sheffield were the only two to vote against it.

However, Councilman Scott Benson was against tabling the plan and said the city held community engagements to collect feedback for the project.

“I just shudder to think about spending another winter on East State Fair and Woodward at the current transit terminal,” Benson said.

Others in the public comment session such as Christopher Johnson urged councilmembers to pass the amended resolution.

“Across the country, these transit centers not only revitalize the neighborhoods but it also increases the tax revenue that comes in for cities. It also has helped with commercial buildings as far as revenue,” Johnson said.

Another caller associated with the State Fair neighborhood association also pushed for the project, adding that there is no use for the Coliseum.

“I think Coliseum park as an opportunity for transit riders to have access to food trucks and an open space, along with Amazon employees … is a great idea,” the caller said.

The project is expected to be completed in the 2022 winter season, Berry added. Operational costs have yet to be determined. Other plans include small retail or pop-up businesses in the Dairy Cattle building.

DDOT bus driver Fernando Smith, who runs a route from Woodward and Larned to the old State Fairgrounds site, said at a site walk-through earlier this month that he is looking forward to the new facility providing as much as a lounge and bathroom for drivers.

“Now you can come in, sit down, rest yourself a minute and get your thoughts together before you go back out and roll down the road and start picking up other passengers,” Smith said. “With this facility, you have the passengers and the drivers out of the weather. That’s important.”


MICHIGAN: 17,008 NEW COVID-19 CASES, 83 ADDITIONAL VIRUS DEATHS OVER PAST THREE DAYS

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Michigan public health officials reported Monday 17,008 new COVID-19 cases over a three-day period, Saturday-Monday, and 83 additional virus deaths over the past three days.

The three-day case total brought the state’s total confirmed cases to 1,259,261 and deaths to 23,315 since the onset of the pandemic. Of the 83 deaths announced Monday, 32 of them were identified during a vital records review.

According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), those totals represent testing data collected Saturday, Sunday and Monday. MDHHS publishes new case, death, and vaccination numbers every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with new outbreak-related data published every Monday.

Locally, since Friday, Macomb County has reported 1,808 new cases and three additional deaths. In Oakland County, there were 1,986 new cases and two additional deaths. In Wayne County, there were 1,836 new cases and three additional deaths.

The state’s vaccination coverage rate for residents 16 and older is 70.8%, up 0.4% since Friday, with more than 5.73 million residents receiving at least one dose. The vaccination coverage rate for residents 5 and older remains at 60.3%.

Faced with spiking COVID-19 infections, Michigan health officials said Friday that they will issue a public health advisory recommending that everyone over age 2 wear a mask at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status.

They also said businesses should implement policies ensuring that customers and employees are masked. They stopped short of requiring face coverings, keeping with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shift away from such mandates earlier this year as vaccines became available.

The officials pleaded with people to get the vaccine, a flu shot and, if eligible, a coronavirus booster dose as the state finds itself dealing with a fourth surge in cases since the pandemic started. The step came before the holiday season when families in the state with the country’s highest per-capita weekly infection rate will gather indoors to celebrate.

The case average for Saturday-Monday was 5,669 per day.

According to the Associated Press, more Michigan schools are shutting down for the entire week of Thanksgiving, giving staff and families an opportunity to recover from illness, including COVID-19. The decisions come as the state on Friday continued to post the worst new case rate in the United States, according to federal health statistics.

In northern Michigan, Kingsley, Elk Rapids and Kalkaska schools added Monday and Tuesday to the holiday break.


GOV. WHITMER SAYS ‘ADDITIONAL GUIDANCE’ AHEAD AMID MICHIGAN’S COVID SURGE

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday she expects her health department to release “additional guidance” directed at the state’s ongoing COVID-19 surge in the near future.

During her first public appearance in Michigan in more than a week, Whitmer said an unidentified hospital leader she spoke with Monday was “not encouraging mandates” but was urging public education about vaccinations.

The number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state hit a seven-month high at 3,699 Monday, and last week, the percentage of tests for the virus bringing positive results reached the highest weekly rate in more than a year. Michigan continues to lead the nation in new cases per population.

“If you’re congregating with a bunch of people indoors, it’s wise to make sure everyone is vaccinated,” Whitmer said. “And if they’re not, encourage them to do that.

“Take this opportunity to tell your loved ones how much you love them and how much you want to spend Christmas with them. It’s time to get vaccinated.”

The governor said she anticipates the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will release more guidance as the state gets closer to the upcoming holidays. Thanksgiving is Thursday.

On Friday, Whitmer’s health department issued a public health advisory, recommending people wear masks at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status. The recommendation also encouraged establishments to implement policies to ensure that all people entering, including employees, wear masks.

Michigan’s COVID-19 metrics have rapidly deteriorated over the last three weeks. On Monday, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association released a statement, describing the situation as “alarming.”

The state is approaching “the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan since the pandemic began,” according to the statement, made on behalf of chief medical officers of Michigan’s community hospitals.

“We cannot wait any longer for Michigan to correct course; we need your help now to end this surge and ensure our hospitals can care for everyone who needs it,” the medical officers added.

Last year, during a similar surge, Whitmer’s administration used its executive powers to suspend in-person high school and college classes, and halt indoor dining at restaurants through health department epidemic orders.

This month, however, Whitmer and her health department have relied on recommendations and public calls for vaccinations. Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, has also declined to impose a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools.

“A year ago, we did not have access to vaccines,” Whitmer said Monday. “We do now. They are easy to get. They are incredibly effective, and they are free of charge.”

The governor said she’s “imploring” school districts and parents to ensure their children are wearing masks.

Whitmer took questions from reporters Monday afternoon after a press conference announcing 100 new jobs and a $1 million expansion of Crest Marine in Owosso Township.

Last week, she was in Arizona and California as Michigan became the top state in the country for new COVID-19 cases per population. In California, she met with the Semiconductor Industry Association Board of Directors to discuss ongoing efforts to increase domestic chip production and attend the association’s annual event.


POISED FOR ‘DRINKSGIVING,’ MICHIGAN BARS FRET COVID WILL DAMPEN PARTY

BRIDGE MI — Calling the night before Thanksgiving “the biggest bar night of the year” isn’t just hype, said Kyle Edwards, tap room and production manager at Grand Armory Brewing in Grand Haven.

The annual event — informally known as Drinksgiving — is bigger than the craft brewery’s Halloween parties, and it’s bigger than New Year’s Eve. The night draws more customers than any other event Edwards can recall in the popular spot in the Lake Michigan vacation town.

This year, exclusive beers will be on tap, and a DJ will bring vinyl to entertain patrons. “We’re hoping to be busy,” Edwards said.

But the reality may be differ from the shoulder-to-shoulder evening in 2019. Many regulars, who tend to be aged 35 and up,  are still staying home during the pandemic. And while people may be hungry to get back to normal, the state’s bars aren’t assured of that Wednesday.

“It’s been pretty hit or miss this year,” Edwards said.

Bars across Michigan depend on Thanksgiving Eve for a boost in sales as patrons celebrate with friends ahead of family gatherings over the four-day weekend.

But this year — as Michigan leads the nation with infection rates and COVID  once again overwhelms its exhausted health care workforce and at times packs its emergency rooms — health officials are begging people to once more play it smart, mask up, and even stay home.

That some folks may pack bars and restaurants this week is mind-boggling to those in public health who have spent the better part of 20 months asking Michiganders to stay safe.

Their mantra hasn’t much changed.

“I have two words for you,” said Steve Kelso, spokesperson for the Kent County Health Department. “Get vaccinated.” Beyond that, he and others said: Mask up. Keep your distance. Stay away from others when sick.

“The script hasn’t changed, and it’s pretty simple,” Kelso said. “People are acting like this is over. Take a trip to our data dashboard, and I can assure you it’s not.”

The state’s hospitals, meanwhile, are running at “contingency levels of care,” meaning delays in patient care and staffing shortages are more routine than unusual, said chief medical officers from hospitals across the state — representing large, small, rural and urban hospitals — in a letter issued Monday by the Michigan Health and Hospitals Association.

“If we have a new flood of exposures and COVID cases in the next week, two weeks, the question is: How do we manage them?” said

Non-urgent medical procedures are being cancelled, and patients are facing waits for care and even, at times, for EMS responders.

More worrisome perhaps: The state’s hospitals were caring for 3,963 people with confirmed or suspected COVID — a level approaching the all-time high of 4,422 during the spring surge.

A year ago as Thanksgiving approached, Michigan bars and restaurants were ordered to close to indoor service as part of a three-week “pause,” effective November 18, as weeks of escalating COVID-19 cases prompted fears of any gathering ahead of the holiday. Hospital leaders begged residents to cancel routine plans, warning that the “healthcare system can capsize.”

This year, Michigan faces escalating cases ahead of the year-end holidays once again, with one big difference: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has declined to mandate statewide closures as it did last year, noting among other factors the broad availability of vaccines and boosters.

So far, as a fourth COVID wave ripples across Michigan, bars and restaurants continue as they have since reopening early this year: They’re making their own decisions about operating in a pandemic, even as health officials urge caution.

Scott Ellis, executive director of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, told Bridge Michigan on Monday the state’s bars and restaurants consider the lack of restrictions good for their industry, and point to the low number of outbreaks tied to them as evidence that it’s working. While most drink businesses don’t require servers to be vaccinated, Ellis said, they do encourage it.

Ellis said many of his members — which are mostly independent owner-operators — are not yet back to pre-pandemic sales levels, especially places that don’t also offer extensive food menus.


AS COVID RISES, CDC APPROVES BOOSTERS FOR ALL ADULTS, MICHIGAN URGES MASKS

BRIDGE MI — The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Friday approved COVID boosters for all adults, days before millions of Americans are expected to travel for gatherings leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday.

A CDC expert advisory panel Friday unanimously endorsed broad adult eligibility for either the Pfizer or Moderna boosters once six months have elapsed since recipients finished the two-dose vaccines. Final approval came Friday evening, when CDC director Rochelle Walensky signed off on the recommendations to provide increased protection against the deadly virus.

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 cases surge across Michigan, the state Department of Health and Human Services issued an advisory Friday urging residents to wear masks as they gather for the holidays or head toward holiday shopping and other business, even if they’re vaccinated. The recommendation essentially formalizes the agency’s long standing advice, but unlike far stricter state policies a year ago, carries no mandate.

The federal actions Friday open up boosters to millions more Americans age 18 or older, including those otherwise healthy. Already, people who were immunocompromised, 65 and older, living in long-term care settings or otherwise at higher risk were eligible to receive third doses or COVID  boosters.

These higher-risk groups were also eligible for a booster of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The CDC has not yet signed off on making the J and J boosters broadly available to adults. But last month, the CDC endorsed a mix-and-match approach to boosters, allowing those who initially were vaccinated with J & J to seek a Moderna or Pfizer booster.

In Michigan, more than 1.2 million doses of the vaccines already have been administered as “additional doses” for immunocompromised people or as boosters for others, according to state data.

“Booster shots have demonstrated the ability to safely increase people’s protection against infection and severe outcomes and are an important public health tool to strengthen our defenses against the virus as we enter the winter holidays,” Walensky said in a statement.

According to data compiled by the CDC in September, all three U.S.-approved COVID vaccines help prevent hospitalizations. The Moderna vaccine was shown to be 93 percent effective against hospitalizations from March 11 to August 15 compared to the Pfizer vaccine (88 percent) and the J & J vaccine (71 percent).

It remains to be seen how much broad booster availability will help tamp down infections in Michigan, which currently has one of the highest infection rates in the nation. Roughly 40 percent of Michigan residents haven’t received a single dose.

“The fact is, we are not going to boost our way out of this pandemic,” said Dr. Russell Faust, medical director at the Oakland County Health Division.

“It’s great that people are getting boosters because it will keep them safe. It decreases the likelihood of them getting infected with COVID-19, and even if they do have a breakthrough infection, it will (be more likely to) keep them out of the hospital and keep them alive. That’s all good. I fully support that,” he said. “But the fact is, we need to get everybody vaccinated.”

There’s not enough data yet to definitely say how quickly protection wanes from initial vaccines, nor precisely how much boosters will protect long-term or how often they’ll be needed.

But their safety seems clear, said Dr. Srikar Reddy, president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians. He and his sons had COVID in December. They were moderate cases, but he doesn’t want to tempt fate.

“What I do know is that, when I look at the risks and benefits, there’s not a whole lot of risk with getting the booster,” Reddy said.

Masks and flu shots

In Lansing Friday, the health department recommended that anyone 2 years old and older wear a face mask at indoor gatherings regardless of their vaccination status. Businesses should require masks of customers and employees, MDHHS leaders said during a morning news conference, though the state declined to mandate such actions.

It’s another move to help “curb” the steep upward curve of COVID, said Elizabeth Hertel, MDHHS director.

The state stopped short of requiring masks as it has for most of the past year, essentially formalizing existing advice and leaving it up to individual choice. That masking, experts have said, nearly zeroed out the spread of last year’s flu and respiratory viruses.

“We’ve all been armed with the information that we think we need to have in order to keep people safe,” said Hertel, the MDHHS director.

“So at this point, we feel that it is most prudent to make sure that people are aware of how serious this COVID surge is right now and give them the ability, the information to take steps to protect themselves and others,” she said.

Whether the advice will change anyone’s practices is unclear.

The state’s mask recommendation is “valid” in that masks prevent spread — and that’s especially true in schools, for example, said Reddy, president of the family doctor’s group.

But whether fully vaccinated family members should mask when they gather around the Thanksgiving table — that’s a different risk calculus than a family with a mix of unvaccinated members and those at higher risk, said Reddy.

“The fact of the matter is, if you have multiple vaccinated individuals, they understand their exposure. It’s really a family decision,” he said.

Others see a reality that’s even more blunt and grim.

Those who refuse masks and vaccines “can’t be convinced regardless of how much information you get them, how many facts you present to them…They are dead set in their beliefs,” said Faust of Oakland County.

The Whitmer administration also stepped up its call for masks and for flu shots, as the state begins to see what some experts say could be a rough flu season ahead.


HOW DO MICHIGAN ROADS RANK IN US? LIBERTARIAN THINK TANK CRUNCHES THE NUMBERS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan’s road conditions deteriorated as highways improved nationwide, according to a new report by the Reason Foundation.

The state ranked 34th nationally in highway performance and cost effectiveness in 2021, dropping 10 spots in the libertarian think tank’s Annual Highway Report compared to the 2020 report, and landing in the bottom 10 states in several measured categories.

The report released Thursday looked at highway data from 2019 and congestion data from 2020, and grades state roads in 13 categories. Those include pavement condition, traffic congestion, bridge structures, traffic fatalities and spending per mile.

Michigan was one of only four states, including New Mexico, Ohio and South Carolina, to decline in the rankings by 10 spots or more in the same time period, compared with the 2020 report, which looked at 2018 and 2019.

There were 1,219 bridges and more than 7,300 miles of highway in poor condition in Michigan, according to an August report released by the White House.

Since 2011, commute times have increased by 4.6% in the state and individual drivers paid an average of $644 a year in costs related to driving on damaged roads.

The report came days after President Joe Biden signed into law the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which will include around $7.8 billion in funding for highway and bridge repairs over five years in Michigan.

This is in addition to the $3.5 billion of bonds that the Michigan Department of Transportation was authorized to issue over four years for the repair and rehabilitation of 122 major highways, per the self-described “Fix the Damn Roads” governor, Gretchen Whitmer’s request.

The fiscal year 2019 budget was set by the Legislature under the Snyder administration.

“Our pavement is deteriorating more quickly than we can maintain it with current funding levels,” said Diane Cross, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Transport, on Sunday. “The governor’s $3.5 billion Rebuilding Michigan plan, now complemented by the federal IIJA, will slow the decline but everyone agrees that long term, we need more and sustainable investment.”

The Governor’s Office said Whitmer is working on the roads and acknowledged more work was needed to “make up for the prior decades of disinvestment” and working with the Legislature and federal government for more funding.

“After decades of disinvestment in the state’s aging infrastructure, Michigan has made a strong shift toward focusing on the type of investments that we need to rebuild roads and bridges across the state,” said Bobby Leddy, press secretary for Whitmer.

“Since taking office, Governor Whitmer has fixed more than 9,000 miles of roads and secured additional funding to fix 100 bridges in serious or critical condition without raising taxes. And the governor’s Rebuilding Michigan plan is creating tens of thousands of good-paying jobs to fix our state’s roads and bridges with the right mix and material to ensure the repairs last longer.”

Michigan’s best rankings in the Reason Foundation’s report were in the rural fatality and overall fatality rates on highways, 7th and 14th respectively.

On the other end of the findings, the state’s worst rankings were in urban Interstate pavement condition and congestion, with commuters spending 42.07 hours a year in rush hour traffic. Drivers in only four other states in the country spend more than 40 hours in traffic, according to the report; New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Illinois.

“Despite not having a metro area that ranks in the top 10 for population, Michigan has the fifth worst traffic congestion in the country,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, lead author of the report and senior managing director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation.

Compared to nearby states, the report found that Michigan’s overall highway performance is worse than Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but better than Illinois.

“Michigan is one of the few states that could benefit from spending slightly more on its highway system to improve the overall condition,” continued Feigenbaum.

Michigan spends around $92,500 per mile of state-controlled road.

The country’s most cost-effective highway systems, according to the report, were North Dakota, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky and North Carolina, while the worst combination of highway performance and cost effectiveness was found in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Alaska, Hawaii, and New York.


THE LAST KMART IN MICHIGAN HAS SHUTTERED ITS DOORS, ENDING THE DYNASTY’S REIGN

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The last Kmart in Michigan closed Sunday, putting an official end to a longtime Michigan staple.

Located in Marshall, a suburb of Battle Creek with a population just over 7,000, at 15861 Michigan Ave., it has been the last Kmart in Michigan since 2020.

It was the only national big-box retailer in the immediate area, likely what allowed it to stay in business until now.

“You can go in and buy a birthday present if you need to, without going out of town,” said Brenda Hoyt, Marshall resident, in a previous Free Press article. “Clothes, toys, projects for the kids for school — you can get it here.”

Marshall city manager Tom Tarkiewicz said he’s particularly concerned about how residents without cars will get their shopping done.

From Sebastian Kresge’s first five-and-dime store in 1899 to now, the store has gone from a dynasty to bankruptcy.

Here’s a look at Kmart’s tumultuous history:

Kresge roots

Sebastian Spering Kresge opened the first S.S. Kresge store on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in 1899, where everything was sold for five or 10 cents.

By 1912, he owned 85 stores, according to the Detroit Historical Society. The low prices enabled the Kresge brand to grow even as the country faced hardships, including the Great Depression.

The first official Kmart store opened in 1962 in Garden City by then-S.S. Kresge president  Harry Cunningham.

Kresge died four years later in 1966, but the Kmart brand lived on.

Bankruptcy

Every empire must fall, and Kmart is no different.

Although it amassed more and more stores throughout the 1990s, company leaders also invested in purchasing other chains, all of which went out of business, Detroit News reported.

Competitors, including Target and Walmart, started surpassing it in sales.

In 2000, the company closed 72 stores.

Just 2 years later, the company’s finances steeply declined and Kmart filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 22, 2002. After filing for Chapter 11 in bankruptcy court, the company, led by then-president Julian Day, emerged in 2003 with an approved plan.

Sears merger

In 2004, still struggling, Kmart bought Sears to form Sears Holdings Corporation. It was an $11 billion sale meant to reinvigorate both companies.

But it didn’t work, the competition of other stores and the rise of the internet proved to be too big of a hurdle to jump.

In 2018, Sears Holdings Corporation filed for bankruptcy, something Kmart was all too familiar with.

In 2004, the company announced it was purchasing Sears for $11 billion; it moved its headquarters from Troy to Hoffman Estates, Illinois, in 2006.

The end of an era

According to CNN, by the end of 2021, there will only be six stores left across the continental U.S.

The original Kmart in Garden city closed its doors in 2017, marking the beginning of the end.

And now, four years later, the last one in its home state is closed.


MICHIGAN DOLED OUT $3.9 BILLION IN IMPROPER UNEMPLOYMENT PAYMENTS, AUDIT SAYS

BRIDGE MI — Michigan paid out at least $3.9 billion in improper unemployment payments and most of the money likely won’t be recouped, a blockbuster state audit has found.

The Thursday report, published by the Office of the Auditor General, is the latest in a months-long debacle that has resulted in the resignation of two Unemployment Insurance Agency directors over their handling of payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state’s unemployment system was overwhelmed in the early days of the pandemic, paying $39 billion to 3.5 million residents. “Based on the limited data analysis we have been able to perform, it appears UIA improperly paid $3.9 billion to claimants now classified as ineligible,” the report said.

The money, which went to about 347,000 workers who are now deemed ineligible, will “likely not” be recouped, the audit found.

“The improper payments were UIA’s fault and not that of the claimants,” the report said.

The agency faced backlash this summer after using an old set of criteria for unemployment qualification, and warning over 648,000 claimants they may need to repay the benefits over the state’s mistake.

The state ended up granting claimants overpayment waivers.

The unusually harsh report by the Office of the Auditor General concluded that the state waited months to fix the problem

In June 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor told the UIA of “urgent” and “critical” issues related to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) certification.

UIA did not follow through changing the criteria until this March, despite suggesting it would do so in September 2020 and October 2020.

In a response to the audit, the state acknowledged “some errors were made” and said it was challenged and its “capacity (was) tested.”

“UIA had to implement multiple new federal programs based on a hastily drafted law that allowed claimants to self-attest to their own eligibility, contend with historic levels of claims filed, and defend against new highly sophisticated criminal efforts to commit fraud — all while transitioning its entire workforce to remote work,” the agency responded.

UIA Director Julia Dale said in a statement the agency “is implementing program controls and processes based on the OAG’s audit and will continue to refine those processes as the agency moves forward with its priorities.”

Dale was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Oct. 25. She’s the third UIA director in 11 months, following Steve Gray and interim director Liza Estlund Olson. Gray was hailed as a reformed and appointed by Whitmer to fix longstanding issues within the agency.

The embattled department has been at the center of controversy in Lansing. Republican lawmakers have held hearings, and proposed fixes to improve customer service at the agency.

“This was a state mistake with their criteria, not a mistake made by claimants,” Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. “Worse yet, UIA continued down a path they were told was incorrect.”

Johnson said he hopes the agency can improve its system and his committee will continue to work with Dale to find solutions.


HOLIDAY TRAVEL WILL INCREASE BUT GROUPS DIFFER ON HOW MUCH

THE OAKLAND PRESS — AAA forecasts a strong rebound in holiday travel this Thanksgiving, with the Auto Club Group predicting 53.4 million Americans will hit the road and skies for the holiday, up 13% from 2020 and within 5% of pre-pandemic levels for the 2019 holiday

But another survey conducted for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) isn’t nearly as optimistic.

According to the American Automotive Association, the gap for holiday travelers is slightly wider in Michigan, as total travel figures are about 7% below pre-pandemic levels. AAA predicts nearly 1.6 million Michigan residents will travel for Thanksgiving, a 14% rebound from the total number of travelers during the 2020 holiday.

“It’s beginning to look more like a normal holiday travel season, compared to what we saw last year,” said Debbie Haas, vice president of Travel for AAA – The Auto Club Group. “Now that U.S. borders are open, vaccinations are readily available, and new health and safety guidelines are in place, travel is once again high on the list for Americans who are ready to reunite with their loved ones for the holidays.”

AAA expects 6.4 million more Americans to be traveling this Thanksgiving, including 202,900 more Michiganders, than last year. That means travelers should prepare for the roads and airports to be noticeably more crowded than last year’s holiday. AAA predicts road travel to increase by 8%. Yet the most notable improvement for this year’s holiday is domestic air travel, which has almost completely recovered from its dramatic drop-off during the pandemic and is up 80% from last year.

“The re-opening of the U.S. borders to international travelers means airports will be even busier than we’ve recently seen, so travelers must plan for longer lines and extra time for TSA checks,” Haas added. “With flight delays and cancellations becoming a problem recently, air travelers are encouraged to consider travel insurance. If your flight is canceled, there are various policies that would help offset unexpected expenses like a hotel, transportation, and food. You may also receive compensation for lost luggage, or if your flight is delayed for as little as 3 hours.”

But this data runs contrary to information obtained in a survey by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA). While rising vaccination rates against COVID-19 have increased travelers’ comfort levels, most Americans are still opting to stay home this holiday season, according to the AHLA survey.

The survey found that 29% of Americans are likely to travel for Thanksgiving and 33% will do so for Christmas — an increase from 21% and 24%, respectively, compared to 2020. Those who do plan to travel over the holidays expect to drive, but rising gas prices may dampen those plans. The survey of 2,200 adults was conducted Oct. 30 – Nov. 1, by Morning Consult on behalf of AHLA.

Gas prices surged in October and are likely to remain elevated through the holiday season. The average price for gasoline in Michigan was $3.37 per gallon on Thursday, Nov. 18. Thanksgiving gas prices haven’t been that high since 2012, according to AAA. The state average was $1.96 per gallon during last year’s holiday (Nov. 26), and $2.48 on Thanksgiving Day in 2019 (Nov. 28).

Results of the AHLA survey indicate just one in three Americans plan to travel for Christmas (33% likely to travel, 59% unlikely), and even fewer plan to travel for Thanksgiving (29% likely, 61% unlikely). About 68% of Thanksgiving travelers plan to stay with family or friends, while 22% plan to stay in a hotel.

“While vaccines have helped travelers feel more comfortable, rising gas prices and continued concerns about the pandemic are making many Americans hesitant to travel during the holidays. Despite a slight expected uptick in holiday travel this year, hotels will continue to face economic fallout from the pandemic, underscoring the need for targeted federal relief, such as the Save Hotel Jobs Act, to support the industry and its workforce until travel fully returns,” American Hotel & Lodging Association President and CEO Chip Rogers said.

Again, AAA is much more optimistic. Of the 1.6 million Michigan residents expected to travel for Thanksgiving, AAA of Michigan expects 1.4 to travel by vehicle, 147,400 to travel by air, and about 31,900 travel by bus, train, or cruise.

“After such an unusual holiday travel year in 2020, it appears that higher gas prices will not be enough to deter Michigan residents from returning to the road for the holidays,” said Adrienne Woodland, AAA spokesperson. “Unfortunately, it appears these high gas prices will hang around through the holidays. So it’s likely that travelers will budget more for gasoline and less on things like shopping, lodging, and dining out.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its recommendations for holiday gatherings and related travel, saying that the best way to minimize COVID-19 risk is to get vaccinated if eligible. AAA urges anyone considering gathering or traveling for Thanksgiving to consult CDC guidance before finalizing holiday plans.


BUSCH’S MARKET TO CLOSE ON THANKSGIVING TO GIVE WORKERS ‘DAY OF REST’

DETROIT NEWS — Busch’s Fresh Food Market plans to close its 16 Metro Detroit stores on Thanksgiving so workers can spend the holiday with their families, officials announced Wednesday.

“Our associates have worked very hard all through the pandemic to take care of our guests and deserve a day at home with their family and friends,” Todd Robinson, Vice President of Marketing said in a statement.

“We are thankful for all of their efforts and hope they enjoy a day of rest and relaxation. They’ve certainly earned a day off and we encourage our guests to let our associates know they are appreciated.”

Busch’s has locations in Ann Arbor, Clinton, Canton Township, Dexter, Farmington Hills, Livonia, Novi, Pinckney, Plymouth-Northville, Rochester Hills, Saline, South Lyon, Tecumseh, West Bloomfield Township and Brighton.

Other retailers have announced plans to close on Thanksgiving next week. They include Best Buy, Target and Walmart.


MICHIGAN REPORTS 14,561 NEW COVID-19 CASES, 242 DEATHS OVER 2 DAYS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The Michigan health department reported 14,561 new coronavirus cases over a two-day period on Wednesday, an average of 7,280.5 per day, bringing Michigan to 1,224,273 confirmed cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

Another 242 coronavirus-related deaths have also been reported Wednesday, 177 of which were identified in a regular vital records review. This increases the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 23,104.

Of 57,165 confirmatory tests reported by the health department Tuesday, 9,596 yielded positive results for a positivity rate of 16.79%

Data from the health department includes 163,665 probable cases and 1,580 probable deaths, for a total of 1,387,938 cases and 24,684 deaths.


MICHIGAN DRUG OVERDOSE DEATHS SPIKE 19% TO NEW RECORD. HERE’S WHAT’S DRIVING THE DEATHS.

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Between April 2020 and April 2021, more people than ever died of  drug overdoses in Michigan and across the nation, according to new preliminary data released Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 2,900 people in Michigan died of drug overdoses, a 19% increase over the 12 months from April 2019 to April 2020, the data show. Nationally, more than 100,000 people died, an increase of 28.5% over the same time frame.

The common denominator in most deaths: the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which  is linked to more deaths than any other drug.

The numbers, while dire, were not unexpected by people who work in addiction and recovery services.  “Unfortunately, it wasn’t something that I found particularly surprising, given the impact that opioids have on people’s lives,” said Erika Alexander, an Oakland Family Services administrator who has counseled children and adults with drug addiction.

Why is this happening?

We explain.

Why are so many people dying of overdoses?

Fentanyl. The illicit synthetic opioid is responsible for more overdose deaths than anything else. In the U.S. synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl — were involved in 64,178 of the 100,306  deaths, according to the provisional data. And in Michigan, the data show synthetic opioids — again, primarily fentanyl — are responsible for nearly three quarters of the 2,952 deaths. Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and up to 50 times stronger than heroin. It has infiltrated the nation’s drug supply, making drugs more potent than ever.

Why are people using fentanyl if it’s so deadly?

In some cases, people may use fentanyl unwittingly. It’s cut into heroin and pressed into counterfeit pills. In July 2020, three young people died in an Auburn Hills hotel room after taking counterfeit pills that contained fentanyl. Earlier this fall, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration issued a national alert about the sharp uptick in counterfeit pills containing lethal doses of fentanyl.  The DEA says fentanyl is also showing up in cocaine and methamphetamine.

But other drug users seek out fentanyl, or dope that’s laced with it, because they are searching for a better high. Experts say fentanyl provides an intense yet short-lived high — providing it doesn’t kill the user first.

What about the pandemic? Is that contributing to all these drug overdose deaths?

Yes. Though they were trending down in Michigan, pre-pandemic drug overdoses deaths were already on the rise nationally. Then the pandemic hit and they really skyrocketed, even in Michigan. The stress of the pandemic — the isolation, the fear, the heartbreak of losing loved ones and the financial uncertainty — led some people, new users and those who relapsed, to drugs, which are superpotent now,  as a way to escape.

At the same time, 12-step meetings stopped meeting in person; people in recovery tend to find in-person meetings more helpful. Treatment facilities closed to patients or limited the number they could accept into their programs. “The number one thing that we know that helps people recover is community connections,” said Susan Styf, chief executive officer of CARE of Southeastern Michigan, which provides drug counseling and treatment services. But, she added, “people have been isolated.”

What can we do about this?

One of the easiest things to do is to carry Narcan (generic: naloxone), which reverses most opioid overdoses. Community organizations such as CARE provide curbside training and Narcan pickup at Recovery United Community Center, 32577 Garfield Road. Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mon., Tue. and Thu.; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wed; and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fri. For more info, call 586-552-1120  or the go to www.careofsem.com/recovery-community-center. Other agencies also provide Narcan, including the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy CommunitiesFamilies Against Narcotics and many county health departments, including the Wayne County Health Department.

Are other drugs emerging as threats?

Yes. Methamphetamine has been linked to a growing number of deaths. Nationally, it’s the second most deadly drug, according to the CDC. In Michigan, it’s third behind fentanyl and cocaine.


‘LABOR SHORTAGES ARE NOT GOING AWAY’ IN MICHIGAN. IS AUTOMATION THE ANSWER?

BRIDGE MI — Michigan employers got a sign this month that the labor shortage that has left many scrambling to fill positions — and raise wages to attract workers — is improving, just in time for holiday hiring.

Still more hires are expected over the next few months, based on the last two months’ of national jobs data, which shows some workers slowly choosing to return to work.

However, global economists warn the competition for workers, particularly lower-wage hourly positions, is no longer a pandemic or a local issue. Instead, it’s forecast to last for years. “Overall, labor shortages are not going away,” said Gad Levanson, senior economist with The Conference Board, a nonprofit business research group, during a global economic forecast presentation on Nov. 3.

Michigan already has been worried about that. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI New Economy initiative identified the worker shortage as one of the state’s biggest economic challenges, along with too-many low-wage jobs.

Keith Lambert sees the effects in greater Lansing, where he is vice president of business attraction at the Lansing Economic Area Partnership economic development group. He is trying to bring new jobs to Eaton, Clinton and Ingham Counties, while assisting local employers to grow.

However, that effort is taking place while the state’s workforce of 4.73 million has 190,000 fewer workers than in February 2020. Businesses from restaurants and retail to manufacturing and distribution companies are “struggling to find people to work for them,” Lambert said.

And it raises concerns for the state as Michigan tries to lure large-scale development projects to add higher-paying jobs.

“If and when we’re to land (them), there’s going to be more pressure, more intensity about … how to make projects like that successful and have the talent to connect to those jobs,” Lambert told Bridge Michigan.

The workforce shrunk nationwide during the pandemic, as older workers opted for early retirement and younger workers became more selective about jobs, Levanson said.

Nationwide, nearly 30 million Baby Boomers left the workforce in the third quarter of 2020, while surveys since then show as many as 75 percent of older workers plan to retire early.

In 2000, the median age of a worker in the United States was 39. By 2020, the median age climbed to 42. And by 2030, the median age will be on the verge of 43.

The situation is acute in Michigan: The median age is 50 in 21 of 83 counties, the most counties of any state in the nation that is over the threshold.  Overall, Michigan is the 12th oldest state in the nation.

Other challenges for Michigan include:

  • Michigan’s labor force participation has trailed the nation since December 2001.
  • Deaths in the state are expected to begin to outpace births starting in 2030.
  • Population growth fell to the second-slowest rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Census.  With 10,077,331 residents, Michigan is now the 10th most populous state, down from its eighth in 2010, passed by Georgia and North Carolina.

In a labor force with fewer workers, boosting educational attainment and technological skills offer a chance to grow through innovation and efficiency gains, said Dana M. Peterson, chief economist of the Conference Board.

She noted that the labor force is also dwindling in Japan, western Europe, Australia and China — even as competition intensifies competition from India and sub-Saharan Africa.

State officials already are focusing on “upskilling” the existing workforce.

“One of the main concerns we continue to hear from business leaders and employers of all shapes and sizes is that there aren’t enough workers with the skills they need to fill critical vacancies,” Susan Corbin, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, told Bridge, pointing to the $722 million budget recommendation to increase funding for post-secondary work skills education.

To remain competitive, Michigan small manufacturers should invest in Industry 4.0 automation and increasing flexibility for their workers, said Tom Kelly, CEO of Automation Alley. The nonprofit, based in Oakland County, advocates for more technology in manufacturing.

“Manufacturing has always had a worker deficit,” Kelly told Bridge. “That worker deficit got exacerbated by COVID and is going to continue to get worse. So you have no choice but to automate.”

Instead, Kelly said, “they’re using the same playbook that they’ve always used.”

And the risk to them, as they try to hire unskilled workers at low rates, is that “those people that you need to do these jobs aren’t coming back.”

Kelly said he’s trying to convince many small- to mid-size manufacturers to turn to robotics.

Prices have dropped and may cost tens of thousands less than hiring a full-time worker. With a robot, another worker may be able to accomplish the equivalent of two jobs — and the manufacturer will be able to maintain or increase production, and likely pay their workers more because of the additional skills needed to work in the higher-tech setting.

Beyond investing in equipment, Kelly said, employers need to recognize that they’re competing for workers with technology — in the form of apps like Lyft and Shipt. Creating flexible work could offer paybacks in a more stable labor force, he said, even if 40 part-timers do the work of 10 full-time employees.

“For the low-skilled worker, their attitudes have changed,” Kelly said. “Technology has taught them that they can jump in and out of the workforce whenever they want.

“Management needs to be thinking differently about how they solve the problem.”

Among employers embracing that concept for workers is delivery giant Amazon, Kelly noted, with the “Amazon Anytime” app-based shifts. The company employs 21,000 in Michigan, said spokesperson Jessica Pawl.

Amazon is offering sign-on bonuses of $3,000 in some Michigan locations to stay ahead of the competition for workers. Starting pay nationwide averages $18.

“Amazon is hiring people left and right,” said Lambert, the Lansing economic development director.

And more jobs are coming — including to a new 1 million-square-foot  fulfillment center that will open in 2022 in Delta Township, a 20-minute drive from Charlotte.

But even today’s staffing won’t be all Amazon needs — or the end to the regional hiring competition.

Lambert said the company then will need 500 more people to work.  “So we expect the pressure to continue to be there.”

Economists are closely watching how pay increases play out. In the third quarter they set a 20-year record in the U.S., prompting concerns that inflation — which is also due to supply shortages, in addition to labor — will prompt an interest rate hike to cool the economy.

Ongoing rapid wage growth into 2022, economist Levanson said, is “the more concerning problem.”

Even so, the national economy should increase 2 percent annually through 2031, despite lingering questions about the labor market and inflation, said Peterson from the Conference Board.


MICHIGAN LEADS THE NATION IN NEW COVID CASES, ACCORDING TO CDC DATA

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan again leads the country in new COVID-19 cases per population over the last seven days, according to tracking data Tuesday from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state has reported a seven-day new case rate of 504 per 100,000 residents, the highest number nationally, the CDC found. Minnesota followed in second at 490. The figures are another setback in the state’s 20-month fight against the virus and came amid spikes in new infections that are testing the capacity of Michigan’s hospitals.

Michigan last led the nation in new cases per population in the spring during a surge that peaked in April. It remains unclear how long the latest surge will last and how it will affect health care workers who’ve been dealing with the pandemic since March 2020.

During a Tuesday press conference, nine days before the Thanksgiving holiday, Henry Ford Health System officials described the trends in COVID-19 as “very alarming.”

“We are gravely concerned,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, the chief clinical officer for the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System. “We were hoping that we would be in a better situation this Thanksgiving than we were last year, especially with the availability of the vaccines.

“We’ve been watching with trepidation and worry the number of COVID cases climb and rise throughout our community and around the state.”

Munkarah urged those planning to gather for Thanksgiving next week to get vaccinated.

“Vaccine status continues to be the most important and paramount in keeping all of us safe,” he said. “So for those of you who are gathering with family, we hope that all of you have been vaccinated because this provides significant safety and protection for all of you.”

Michigan reported 3,040 adults hospitalized with the virus on Monday, the largest number since late April and a 19% increase over the tally seven days ago.

Across Henry Ford’s five hospitals, there were 289 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Monday. Of them, 69% were not fully vaccinated, according to the health system. Among the 61 people in intensive care units with COVID-19, 80% were not fully vaccinated.

The individuals who have been vaccinated and are hospitalized with the virus tend to be older and have more underlying conditions than those who are unvaccinated, Munkarah said.

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations and the percentage of tests bringing positive results have been slowly trending upward for months. But over the last two weeks, they’ve jumped more quickly.

Last week, 16.4% of Michigan’s COVID-19 tests came back positive, the second-highest weekly rate since June 2020, according to data by the state Department of Health and Human Services. The highest rate was during the first full week of April at 16.5%.

The highest weekly total of the surge in November and December 2020 was 14.2%.

The percentage, which experts say provides some insight on the level of community transmission in the area and whether enough testing is happening, has generally been trending upward since June.

Likewise, at Spectrum Health West Michigan, Dr. Darryl Elmouchi said the number of COVID-19 inpatients had been slowly increasing since the summer. Then, over the last two weeks, there was a “dramatic shift” upward.

As of last week, 85% of the patients with COVID-19 weren’t vaccinated, Elmouchi said.

“If you are younger and healthier and you’re unvaccinated, you have a significant risk of being hospitalized, being in our ICU, being on a ventilator or even dying of COVID-19,” the Spectrum Health West Michigan president said. “If you’re vaccinated, there’s no vaccine that’s perfect, you are very well protected. And It’s only a small number of older, sicker people who end up in our hospitals.”

Bob Riney, Henry Ford’s chief operating officer, tied the current trends to the percentage of Michigan residents who aren’t fully vaccinated — about 46% of those age 5 and older — and transmission at schools where masking discipline and social distancing have decreased compared with last year.

“We’re all human beings,” Riney said. “We slowly let our guard down. We don’t want to wear masks. They’re inconvenient. We want our old lives back so much.”

Michigan experienced a spike in COVID-19 infections last year at this time as well.

On Nov. 15, 2020 — a year ago Monday — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced restrictions on dining at restaurants and in-person high school and college classes to try to combat it. That surge peaked in early December.

It’s unclear whether the current jump in cases will follow a similar pattern. Whitmer’s spokesman Bobby Leddy gave no indication this week that the governor’s administration will use its emergency powers to intervene.

“We continue to encourage Michiganders to get vaccinated as this is the best way to keep people safe and ensure that businesses and schools can safely operate,” Leddy said Monday about Whitmer’s response to the surging COVID-19 numbers.

“The vast majority of Michiganders have done the right thing to protect themselves and their families by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in indoor gatherings, getting tested and quarantining after exposure, or staying home if feeling unwell.

“For those who aren’t vaccinated, it’s even more important to take these scientifically proven precautions to reduce the risk of catching the virus and minimize possible symptoms in the event of exposure. We all have the tools at our disposal to slow the spread and keep ourselves safe.”

A coalition named the Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools repeated its calls for statewide mask requirements and consistent quarantine practices in schools.

“The connection between overwhelmed hospitals and schools without mask requirements is clear. It’s long past time for policymakers to require everyone to do their part — even those who have been fooled by anti-science rhetoric — by requiring universal masks in schools,” said Emily Mellits, a Macomb County parent, in a Tuesday statement from the organization.

Munkarah, the Henry Ford doctor, said people should get vaccinated if they’re attending Thanksgiving gatherings and open windows at their homes so air can circulate at the events.

“By all means, if you are not feeling well, if you are running a fever or are short of breath or tired and suspect that you might have either the flu or COVID, please stay at home,” he said.


MICHIGAN SCHOOLS ARE CLOSING BECAUSE OF STAFF SHORTAGES. GET USED TO IT.

BRIDGE MI — In Southfield Public Schools north of Detroit, students are in classrooms just four days a week through at least until January.

In nearby Novi, kids have to find their own way to school on Fridays because buses aren’t running those days.

At rural Allegan County Hopkins Public Schools, south of Grand Rapids, classes were canceled for two days last week, while at huge Ann Arbor Public Schools, one or more buildings have been closed six times since fall classes began. Schools across Michigan are closing or going remote for days at a time, often with little notice. And while COVID-19 infections continue to play a role in those closures, the primary problem appears to be the same one plaguing corner coffee shops and factory floors across the state: a shortage of workers.

Some districts don’t have enough bus drivers to get students to schools. Others can’t find enough teachers and substitute teachers to lead classrooms.

Bridge Michigan spoke to school leaders about staffing shortages. None was optimistic about finding a quick solution to a crisis that had been brewing for years.

“It’s like you’re hanging by a string, and the string is losing strands,” said Adam Zemke, president of Launch Michigan, a school advocacy group. “COVID was the breaking point.”

Here’s what several had to say about the factors at play:

Are school closings increasing?

The official count of closures won’t be known until the end of the school year when districts submit reports to the Michigan Department of Education. But there’s a consensus among school leaders that closures have skyrocketed.

As of Nov. 12, the Michigan Association of School Administrators had an unofficial tally of 21 school districts that have closed at least one building  since September due to staff shortages. Most closures are for a few days. Southfield is an exception, and isn’t technically a closure. In early November, it switched to a four-day in-person schedule, with students learning from home on Fridays. The change was made in response to staff shortages.

According to Fox 2 Detroit television station, an email to Southfield parents said “stressors on families and educators includ(ing) labor shortages, increased seasonal illnesses, and food supply chain disruptions” had created “a less than optimal learning environment.”

Those closings don’t include the thousands of students —  sometimes a whole classroom or building at a time — that have had to stay home because of coronavirus outbreaks.

Why is this a problem now?

School leaders who spoke to Bridge point to long-term, systemic issues. Teachers retired at a higher rate during the pandemic, while fewer college students are graduating with education degrees (a problem years before COVID hit), creating teacher shortages, particularly in some specialties such as special education.

“The combination of early retirements, low teacher prep program enrollment and high burnout among educators choosing to leave the profession have created a perfect storm for school staffing,” said Doug Pratt, director of public affairs for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

But that doesn’t explain why staff shortages are so much worse this fall than in recent years.

That reason has less to do with Michigan’s long-term teacher shortage, than with the lower-paid workers that keep schools operating. It’s a problem familiar to a lot of Michigan businesses.

There are 190,000 fewer people in the labor force in Michigan than in February 2020, before the pandemic struck the state.

That means those still in the labor force have a lot more options, and substitute teachers, bus drivers and school cafeteria workers haven’t typically made a lot of money. Before the pandemic, substitute teachers, for example, earned around $100 a day in many districts, and paraprofessionals – also known as classroom aides – earned as little as $13 an hour.

“We’ve been dealing with an educator shortage for years, but the pandemic has definitely made matters worse,” Pratt said. “Without adequate subs, it doesn’t take much of an outbreak of COVID or any other illness to make it impossible to safely staff a school building. Bus drivers, paraprofessionals, food service workers – we’re seeing shortages in all areas of education employment.”

With some fast food restaurants now offering pay of $15 an hour, school jobs had less appeal.

What do we do now? Are there any short-term answers?

The only quick fix to staffing shortages is for school districts to open up their checkbooks, and some are doing it.

Mona Shores Public Schools, south of Muskegon, is offering a $2,500 signing bonus for new bus drivers and a $500 finders fee for district employees who recommend a new driver. In Oakland County, Huron Valley Schools is offering a $600 signing bonus for new bus drivers.

But even financial incentive programs have drawbacks – school officials say big signing bonuses in one school district sometimes lure workers from neighboring schools, just shuffling staff shortages across district lines.

Lansing Public Schools took a different approach. Short of drivers for about 30 bus routes, the district offered families unlimited public bus passes or a monthly $25 gas card to help get kids to school.

Bonuses and gas cards are one-time expenses, and districts can dip into federal COVID money to pay for them, said Peter Spadafore of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators. Raising salaries significantly, though, is problematic, because COVID money won’t last forever.

This fall, the Lamphere Schools district in Madison Heights scrambled to raise its paraprofessional wages from $13.68 an hour to $18.70, for positions that only require a high school diploma, in essence competing with Subway and McDonald’s for workers.

There’s a limit to how much schools can compete on wages, said SBAM’s Fowler. Business owners “are raising (wages) to compete for labor,” he said. “That’s a tool we (in the private sector) have, we can raise prices to compete with pay and benefits. Those are not tools our schools can use,” because schools can’t “raise prices” for their services like a restaurant can.

MEA’s Pratt and Spadafore of the superintendent and administrator association didn’t offer any easy solutions. “This problem has been long in coming and there isn’t a single quick fix,” Pratt said.

“The pandemic has exposed the crisis in staffing we knew was there,” Spadafore said. “We need to find ways to entice people into education.”


COVID-19 VACCINES FOR AGES 5-11 MAY ALSO HELP PREVENT MIS-C

THE OAKLAND PRESS — For children ages 5 and up, not only does a COVID-19 vaccine provide protection against the virus, but it could save lives and serious complications from multisystem inflammatory syndrome which is known as MIS-C.

“This MIS has also been shown in adults post-COVID, but we actually have not seen it in adults, as far as I’m aware, after the vaccine,’’ said Dr. Joseph Fakhoury, Pediatric Hospitalist, Bronson Pediatric Medicine Hospital Specialists; Chair, Immunization Task Force, Michigan Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was one of three doctors who spoke at a recent virtual town hall sponsored by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Fakhoury said they have also not seen MIS-C in adolescents who have been vaccinated, which gives them reassurance that the same will happen for the 5-11 age group.

Multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children is a condition where different body parts can become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The CDC said it does not  yet know what causes MIS-C. However, it is known that many children with MIS-C had the virus that causes COVID-19, or had been around someone with COVID-19. MIS-C can be serious, even deadly, but most children who were diagnosed with this condition have gotten better with medical care.’’

In the United States since the start of the pandemic, 48 children have died from MIS-C while 5,526 have met the case definition, according to the CDC. In Michigan there have been between 150 and199 MIS-C cases.

“To break it down, it’s where multiple organs inside the child start to fail. And that’s from the virus not the vaccine. COVID-19 can cause multiple organs inside a child to fail. I’ve taken care of children in the hospital who have MIS-C. This is a real thing. It’s frightening as those organs start to fail and they’re having difficulty breathing, their lungs are shutting down, other organs are shutting down, we have to put them on ventilators. It’s no joke,’’ said Dr. Farhan Bhatti, Chief Executive Officer, Care Free Medical – Lansing; Michigan state lead, Committee to Protect Healthcare. He was on the same virtual town hall event.

“Yes, kids are more likely to survive than adults, but that is not the only metric that we follow. We also follow long-term complications of COVID-19 and some of those kids are going to be scarred for a very long time with respect to their ability to breathe, with even their cognition. It is a really serious syndrome,’’ Bhatti added.

The median age of patients with MIS-C is 9 years. Half of children with MIS-C were between the ages of 5 and 13 years, according to the CDC. About 98% of patients had a positive test result for SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The remaining 2% of patients had contact with someone with COVID-19. Sixty percent of reported patients were male while 60% of the reported patients with race/ethnicity information available occurred in children who are Hispanic/Latino (1,467 patients) or Black, Non-Hispanic (1,666 patients).

Contact your child’s doctor, nurse, or clinic right away if your child is showing symptoms of MIS-C: Ongoing fever plus more than one of the following: stomach pain, bloodshot eyes, diarrhea, dizziness or lightheadedness (signs of low blood pressure), skin rash or vomiting. Not all children will have all the same symptoms.

The doctors agreed that even if children have had COVID-19 they should still be vaccinated.

“The people with the most robust immunity out there were infected with COVID and then followed it up with the vaccine,’’ Bhatti said.

He said most individuals who have been infected with COVID don’t have to wait to get the vaccine. The exceptions are those who received monoclonal antibody treatments and children who were sick or hospitalized with MIS-C. It’s recommended they wait 90 days to get the shot.

The next MDHHS virtual Town Hall on vaccines for ages 5-11 will be at noon on Thursday, Nov. 18. Go to Facebook.com/MichiganHHS.


COVID-19 HOSPITALIZATIONS IN MICHIGAN REACH SEVEN-MONTH HIGH

DETROIT NEWS — COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan hit a seven-month high Monday with more than 3,000 people ailing from the virus and a surge of cases having added 21,034 cases and 95 deaths from the virus over the last three days.

In the last seven days, only one state reported more cases than Michigan based on the latest state data. Michigan ranks eighth for the highest positive case rate by population nationally.

The state also reached its goal of getting 70% of residents age 16 and older with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, two months later than initially expected.

Michigan’s hospitalizations have increased nearly 20% for two straight weeks. Should it continue on the trajectory, Michigan could have 4,000 patients hospitalized within the next two weeks, data shows.

As of Monday, 3,040 adults and 41 children are hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19, and another 159 people are hospitalized with suspected cases, according to state data. At least 698 adults are in the ICU and 381 are on ventilators.

The state’s record for most adult hospitalizations with confirmed cases of the virus occurred on April 19 with 4,158 inpatients.

John Karasinski, a spokesman of the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said the growth is concerning with hospitals experiencing a 40% increase in daily emergency department patients since October 2020. Overall bed occupancy in Michigan hospitals is 10% higher than what Michigan experienced in the fall surge when the state peaked Dec. 1, 2020, with 4,283 COVID-19 hospitalizations, he said.

“The sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations continues to stress an already strained health care system,” Karasinski said. “The Grand Rapids region has now surpassed their spring peak while hospitalizations in the Traverse City region are at an all-time high. This dramatic rise in cases and resulting hospitalizations is a reminder of the importance of getting vaccinated and receiving a booster dose, if eligible, as the growth is driven largely by unvaccinated patients.” About 11.6% of hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, up from 10.5% the week prior. There has been an average of 2,141 emergency room visits related to COVID-19 every day in the state.

As of Monday, nine hospitals were at full bed occupancy, up from the eight hospitals from a week earlier. Those hospitals included Detroit Receiving Hospital, Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Mid-Michigan Medical Center-Gratiot, Munising Memorial Hospital, ProMedica Coldwater Regional Hospital, Sparrow Eaton in Charlotte, Spectrum Health Kelsey Hospital, St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital.

Hospitals need the public’s help and encourage residents to get themselves, their children and others not only vaccinated against COVID-19 but also influenza, Karasinski said.

The public should expect longer wait times at the emergency room because of high patient numbers and staffing shortages, he said, while encouraging positive test individuals to consider receiving monoclonal antibody treatments, “which are statistically proven to decrease the risk of hospitalization.”

The majority of patients hospitalized from the virus are unvaccinated, the state health department has said.

The hospitalization development came as the latest figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services pushed the overall totals to 1,209,712 confirmed cases and 22,862 deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

The state averaged 7,011 cases per day over the three days. Of the latest deaths reported, 27 were identified during a vital records review, state health officials noted.

Cases are not expected to slow down for six weeks or longer, according to a University of Washington projection.

Last week, the state added 31,072 cases and 293 deaths from the virus, an increase from the week prior when the state added 29,171 cases and 292 deaths from the virus. In the last week of September, the state added 23,801 cases and 244 deaths.

The weekly record of 50,892 cases was set Nov. 15-21, 2020. The second-highest weekly total was 47,316 Nov. 22-28, 2020.

On Nov. 15, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced her administration’s “pause to save lives,” bringing wide-ranging restrictions limiting gatherings at high schools, colleges and restaurants to combat what she described as the “worst moment” yet in the COVID-19 pandemic. Those restrictions were ended in June.

Michigan remains at a high transmission rate and the state’s percent of tests returning positive has increased from last week.

Statewide positivity increased to 14.1% from 11.6% the week prior, according to data from Tuesday.

However, the state was doing significantly more testing last year at this time than it is today.

Last week, the state reported about 280,000 confirmatory tests. During the week of Nov. 15-21, 2020, the state reported 473,000 tests.

Cases were rising more quickly last year leading to a surge; however, this year has tracked a slow increase over time, state data indicate.

The proportion of kids getting sick with COVID-19 in the state also is increasing. In Michigan; over 50% of children hospitalized have no reported underlying conditions.

Outbreaks have steadily been increasing in Michigan during the past few weeks.

But the number of new COVID-19 outbreaks at Michigan K-12 schools dropped to 87 clusters, a decrease from last week’s numbers, representing 521 new cases statewide, state health data showed Monday.

The largest outbreak was at Baraga High School in the Upper Peninsula with 37 cases of students and staff. Two mid-Michigan schools in Elsie had large outbreaks — Knight Elementary had 23 cases of students and staff, and Ovid Elsie Middle School had 20 cases of students and staff.

Kent County had the most schools, 11, with outbreaks, while Clinton County had six schools.

Last week the state reported 104 schools with new outbreaks and 666 new cases at K-12 schools. No new college or university outbreaks were reported.


FLU RIPS THROUGH UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN CAMPUS, BRINGING CDC TO ANN ARBOR

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Influenza is sweeping the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus, with 528 cases diagnosed at the University Health Service since Oct. 6.

The outbreak is so sudden and large — 313 cases were identified the week of Nov. 8 alone and 37% of flu tests that week were positive — that it has drawn the attention of federal health leaders.

A team of investigators from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be on campus this week, trying to learn more about the spread of the virus and the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine.

Among those who’ve contracted flu at U-M this fall, 77% didn’t get a flu vaccine. The cases were identified as influenza A (H3N2), said Lindsey Mortenson, UHS medical director and acting executive director.

“While we often start to see some flu activity now, the size of this outbreak is unusual,” said Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department. “We’re grateful for the additional support of the CDC and our ongoing partnership with the university as we look more closely at the situation.”

The work will be led by the local health department, and will include the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the university and a team from the CDC.

When a public health authority requests assistance from the CDC for an urgent public health problem, such as disease outbreaks, unexplained illnesses and natural or human-caused disasters, an Epi-Aid team is tapped to provide short-term assistance.

In Ann Arbor, the team will evaluate flu vaccine uptake and vaccine effectiveness and risk factors for spread by collecting samples from patients at University Health Service, providing data analysis, and conducting questionnaires.

Health leaders are concerned about the timing of the increase in cases in Ann Arbor, as many students plan to travel soon for Thanksgiving break. They are calling on as many people as possible to get flu vaccines.

“We strongly recommend anyone not yet vaccinated against seasonal flu to do so,” Marquez said. “And anyone at higher risk of severe flu complications should talk to their doctor about prescription antiviral medications at the first sign of flu symptoms.”

Fewer Michiganders have taken flu vaccines this year compared with the same time in 2020. As of Nov. 6, the state health department reported 2.01 million flu shots have been administered so far statewide, covering about 20% of the population. Comparatively, 3.14 million doses had been given as of Nov. 6, 2020, covering about 31% of the population.

Washtenaw County has a higher flu vaccination rate this year than the state overall. There, about 31% of residents have gotten flu vaccines this season, according to state data.

People who get flu vaccines help to protect those around them, including people who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness, like infants and young children, older people and those with certain chronic health conditions.

Last year, there was little to no flu activity. This year, health officials are concerned about the possibility of a twin-demic as both coronavirus and flu could surge, driving a massive wave of sickness.

The same tools that work to slow the spread of COVID-19 also work against flu:

  • Wear a mask in indoor public spaces and in outdoor crowded places
  • Get vaccinated
  • Stay home when sick
  • Wash your hands often
  • Cover cough and sneezes

Flu vaccines are widely available at doctor’s offices and drugstores. In addition, the Washtenaw County Health Department offers flu vaccination at the same time as COVID-19 vaccination.

A Kroger Health Vaccine Clinic also will offer 600 shots 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Tuesday at 1310 North University Court Building. To register, go to: https://form.jotform.com/213157094423048.

Other local options and local flu activity can be found at www.washtenaw.org/flu or by using the flu vaccine locator.


POPULAR VOTE PETITION COULD APPEAR ON MICHIGAN BALLOT NEXT YEAR

BRIDGE MI — Michigan voters next year could decide whether the state should eventually award its Electoral College votes to the presidential candidate who receives the most votes nationwide.

On Monday, the Michigan Board of Canvassers approved the petition language of the bipartisan “Yes on National Popular Vote” campaign. If the group collects 340,047 valid voter signatures within 180 days, the proposal would go on the 2022 ballot.

The main backers of the petition are Mark Brewer, former chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, and Saul Anuzis, the former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “We want to make sure that every voter in every election is politically relevant every time,” Anuzis told Bridge Michigan on Monday after the vote.

Presidential candidates need at least 270 of 538 votes from the Electoral College, which is composed of delegates from all 50 states. Five times in history, the system has elected a president who got fewer votes overall than their competitor, including Donald Trump in 2016 who received 3 million fewer votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The ballot measure would ask Michigan, which has 15 electoral votes, to become the 16th state to join an interstate compact that would take effect if more states pledge to award delegates based on the popular vote.

Backers of the Electoral College system say it ensures candidates pay attention to the needs of all states, rather than simply population centers.

Michigan has received outsized attention in recent campaigns as a swing state, and Anuzis said he wants to ensure remains.

“Today, the only states that matter are battleground states. So, for all practical purposes, what happens is we elect the president of the battleground states of America, versus the president of the United States of America,” Anuzis said.

Anuzis said the group expects to start circulating the petition sometime in December.

The compact, called the National Popular Vote, was created in 2006 by University of Michigan alum John Koza. The group has heavily lobbied in Michigan, at times inviting lawmakers to trips to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

In 2018, Michigan GOP lawmakers introduced legislation to decide U.S. presidential contests by a national popular vote. Many Republicans supported the bill, including current House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell.

Wentworth now opposes the plan. Gideon D’Assandro, Wentworth’s spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan that Wentworth “has learned more about it in the years since then.”

Most of the Republican lawmakers in the Michigan Legislature, including Senate Majority Speaker Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, signed a letter last month opposing the national popular vote.

“It is imperative that the candidate who receives Michigan’s electoral votes is determined by Michiganders — and not by voters in other parts of the country,” the letter, signed by 47 lawmakers, said.

“This proposal would give big cities on the East and West Coast veto power over voters in Michigan … It’s a disastrous idea, and one that should remain on the scrapheap of American history.”

Other critics have argued it will take away Michigan’s political clout.

Tom England, executive director of anti-compact group Save Our States, told Bridge Michigan the popular vote system would eliminate the checks and balances created by the Electoral College.

“With the National Popular Vote compact, states either accept other states results or they just reject other states results,” England said. “And you could have the Secretary of State of Michigan deciding whether to accept results from California or whether to accept results from Texas.”


MICHIGAN REPORTS 15,878 NEW COVID-19 CASES, 83 DEATHS SINCE WEDNESDAY

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The Michigan health department on Friday reported 15,878 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 83 new deaths over a two-day period.

That’s an average of 7,939 new cases per day. However, some of the new confirmed cases include lab results from a processing delay Wednesday.

Of the 83 deaths, 43 were identified during a vital records review, which the department conducts three times a week.

Michigan now has a total of 1,188,678 confirmed cases and 22,767 confirmed deaths since March 2020, when the pandemic began.

Michigan had a test positivity rate of 16.31% Thursday, reporting that 9,170 of 56,208 diagnostic test results were positive.

The state has a fatality rate of 1.9% among known cases, according to data from the state health department.

Michigan also reports 158,190 probable COVID-19 cases and 1,514 probable deaths. The probable cases combined with confirmed cases make up a total of 1,346,868 cases and 24,308 deaths.


METRO DETROIT HOMELESS SERVICE PROVIDERS GEAR UP FOR ANOTHER WINTER IN THE PANDEMIC

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Homeless shelters in metro Detroit are bracing for another winter — when there’s typically a spike in need as the temperature drops and people seek to escape the harsh elements.

This time, however, there’s another factor to consider: the end of the federal eviction moratorium. There’s also the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, forcing providers to once again open up new sites and space out beds to accommodate social distancing.

Homeless service providers are seeing a steady uptick in need for their services and expect those numbers to climb as it gets colder. It’s unclear if the lifting of the federal eviction moratorium — which had been in place for roughly a year and lifted in August — is playing a role in that increase. While the moratorium’s end is a cause for concern and something providers are monitoring, especially as eviction cases make it through the courts, they say federal rent aid dollars are working to relieve the pressure off of an already overburdened shelter system.

Still, some shelters are bracing for an influx and expect to fill beds quickly.

The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries opened up two new shelters last week — one for women and children and another quarantine site — to accommodate the surge of people they expect to see.

“I’m very concerned because we really don’t know how quickly people are going to be evicted,” said Chad Audi, president and CEO of Detroit Rescue Mission Missionaries, adding that he expects the shelters to be full this week.

Over at the Macomb County Rotating Emergency Shelter, officials say they’ve seen an increase in calls since the moratorium lifted.

“The desperation level is just different,” said MCREST shelter manager Heather VanDenburg. “Obviously when someone is in a homeless situation, they’re desperate anyway. We’re used to that, but this is just a different level. They’re in tears — almost to the point of can’t talk, can’t figure out what the next step is. They call multiple shelters.”

MCREST is able to accommodate 70 people and is at capacity.

Meanwhile, the Pope Francis Center is stationed at the TCF Center for another winter to accommodate more people at a time of high need.

Last winter, the Pope Francis Center saw about 200 people a day, provided more than 100,000 meals, 6,000 showers, 2,500 loads of laundry and that was “while the moratorium was still in place,” said Father Tim McCabe, executive director of the day shelter providing food and support services.

“A lot of people live right on the razor’s edge, and one catastrophic event, an illness, a family illness, a parent gets sick, childcare, anything like that puts a strain on their ability to cover their bills and people end up homeless. For so many people in the city of Detroit, they have no safety net,” McCabe said.

Rent aid continues

Still, the full effect of the eviction moratorium’s end hasn’t yet materialized and federal pandemic relief dollars to help pay off months of back rent and utilities are working to keep people housed, several housing providers said.

Delphia Simmons, chief impact officer of the Coalition On Temporary Shelter in Detroit, said it’ll take a while for eviction cases to get through court and the cold weather is a major driver of the expected surge.

COTS has been at capacity for months, she said.

“I would say that there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t get someone calling that we can’t accommodate,” Simmons said. “There’s not a day that goes by that that doesn’t happen.”

The United Way for Southeastern Michigan 2-1-1 helpline has seen a slight increase in calls for housing help — rent assistance, shelter, warming centers — in the last two or three months.

“Many people didn’t call because they were assured that they could stay in their homes. But once (the moratorium) lifted, then the phone calls began to increase,” said Tamara Bolden, senior director of 21-1 operations. Housing is among the top three reasons people call the helpline.

Who is left out?

But help isn’t getting to everyone who is eligible and in need.

Outlier Media last month reported that although MSHDA allows people who have become homeless because of the pandemic to get federal rent aid dollars, fewer than 100 people got access to that relief through local agencies. Multiple people who use the news organization’s text messaging information service called those agencies and were turned down for assistance, while others were told there was no available help.

Although there is a deluge of federal rent aid dollars, not everyone may be aware of the help, said Eric Hufnagel, executive director of the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, who is also mayor of the city of St. John.

Advocates in Detroit have even taken a door-to-door outreach approach in an effort to reach Detroiters on the brink of eviction who may not know about ways to get help.

Heading into another winter pandemic, providers across the state are juggling a web of concerns, Hufnagel explained, including: the end of supplemental unemployment dollars, people who don’t know about rent aid dollars, difficulties finding a rental unit, limited space in shelters and the ongoing health crisis.

“The whole system is really under stress at this point,” he said.


US JOURNALIST DANNY FENSTER FREED FROM MYANMAR JAIL WITH EX-DIPLOMAT’S AID

ASSOCIATED PRESS — American journalist Danny Fenster, who was recently sentenced to 11 years of hard labor after spending nearly six months in jail in military-ruled Myanmar, was freed and on his way home Monday, a former U.S. diplomat who helped negotiate the release said.

Fenster, the managing editor of the online magazine Frontier Myanmar, was convicted Friday of spreading false or inflammatory information, contacting illegal organizations and violating visa regulations. His sentence was the harshest yet among the seven journalists known to have been convicted since the military ousted the elected government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in February.

“This is the day that you hope will come when you do this work,” Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico and past ambassador to the U.N., said in a statement emailed by his office. “We are so grateful that Danny will finally be able to reconnect with his loved ones, who have been advocating for him all this time, against immense odds.”

Fenster was handed over to Richardson in Myanmar and will return to the U.S. via Qatar over the next day and a half, according to the statement. He has been in detention since he was taken into custody at Yangon International Airport on May 24 as he was headed to the Detroit area in the United States to see his family.

“We are overjoyed that Danny has been released and is on his way home — we cannot wait to hold him in our arms,” his family said in a statement. “We are tremendously grateful to all the people who have helped secure his release, especially Ambassador Richardson, as well as our friends and the public who have expressed their support and stood by our sides as we endured these long and difficult months.”

It was never exactly clear what Fenster was alleged to have done, but much the prosecution’s case appeared to hinge on proving that he was employed by another online news site that was ordered closed this year during a crackdown on the media following the military’s seizure of power. Fenster used to work for the site but left that job last year.

According to the United Nations, at least 126 journalists, media officials or publishers have been detained by the military since the takeover and 47 remain in custody, though not all of them have been charged.

Of the seven journalists known to have been convicted, six are Myanmar nationals and four were released in a mass amnesty in October.

“We welcome the release of American journalist Daniel Fenster from prison in Burma, where he was wrongfully detained for almost six months,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, using an old name for the Southeast Asian country. “We are glad that Danny will soon be reunited with his family as we continue to call for the release of others who remain unjustly imprisoned in Burma.”

Frontier Myanmar Editor-in-Chief Thomas Kean echoed those sentiments.

“Danny is one of many journalists in Myanmar who have been unjustly arrested simply for doing their job since the February coup,” he said.
Richardson said he discussed Fenster’s release during a recent visit to Myanmar when he held face-to-face negotiations with Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the country’s ruler.

In an interview with The Associated Press after his most recent visit to Myanmar, Richardson said his talks there had focused on facilitating humanitarian assistance to the country, particularly the provision of COVID-19 vaccines. That mission also resulted in the release from jail of Aye Moe, a young woman who used to work for Richardson’s center on women’s empowerment issues.

At the time, Richardson said his staff had been in touch with Fenster’s family, and when asked by the AP if there was hope for Danny Fenster’s release, he replied: “There’s always hope. Don’t ask any more.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said Fenster “never should have been jailed or sentenced on bogus charges in the first place.”

“Myanmar’s military regime must stop using journalists as pawns in their cynical games and release all the other reporters still languishing behind bars on spurious charges,” Crispin added.

During Fenster’s trial, prosecution witnesses testified that they were informed by a letter from the Information Ministry that its records showed that Fenster continued to be employed this year by the online news site Myanmar Now — one of dozens of outlets ordered shut in a press crackdown.

Both his former and current employers issued public statements that Fenster had left Myanmar Now last year, and his lawyer said defense testimony, as well as income tax receipts, established that he works for Frontier Myanmar. But without a government official’s testimony to that effect, the judge only took into account the letter from the Information Ministry.


BEAUMONT WARNS FOURTH SURGE OF VIRUS COULD LAST FOR MONTHS

DETROIT NEWS — Beaumont Health has 400 COVID-19 patients admitted at its eight hospitals and the medical system’s top epidemiologist said Thursday that officials there are considering this Beaumont’s fourth surge of the virus and warning it could last for months.

Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said transmission rates in the tricounty region are about double what’s being seen across the country and Metro Detroit “is once again becoming a hotspot.”

Gilpin noted that the positivity rate, or percentage of tests coming back positive, reached a very low point over the summer, but began to creep up in August — and it has continued to rise since then.

“I have a feeling we’re going to be living in this world probably for the next couple of months and possibly even through the winter,” he added during a Thursday morning briefing. “Because I don’t see anything out there that’s going to stop this in a meaningful way unless people radically change their behavior and start getting vaccinated and masking up.

“This is going to be a tough one,” Gilpin said. “This one is shaping up to be a little bit more of a marathon than a sprint.”

Beaumont’s update on its COVID-19 admissions comes as Michigan on Wednesday reached a six-month high in hospitalizations for the virus. Projections suggest the uptick won’t level off for at least six weeks.

Last year’s fall surge of COVID-19 cases represented the high point so far during the pandemic, with the state peaking a year ago in November. Wednesday’s hospitalizations reached more than 2,600 people statewide ailing from the virus — nearly identical to one year ago. Michigan’s infections have been trending upward for months.

So far this week, the state has added 15,194 and 210 deaths from the virus. The latest figures push the overall totals to 1,172,800 confirmed cases and 22,684 deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

In Traverse City, the Munson Healthcare system activated protocols on Tuesday for its Pandemic Response Level Red for the first time in the organization’s history. The highest alert level on a five-color scale, the status gives officials flexibility to delay non-COVID services or surgeries on a case-to-case basis to shift staffing and resources toward caring for COVID-19 patients.

The seven-hospital health system had 92 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, with 49 in Traverse City, 15 in Cadillac, one patient in Charlevoix, 14 in Grayling and five at Munson’s hospital in Manistee.

Gilpin said Thursday that it’s impossible to know the exact cause of the latest surge, but he believes it’s being driven by unvaccinated people in the community.

Generally, about 65% to 70% of patients admitted to Beaumont hospitals with COVID-19 on any given day are unvaccinated, Gilpin said, compared with about 30% to 35% who have had their shots. Of Wednesday’s admissions, around 260 were unvaccinated with about 115 breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, he noted.

The majority of breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, he said, are occurring either in people who are immunocompromised or elderly, rendering the vaccines less effective. Other cases, Gilpin said, have emerged in people who were vaccinated early on in the pandemic and the shots’ effectiveness is wearing off.

“This wave is predominantly driven by unvaccinated individuals,” said Gilpin, adding Michigan’s now-cooler temperatures make it easier for the virus to replicate, and drive people indoors where there’s more opportunity for transmission.

“We’re also seeing more relaxed attitudes toward masking, more and more large gatherings take place, and we know that those are the conditions that are going to make for more transmission,” he said.

“Much of that is because there is still a significant proportion of that population that is yet to be vaccinated,” he said, noting that the Pfizer vaccine was only recently FDA-approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, and there is significant vaccine hesitancy among parents.

About 69.8% of Michiganians 16 years and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 54.4% are completely vaccinated, according to the state health department’s website.

Since Michigan began vaccinating children 5-11 on Monday, 1.7% or 14,100 children as of Wednesday had received first doses, state data shows and 42.5% of children ages 12-15 had received one dose.

Gilpin said the largest increases right now are among school-aged kids, followed by outbreaks in long-term care facilities. Most new case outbreaks, he said, across Michigan are in schools. There were 15 pediatric cases among the 400 COVID-19 inpatients at Beaumont Hospitals on Thursday, according to the health system.

“Kids might not get very sick from COVID, but they can still catch COVID, they can spread COVID to others, to their teachers and households, and then it just becomes a way for the virus to propagate more,” he said.


MICHIGAN DRIVERS CAN NOW OPT FOR 2-YEAR VEHICLE REGISTRATION, THANKS TO NEW LEGISLATION

DETROIT FREE PRESS —  Michiganders can now renew the registration of their vehicle every two years, instead of one.

Signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Wednesday, House Bill 4117 is an effort to make operations at the Secretary of State branches more efficient. The bill is among multiple pieces of legislation signed by Whitmer Wednesday, including  Senate Bill 220 that provides free registration renewal for some agricultural and industrial vehicles.

“Making life easier for Michiganders is one of my top priorities,” said Whitmer in a release. “These changes will build on the many new convenient services offered by the Secretary of State to put Michigan families and small businesses first.”

Effective next October, Michigan drivers can opt to renew vehicle registration for two years at a time, rather than making an annual trip to branch offices to renew.

“The Michigan Department of State has entered a new era of operations and we are providing better and more convenient service than ever before. Our branch offices are open, pandemic operations are finished, and there is abundant availability for office visits across the state,” said Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson in a release.

Michigan once implemented two-year registrations in the early 1980s, but the Department of State reported they were not popular with motorists, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

Drivers will still be able to renew annually. Tabs expire on the owner’s birthday.

The governor last month signed related legislation to ensure they also will be able to buy an optional two-year recreation passport for unlimited access to state parks, recreation areas, boat launches, forest campgrounds and trail parking lots.

For more information on vehicle registration, visit michigan.gov/sos/


MICHIGAN IS SENDING A $1,000 ‘THANK YOU’ TO EARLY EDUCATORS. IS IT ENOUGH?

BRIDGE MI — Many early educators in Michigan will soon receive $1,000 bonuses, a ‘thank you’ to thousands of workers across the state who stuck with challenging, low-paid, and essential jobs through the scariest days of the pandemic.

Child care providers are welcoming the money, which comes from federal COVID aid, even as they say they are struggling mightily to hire for those same jobs.

“I’ve tried everything,” said Beverly Hogan, director of three child care centers in the Detroit area. “They might send a resume, then no call, no show.”

In an effort to attract more staff, Hogan increased entry-level pay in her centers in recent months by $4 an hour, putting it at $13 — far below the Michigan median hourly wage of $19.

Labor shortages in various industries are making headlines as the pandemic reshapes the economy. For the child care sector, a tight labor market only adds to profound problems with turnover and hiring that long predate the pandemic.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for years now that child care workers are completely underpaid and undervalued,” said Matt Gillard, president of Michigan’s Children, a nonprofit advocacy group. “A $1,000 bonus is not only appropriate but overdue. But it’s not a long-term solution. We fundamentally have to change the program so that we can make this a profession that’s viable.”

The bonuses will be paid to full-time child care workers or administrators currently on payroll at centers or home-based programs. Part-time employees are eligible for $500.

Providers can also apply to receive up to $1,000 for incentive payments for new hires.

A large boost in federal child care spending in response to the pandemic helped most programs remain open despite sharply reduced enrollment and increased costs related to COVID prevention. At least several hundred Michigan child care programs, or 6 percent of the total, closed during the pandemic, fewer than was feared in the spring of 2020.

More financial help is on the way. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced this week that providers can now apply for a share of $350 million in stabilization funds that will go toward bonuses and hiring incentives. Another round of grants is expected to go out in 2022.

The state also used federal funds to increase payments to providers who serve low-income children. And income requirements for the subsidies were raised, meaning more families qualify for support with child care tuition.

But those funding increases are temporary and advocates say larger, structural changes are needed. A major additional influx of federal support for early childhood education is on the agenda in Congress, which is weighing a proposed expansion of the U.S. social safety net that includes child care provisions. But the fate of that legislation is uncertain as Democrats hold a narrow majority.

The economics of the child care industry are largely determined by government funding levels, especially in low-income communities where parents typically can’t afford private care costs that can be on par with University of Michigan tuition.

Providers have used COVID relief funding to increase pay and benefits for their staff, but they often can’t compete with other hourly industries.

“I love my job, but from the outside looking in, who wants to teach?” said Monique Snyder, director of Brainiac’s Clubhouse Child Care Center. “People say, ‘You want me to sit in this classroom with these kids and make $32,000 per year? I could go to Amazon and do that.’”


MICHIGAN REPORTS 6,283 NEW COVID-19 CASES, 163 DEATHS OVER 2 DAYS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The Michigan health department reported 6,283 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and Wednesday, averaging 3,142 cases a day.

The state reported 163 additional deaths, 88 of which were identified during a vital records review conducted three times a week.

Michigan now has a total of 1,172,800 confirmed cases and 22,684 confirmed deaths.

The two-day average underestimates the number of new referrals since the state’s last update Monday because of a processing delay for lab results, according to the health department. The cause of the issue is currently under investigation.

Michigan had a positivity rate of 16.93% Tuesday, reporting that 7,699 of 45,464 diagnostic test results returned were positive.

On Wednesday, the fatality rate among known cases was 1.9%.

The state also reported 156,289 probable cases and 1,533 probable deaths, making up a cumulative total of 1,329,089 cases and 24,217 deaths.


JUDGE APPROVES $626 MILLION SETTLEMENT IN FLINT WATER CRISIS

BRIDGE MI — A judge has approved a $626.25 million settlement in the Flint water crisis, but has not yet decided how much money goes to residents and how much lawyers keep.

In a Wednesday opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Judith Levy rejected all objections to the settlement of claims against the state and other parties sued by Flint residents for their role in the city’s lead-tainted water crisis.

Calling the settlement “a remarkable achievement,” Levy declined to immediately decide how much money attorneys should get for their work in the case.

After attorney fees are discounted, children are set to receive nearly 80 percent of the settlement, while 18 percent goes to adults who can prove health impacts or property damages. Smaller amounts will go to special education programs and businesses.

More than 50,000 people have signed up to participate in the settlement, but it’s not clear whether all have valid claims. The city’s population was about 100,000 at the time of the crisis, but has since decreased to 81,000.

Payments aren’t likely until next year at the earliest.

Michigan’s state government is the biggest contributor to the agreement, which would resolve only some civil suits tied to the crisis. The state is paying $600 million, while $20 comes from the City of Flint; $5 million from McLaren Regional Medical Center; and $1.25 million from Flint-based engineering firm Rowe Professional Services Co.

That’s lower than the original proposed amount, after Levy last month granted McLaren permission to lower its contribution by $15 million to keep the hospital system from walking away from the agreement.

Claire McClinton, 72-year-old Flint resident who voiced her concerns in front of Levy earlier this year, said the settlement is too small.

Among other concerns, McClinton also objected to the way funds are distributed, with less money available for adults and almost no money available to adults who can’t prove they suffered physical harm. And she’s frustrated that Levy allowed McLaren to shrink its contribution to a quarter of its former size.

“I’m just very, very disappointed,” McClinton said.

She intends to hire a lawyer to pursue her own lawsuit against the state, she said.

Flint’s water crisis began in 2014, when a state-appointed emergency manager approved the city’s switch from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River, without requiring anti-corrosion chemicals to prevent lead from leaching out pipes.

The water crisis prompted congressional hearings, criminal charges against Michigan’s former governor and other top public officials and a bevy of lawsuits.

Levy acknowledged during hearings this year that she had “a difficult decision” — especially about fees for lawyers, who sought 30 percent of the overall settlement.

She noted in Thursday’s order that she’ll address that question in a separate opinion.

Lawyers contend they deserve that much because they have logged 182,000 hours of work — the equivalent of more than 20 years’ labor — on behalf of Flint residents.

In hearings earlier this year, lawyers say the fees are less than they could collect if they followed the terms of individual agreements they had previously reached with plaintiffs.

In an interview with Bridge Michigan on Wednesday, co-lead counsel Ted Leopold noted that lawyers took on enormous gamble by working on contingency, meaning that if they had lost, Leopold said, they have received virtually no payment.

“That’s the nature of litigation, and that’s the risk we took,” he said.

Leopold called the settlement an important moment of closure for the residents  and noted its national significance.

“Something that is forgotten a little bit,” he said, “is how this has had an effect nationally — even now with this new infrastructure bill that’s going to address clean water related issues, lead pipe issues.”

Objectors to the proposed settlement fee argue it’s far too much. Frank Bednarz, an attorney for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Class Action Fairness at the Hamilton Lincoln Law Institute, said he hopes Levy will approve about half of what lawyers seek.

Bednarz questioned how much of lawyers’ time was spent serving clients’ interests versus competing with one another for business.

“It’s too much,” he said. “It does make sense that they deserve to be paid for their work, but not at (this amount).”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel lauded the settlement’s approval, though both acknowledged the lingering harm to Flint residents.

“We hope this settlement helps the healing continue as we keep working to make sure that people have access to clean water in Flint and communities all across Michigan,” Whitmer said in a statement.

A settlement is a major milestone, but far from the end of legal wrangling. Lawyers continue to pursue lawsuits against four other parties, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And criminal proceedings against former Gov. Rick Snyder and other public figures involved in the decision to switch Flint’s drinking water are still ongoing.

McClinton said that as those lawsuits proceed, “we can only hope that the EPA won’t be as irresponsible and as heartless and inhumane as the state of Michigan and these other doggone defendants. That we can get some kind of justice from the EPA.”

Hearings about the settlement have proved contentious, and not just about the lawyer fees.

The deal calls for people to submit medical records, financial documents or other proof they suffered physical harm or financial losses. During hearings, some Flint residents objected that they should be left out of the settlement because they didn’t suffer the worst effects of the poisoning.

Everyone, they argued, endured the psychological trauma of fearing for their health, and continues to endure the stigma of being a resident of a city that’s now internationally known for drinking poisoned water.


DEER EXPERT: EXPECT FEWER HUNTERS IN THE MICHIGAN WOODS THIS YEAR

BRIDGE MI — It seemed like a sign of hope against an otherwise bleak outlook for the future of deer hunting in Michigan.

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people out of offices, movie theaters and restaurants and into the outdoors, hunting participation increased for the first time in years.

Nearly 675,000 people took to their deer blinds in Michigan, an increase of 5.5 percent for a pastime that has endured a quarter-century of declining participation. But despite whispers of a possible renaissance, early statistics from this season indicate last year was an anomaly. Dustin Isenhoff, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources research specialist who tracks hunting participation, helped Bridge Michigan explain what the numbers mean. Highlights from the conversation follow.

Michigan has lost 270,000 hunters since the mid-1990s. Where have they all gone?

They’re aging out of the sport, Isenhoff said. And their kids, who are less likely to live in the rural places where publicly-accessible hunting lands abound, have found other ways to spend their time.

“There’s a culture shift,” Isenhoff said, and a sheer abundance of other options that weren’t available in decades past. That has “chipped away” at the sport’s popularity, particularly among younger generations who are instead picking up activities like mountain biking, snowmobiling and kayaking.

“Every year,” he said, “there’s more competition for your time.” What about last year’s COVID outdoor bump? Why hasn’t that continued for hunting, like it did for other forms of outdoor recreation?

The dynamics are different. Camping, hiking and mountain biking were already on the upswing —  the pandemic simply sped up the process. Hunting, on the other hand, has been waning for decades.

Last year’s gains, driven largely by women and younger hunters, represented a shift for a sport that has become increasingly reliant on an aging, mostly male hunter population.

But this year, Isenhoff said, “we’re seeing the most erosion in those age groups that saw the biggest upticks last year.”

You can thank the end of COVID office closures and social distancing.

Many of last year’s new hunters, Isenhoff said, were taking advantage of a sudden abundance of free time. Now, they’re back to spending their days commuting to work, and their weekends participating in other pastimes.

So far, participation is down 8 percent compared to last year, though it’s still ahead of 2019.

If some of those new hunters stick around, will hunting participation stabilize?

Probably not. Long-term, Isenhoff said, he expects participation to keep dwindling, as the diehards who fueled the sport’s 90s heyday age out of the sport.

But he noted that the DNR and hunting groups are deeply invested in efforts to recruit new hunters through youth educational programs, mentorships for new hunters, and partnerships with breweries that feature venison on their menu to entice the locavore crowd.

The agency has also focused heavily in recent years on creating new hunting access opportunities in southern Michigan, closer to where most people live. The new Crystal Waters Game Area in Monroe County is an example.

What does it mean for DNR revenue?

Bad news. The agency gets about 20 percent of its funding from hunters and fishing licenses, using it to pay for conservation officers, habitat protection and fish and game management. Another 19 percent from federal excise taxes on guns and ammo.

“It’s a big deal,” Isenhoff said. “Every less license sale is less potential funding.”

The surprising upside: While hunting is down, Isenhoff said gun and ammo sales are “exploding,”  as are the taxes levied on them. In 2019, Michigan received over $20 million from that pot of federal money. That revenue is expected to grow when Michigan receives its next allocation, following a year of record gun sales in Michigan.

That, Isenhoff said, has helped to offset some of the pain of fewer license sales.

“Target shooting definitely has been a bit of a lifeboat,” he said.

But, as Bridge has reported, it’s also created headaches of its own, as gun enthusiasts descend on public lands with semi-automatic rifles, irking neighbors and prompting the DNR to ban target shooting at some state game areas.

So, where will the DNR get money instead?

“That’s a big question,” Isenhoff said, and “there’s really no great silver-bullet answer.”

Michigan U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, is lead sponsor of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would create a new influx of $1.4 billion annually toward species recovery, helping to offset the decline in hunting and fishing revenue.

Previous versions of the bill have died in each of the past two congressional sessions, leaving doubt about its hopes of passage this time.

Some states have modest initiatives that allow residents to voluntarily fund conservation, like Idaho’s conservation license-plate program. But those token contributions pale in comparison to the hunter-generated revenue that will need to be offset if participation declines continue.

What does it mean for the rest of us?

More deer getting caught in your car’s headlights…or caught munching on your flowers or vegetable patch.

As Bridge is also reporting, deer are posing problems in the Lower Peninsula as hunting’s decline combines with other human influences, like predator suppression and habitat encroachment, to allow unchecked population growth.

Hoofed herbivores are “one of the winners of human disturbance,” Isenhoff said, and they thrive in corn fields and backyard flower gardens.

Their growth in the parts of Michigan is forcing new coping strategies, from government-sanctioned culls to sterilization and walls around Leelanau County’s cherry orchards. But for now, Michigan’s disappearing hunters still represent the primary means of population control.

“Everything else,” Isenhoff said, “is either incredibly expensive or just not practical.”


GET A COVID VACCINE BOOSTER, DOCTORS SAY, AS DELTA SPREAD RATCHETS UP IN MICHIGAN

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The message should be more urgent in Michigan: If you’re eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, get one now, said Dr. Anurag Malani, director of infection prevention for the St. Joseph Mercy Health System.

If you haven’t had a dose at all, get vaccinated. And if you’re not wearing a mask in public, indoor places, put one on.

The delta variant of the virus isn’t done with Michigan just yet, Malani said. Cases and hospitalizations are climbing in the state once again — despite falling trends in much of the rest of the country.

“We have not seen a decline in cases. We have not seen a decline in hospitalizations. In fact, actually, this week our numbers are probably the highest they have been in the delta surge,” Malani told the Free Press. “We have about 260 hospitalized patients with COVID across our seven hospitals in Trinity Michigan.

“There should be … stronger communication around the need for boosters.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations rose 20% in just one week in Michigan — from 2,144 on Nov. 1 to 2,580 Monday — putting a crunch on hospitals that also are treating a large number of patients with other medical conditions.

Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare announced Tuesday that it has now exceeded capacity at its nine northern Michigan hospitals for the first time in its 106-year history, and is operating at “Pandemic Response Level Red.”

That means that physician’s offices, labs, outpatient clinics and hospitals will remain open, but non-urgent surgeries and other procedures may have to be delayed, especially if they require an overnight hospital stay, said Munson spokesperson Dianne Michalek. A temporary pause has been placed on sleep disorder services as well.

“The number of patients we are seeing in our hospitals right now are close to those we experienced during the worst of the pandemic last spring,” Christine Nefcy, Munson’s chief medical officer, said in a statement.

“Now, more than ever, we need our communities to band together with us by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask in public, practicing proper hand hygiene, and avoiding large gatherings whenever possible.”

The timing couldn’t be worse. Colder weather is coming, which means more people are moving indoors, where the virus spreads more easily. And the holiday season is approaching — a time when families and friends gather.

That’s another reason, Malani said, for anyone who’s eligible for a booster to get it now: It takes two weeks after the injection to get the added protection from the shot, which would make eating Thanksgiving dinner with friends and extended family a little bit safer.

For people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions that put them at severe risk for disease, a booster could give them added protection to prevent them from needing hospital care if they develop a breakthrough infection of the virus.

“The vaccines are really quite effective at keeping people out of the hospital,” Malani said. “They’re really effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, ICU (intensive care unit) critical illness, death.

“The people that are not getting vaccines, they’re really … hurting their communities,” he said. They put themselves at risk for contracting the virus, and needing hospital care, adding strain to an already overburdened health care system. And they put their friends and family at risk by potentially spreading the disease.

“The case rate, which is how many new infections there are per 100,000 people, it’s going up across the entire state, especially in southeast Michigan,” Cunningham said. “So I do expect the numbers will continue to get worse for a bit.”

Michigan’s case rate is now 342.5 per 100,000 people — more than double the case rate two months ago, when Michigan saw 152.3 new infections per 100,000, according to the CDC.

The seven-day average of the percentage of positive coronavirus tests — another indicator of community spread of the virus — now exceeds 14% statewide, according to state health department data.

Many people don’t realize they’re eligible for a booster. The shots aren’t just for elderly people or those with immune-suppressing conditions, cancer or heart disease.

“The CDC now extended it,” he said. “If you have a BMI (body mass index) of 25 or greater, which is just mildly overweight, … you qualify” as long as it has been at least six months since your second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or two months after a single dose of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

He estimated at least 70% of the adult population would qualify for a booster in Michigan based on the BMI standard and other conditions, such as pregnancy and mood disorders. Smokers qualify, as do people with substance use disorder.

Yet as of Monday, only about 915,000 booster doses had been administered in Michigan. Here’s how the booster distribution breaks down:

  • 21.9% of the 75 and older population have gotten a booster
  • 35% of those ages 65-74 have had a booster
  • 24.3% of people ages 50-64 have had a booster
  • 8.2% of people ages 40-49 have had a booster
  • 6.7% of people ages 30-39 have had a booster
  • 3.6% of people ages 20-29 have had a booster

“Most people think I’m not immunocompromised. I’m not over 65. I’m not in health care. I’m not worried,” Elmouchi said.

Front-line workers are eligible for booster shots, too — even if they don’t have health conditions that would qualify them. That includes first responders, police officers, firefighters, corrections officers, postal workers, health care workers, teachers, along with people who work in grocery stores, public transit, manufacturing and agriculture.

“The message gets very confusing for the average person,” Elmouchi said. “It’s really unfortunate because ultimately, at the end of the day, we all know that everyone who’s eligible for a vaccine would benefit from getting one.

“And then from a booster standpoint, I think it’s very unclear to people how important they are to prevent you from getting sick and missing work or missing … the holidays with your family, and potentially keeping you out of the hospital.”


MSU FIRES STAFF, SUSPENDS STUDENTS WHO REFUSED COVID-19 VACCINE; UM MAY FOLLOW SUIT

DETROIT NEWS — The state’s two largest universities are sanctioning students and staff who refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Michigan State University has fired at least two employees and suspended 16 students for refusing to get vaccinated. The University of Michigan could soon follow suit. The school has put “less than 10 staff members” on 30-day, unpaid leave, university spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said Tuesday. She wouldn’t be more specific.

UM has also placed academic holds on 422 accounts of students who are not vaccinated. Employees who aren’t vaccinated or don’t receive approval for an exemption by Dec. 8 will be fired, Broekhuizen said, and students with an academic hold cannot register for classes for the next term.

MSU and UM were among the first universities to announce in late July that a COVID- 19 vaccine or an exemption would be required for all students and staff for the fall semester. Both universities set deadlines for compliance at the end of August. MSU and UM’s three campuses were among seven of the 15 public universities to require the vaccine, along with Wayne State and Grand Valley State universities.

At MSU, all students, faculty and staff who have refused to be vaccinated, have not received an exemption or do not have an exemption request pending were referred for appropriate discipline, said MSU spokesman Daniel Olsen. The university allows exemptions for religious and medical reasons. It also offers an online exemption, in which students taking classes solely online attest they will not be present on campus or on any school property. MSU has granted 3,508 exemptions to students, faculty and staff.

The university referred students to the dean of students and employees to their unit’s human resources departments for appropriate discipline, which may include termination.

The university suspended 16 students for the remainder of the semester and others are making their way through the disciplinary process, Olsen said. Students who are suspended from the university, for any reason, do not receive a refund for their on-campus housing or tuition, he added. They also lose credits since they can’t complete their classes.

Olsen also confirmed two employees are no longer with the university but said he could not elaborate on the reasons why. He said he could not immediately provide a total number of employees who have been fired for refusing a vaccine or obtaining an exemption.

Students who were suspended can return to MSU when the spring semester begins in January if they comply with the university’s COVID-19 policies by getting vaccinated or obtaining an approved religious, medical or online exemption, Olsen said. Employees who are fired can reapply for positions, but they also must comply with the mandate by either getting vaccinated or obtaining an exemption.

“COVID-19 vaccines are one of the most powerful and one of the few tools we have to prevent disease, severe illness and death,” said Olsen, adding that more than 90% of MSU students, faculty and staff have self-reported they are fully vaccinated.

The university has “communicated directly with students and employees several times” to remind them of the university’s vaccination mandate, he said.

“At this time, MSU is proceeding under the applicable disciplinary procedures for each individual who has not been vaccinated and does not have an exemption,” Olsen said. “Individuals that are found to be in violation of the vaccination directive will be subject to discipline, including removal from campus and termination of employment or dismissal from the university, for the health and safety of the MSU community.”

At UM, 98% of students have self-reported as being fully vaccinated and 91% of employees report being fully vaccinated, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

“It’s a very small fraction of our U-M community who are out of compliance with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” Broekhuizen said.

Two MSU employees who were fired for declining to get vaccinated within the last week are Kraig Ehm, a video producer, and D’Ann Rohrer, an educator in the MSU Extension, according to a statement by the New Civil Liberties Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based civil liberties organization.

Ehm, a Laingsburg resident, and Rohrer, who lives in Ludington, on Friday joined a federal lawsuit against MSU filed by NCLA, the organization said in a statement.

The NCLA filed the lawsuit in August on behalf of 37-year-old Jeanna Norris, an MSU supervisory administrative associate and fiscal officer who works remotely. Norris argued she has natural immunity after contracting COVID-19 late last year and her immunologist said vaccination was medically unnecessary.

In late August, Western District of Michigan U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney denied a request for a temporary restraining order against MSU’s mandate from Norris. In October, Maloney also denied the request for a preliminary injunction challenging MSU’s vaccine mandate for employees with naturally acquired immunity to COVID-19.

The NCLA has filed a notice that it will appeal Maloney’s decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Jenin Younes, NCLA litigation counsel.

“Like Plaintiff Norris, they pose no threat to the MSU community in light of their naturally acquired immunity,” Younes said. “Yet, MSU has chosen to pursue a vindictive path, unsupportable by any science. Thanks to the courageous plaintiffs in this case — along with many other Americans — we will have a chance to challenge this unconstitutional and unscientific approach in a court of law.”


MICHIGAN AVERAGING NEARLY 5,000 NEW COVID-19 CASES PER DAY OVER PAST WEEK

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Michigan public health officials reported Monday 8,911 new COVID-19 cases and 47 additional virus deaths over the past three days.

The three-day case total brought the state’s total confirmed cases and deaths to 1,166,517 and 22,521 deaths since the onset of the pandemic. Over the past week, Michigan has reported over 34,000 new COVID-19 cases, which is second-most among all states according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) behind California (over 44,000 new cases reported in past week).

Of the 47 deaths reported, 21 were identified during a vital records review. Over the past three days, the state has averaged 2,970 cases per day, down from 5,047 cases per day Nov. 4-5, a 41% decrease.

The state’s 7-day COVID-19 average case and testing positivity rates continue to remain high due to the spread of the virus mainly among unvaccinated residents.

MDHHS is reporting that 7-day average case rates are decreasing for all age groups with rates highest among children age 10-19 (410 cases per day per 100,000 population). Last week, all age groups experienced a 13%-23% decrease in their case rates compared to the previous week.

Michigan’s 7-day average case rate is 346 cases per day per 100,000 residents. The state’s 7-day average testing positivity is averaging between 10-15% with over 294,000 COVID-19 diagnostic tests being performed during that time period.

The state remains in the high community transmission category, which is defined by the CDC as averaging at least 100 new cases per day per 100,000 population over a 7-day period.

According to the CDC, Michigan’s 7-day average case rate is 8th highest in the country.

The CDC is also reporting that 66% of all U.S. counties have high community transmission levels. All 83 Michigan counties remain in the CDC’s high community transmission category.

As of Nov. 1, there were an average of 265 hospital admissions per day due to COVID-19. The average daily hospital admission rate (123.8 hospital admissions/million) are highest for those aged 80 and older.

Last week, MDHHS reported that the volume of COVID-19 patients in intensive care had plateaued, the percentage of emergency department visits for COVID-19 was 5.1%, and that the overall number of new COVID-19 hospital admissions had increased slightly compared to the previous week.

Schools

On Monday, MDHHS reported 104 new K-12 school outbreaks and clusters involving 666 cases.

MDHHS recently revised its definition of a school-associated outbreak and a school-associated cluster to promote consistent reporting amongst states.

A school-associated outbreak relies on exposure linkage between cases where there is a confirmed epidemiologically link in the school setting or a school-sanctioned extracurricular activity. A school-associated cluster accounts for cases where a definitive exposure linkage has not been established, but where there is no likely known epidemiologic link to a case outside of the school setting.

Moving forward, MDHHS will report clusters and outbreaks as combined totals every Monday.

Currently, 60% of Michigan’s public school students in over 220 school districts are required to wear face masks indoors under 11 local health department orders including: Kalamazoo, Kent, Ottawa (K-6); Benzie-Leelanau, Health Department Northwest, Oakland, and Wayne (K-12); Marquette (preK-6); and Genesee, Ingham, and Washtenaw (preK-12).

MDHHS is continuing to report that school districts without mask rules are seeing higher case rates and faster case rises than districts with mask rules in place.


MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING COMMISSION DISCUSSES STALEMATE SCENARIO REGARDING ITS MAPS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The deadline for individual members of Michigan’s redistricting commission to submit their own maps passed Monday at 12 p.m. with the commission sticking with rules it previously adopted requiring individual commissioners’ maps to undergo a 45-day public comment period in order to be considered.

Three commissioners submitted their own maps, according to the commission’s communications and outreach director, Edward Woods III.

Rebecca Szetela, the independent chair of the commission, submitted a U.S. House, Michigan Senate and Michigan House map. Rhonda Lange, a Republican commissioner, submitted a U.S. House and state Senate map. And Brittni Kellom, a Democratic commissioner, submitted a state Senate map.

Some commissioners said they opted not to submit any because they would prefer to adopt a map drawn collaboratively by the group.

The commission will consider maps submitted by individual commissioners in the event none of the maps the group spent months drawing together receives the majority vote of the 13-member commission with the support of at least two Democratic, two Republican and two independent members.

The commission recently approved three U.S. House, three Michigan Senate and three Michigan House maps, setting them up for a final vote by the end of the year.

The Michigan Constitution requires those collaborative maps to undergo a 45-day public comment period, but the constitutional language is somewhat ambiguous on whether the public comment requirement applies to the maps submitted by individual members.

The commission’s general counsel, Julianne Pastula, said the process adopted by the commission last week laying out the procedure for submitting and considering maps drawn by individual commissioners was at odds with her own interpretation of the Michigan Constitution.

But during a Monday meeting, Pastula said the group did not need to change its rules based on guidance provided by the commission’s litigation counsel, BakerHostetler, in a confidential memo reviewed by commissioners.

M.C. Rothhorn, the Democratic vice chair of the commission, said he hopes the group will adopt the maps it drew together.

“I think we want more people to trust this process and when they see us working together, that builds trust, so I think that is our greatest hope,” he said.

“I haven’t seen the individual maps — maybe they’re great, but we certainly worked hard as a collaborative group to put forward what we consider to be good maps,” said Steve Lett, an independent commissioner.

Lett put forward a motion during the commission’s Nov. 4 meeting to allow individual commissioners to advance their own maps to a 45-day public comment period without the approval of the commission. The motion passed 9-3. Lett also put forward a motion to confine the maps that could be considered in the event the group fails to adopt one of its own to only those individual commission maps that have undergone a 45-day public comment period. The motion passed 8-4.  Lett argued that the state constitution does not allow individual members to put forward a plan that neither the commissioners nor the public has had a chance to vet.

“Nowhere in here does it say you get to put in a new plan totally out of thin air because you can’t decide,” he said.

If the commission does not adopt one of its own maps and considers maps drawn by individual commissioners, each member would rank those plans in order of preference.

A commissioner’s last choice would receive one point and his or her top choice would receive the number of points that equals the total number of plans submitted. The commission would adopt the highest-ranked plan if it meets certain criteria.

If the highest-ranked plan was submitted by a Democratic or Republican commissioner, it must also fall in the top half of ranked plans by at least two commissioners not affiliated with the party of the commissioner who submitted the plan. If the highest-ranked plan was submitted by an independent commissioner, it must also fall in the top half of ranked plans by at least two commissioners affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties.

If no plan meets that requirement, the secretary of state would randomly select a final plan among all of the plans submitted. If two plans are tied for the highest number of points, the secretary of state would break the tie by randomly selecting one of the plans.

The group is planning to hold a vote to adopt one U.S. House, Michigan Senate and Michigan House map in late December.


CONGRESS MANDATES NEW VEHICLE TECHNOLOGY TO STOP DRUNKEN DRIVING

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: Find a high-tech way to keep drunken people from driving.

It’s one of the mandates along with a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety amid escalating road fatalities in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign soon.

Under the legislation, monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers would roll out in all new vehicles as early as 2026, after the Transportation Department assesses the best form of technology to install in millions of vehicles and automakers are given time to comply.

In all, about $17 billion is allotted to road safety programs, the biggest increase in such funding in decades, according to the Eno Center for Transportation. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Monday that could mean more protected bike paths and greener spaces built into busy roadways.

“It’s monumental,” said Alex Otte, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Otte called the package the “single most important legislation” in the group’s history that marks “the beginning of the end of drunk driving.”

“It will virtually eliminate the No. 1 killer on America’s roads,” she said.

Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported an estimated 20,160 people died in traffic collisions in the first half of 2021, the highest first-half total since 2006. The agency has pointed to speeding, impaired driving and not wearing seatbelts during the coronavirus pandemic as factors behind the spike.

Each year, around 10,000 people are killed due to alcohol-related crashes in the U.S., making up nearly 30% of all traffic fatalities, according to NHTSA.

Currently, some convicted drunken drivers must use breathalyzer devices attached to an ignition interlock, blowing into a tube and disabling the vehicle if their blood alcohol level is too high. The legislation doesn’t specify the technology, only that it must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

The voluminous bill also requires automakers to install rear-seat reminders to alert parents if a child is left inadvertently in the back seat, a mandate that could begin by 2025 after NHTSA completes its rulemaking on the issue. Since 1990, about 1,000 children have died from vehicular heatstroke after the highest total in a single year was 54 in 2018, according to Kidsandcars.org.

Congress, meanwhile, directed the agency to update decades-old safety standards to avert deaths from collapsing front seatbacks and issue a rule requiring automatic emergency braking and lane departure warnings in all passenger vehicles, though no date was set for compliance.

Most automakers had already agreed to make automatic emergency braking standard equipment in most of their models by September of next year, as part of a voluntary plan announced in the final weeks of the Obama administration.

Buttigieg, promoting the legislation’s benefits at a White House briefing, said he had traveled the country in recent months and seen too many roadside memorials for people who had died in preventable traffic deaths.

He pointed to a new $5 billion “Safe Streets & Roads for All” program under his department that will in part promote healthier streets for cyclists and pedestrians. The federal program, which he acknowledged may take several months to set up, would support cities’ campaigns to end traffic fatalities with a “Vision Zero” effort that could build traffic roundabouts to slow cars, carve out new bike paths and widen sidewalks and even reduce some roads to shift commuters toward public transit or other modes of transportation.

The legislation requires at least 15% of a state’s highway safety improvement program funds to address pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonmotorized road users if those groups make up 15% or more of the state’s crash fatalities.

“The best way to allow people to move in ways that are better for congestion and better for climate is to give them alternatives,” Buttigieg said. Describing much of it as a longer-term effort, he said, “this is how we do right by the next generation.”

Still, safety advocates worry that the bipartisan bill missed opportunities to address more forcefully an emerging U.S. crisis of road fatalities and urged the Transportation Department to deliver on immediate solutions.

“Prompt action must be taken on comprehensive, commonsense and confirmed solutions to steer our nation toward zero crash fatalities,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “Proven solutions are at hand; it’s time to take action.”


HOW THE $1.2-TRILLION BIDEN INFRASTRUCTURE BILL WILL BE SPENT IN MICHIGAN

BRIDGE MI — More than $10 billion will soon be on the way to help Michigan fix bridges, repave roads, replace lead service lines, fortify against climate change and make other investments, after Congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that awaits President Joe Biden’s signature.

Appearing at the White House on Saturday morning, Biden celebrated the bill’s passage with a subtle jab at his predecessor, Donald Trump.

“Finally, infrastructure week,” Biden said in reference to Trump’s 2018 proclamation of “Infrastructure Week” as he tried unsuccessfully to reach an infrastructure deal.  The bill, which passed the U.S. House late Friday night 228-to-206, with support from 13 Republicans including Michigan’s Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, and “no” votes from six Democrats, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, represents a huge surge of money dedicated to fixing the country’s decrepit infrastructure, including $550 billion in new investments.

Upton lamented that the bill had become a “political football” during recent weeks of intense negotiations, but called the version that ultimately passed “commonsense legislation that will support critical infrastructure projects in MI without raising taxes or increasing the debt.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer hailed the bill’s passage as a “win-win” for Michigan that will create jobs, enable businesses to operate smoothly, and invest in badly-needed upgrades.

“It will create countless good-paying, blue collar jobs, while helping us fix even more roads and bridges across the state,” Whitmer said in a statement Saturday. “I am grateful to Michigan’s congressional delegation for working to get this done.”

Whitmer said she is “ready to work with both parties in the legislature to get shovels in the ground,” a nod to the fact that once the money arrives, Michigan must still decide which projects should receive funding.

If Michigan’s still-unfinished negotiations about how to spend billions in COVID-19 relief dollars are any indication, it may not be a quick process.

Michigan, whose infrastructure received a D+ grade in 2018 from the American Society of Civil Engineers, has endured several high-profile infrastructure failures in recent years, from the Flint and Benton Harbor water crises involving aging lead pipes that have remained in the ground long after U.S. policy acknowledged the dire risks of lead, to the Midland dam failures last year, to the toxic legacy of PFAS contaminationflooding and erosion along its coast, and the pothill-filled “damn roads” that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on a promise to fix.

But the bill Biden said he will sign is also far smaller than the $2.25 trillion he had originally sought. Still, it amounts to the country’s largest-ever investment in climate action, public transit and other priorities.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, cheered its passage but added that “just this bill alone is not enough to help families across the country.”

Congress is still negotiating a $1.75-trillion social spending and climate change reconciliation bill, promoted as the Build Back Better act, that’s expected to backfill some of those gaps, though that bill, too, has shrunk from a $3.5 trillion proposal and could shrink even more to gain “yes” votes from moderate Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia.

In voting no on infrastructure, progressive Tlaib took issue with a decision not to pass the Build Back Better act at the same time. Democrats hope to use that separate bill to backfill many of the measures that were stripped from the infrastructure bill, including big investments in climate preparedness, paid family leave and childcare. Passing one without demanding passage of the other, Tlaib said in a statement, “gives up” the leverage progressive congressional members had to pass both.

“I fear that we are missing our once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in the American people,” Tlaib said.

Here’s what Michigan stands to receive in the infrastructure bill:

Roads and bridges

Michigan’s biggest new funding injection from the bill is for roads and bridges. The bill dedicates $110 billion nationally to the cause, more than $1.5 billion of which could come to Michigan.

Still, it’s far less than the $159 billion in Biden’s original ask.

According to Whitmer’s office, Michigan is set to receive $563 million to repair or replace bridges, and another $7.3 billion for roads.

More than a quarter of Michigan’s bridges are in disrepair. And roughly 42 percent of Michigan’s paved roads funded through the Federal-aid highway program are in poor condition, according to the latest state estimates, as are half of non-federal-aid roads.

Water systems

In total, the infrastructure bill includes $55 billion nationally to remove lead pipes and clean up PFAS. Whitmer’s office said Michigan is slated to receive $1.3 billion for water infrastructure, including lead and PFAS.

Michigan has among the highest per-capita rates of lead service lines in the nation — as many as 500,000 in total. But it has also done far more than any state to identify sources of PFAS after discoveries in recent years of severe contamination in places like Oscoda and Parchment.

So far, more than 11,000 PFAS-contaminated sites have been identified and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy frequently adds to the list.

Public transportation

Michigan is slated to receive $1 billion to improve rail lines and buses, out of a total $39 billion nationally being dedicated to modernizing public transit and $66 billion dedicated to rail. Biden had initially asked for $85 billion for transit and $80 billion for Amtrak alone.

Michigan has 73 public transit services that carry a combined 89 million passengers per year, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Broadband Internet

Michigan could receive $100 million to expand high-speed internet access to nearly 400,000 people, Whitmer’s office said. The lack of rural broadband became a high-profile issue during the pandemic, when Michigan students were shifted to online school. That was a near-impossibility for many students, including those whose families couldn’t afford to pay for internet and residents of rural areas where broadband doesn’t reach.

Money from the infrastructure bill adds to now-flush coffers in Michigan that have been unheard-of for decades. Michigan is still deciding how to spend nearly $6 billion in remaining federal COVID-19 stimulus funds, and local governments, too, have a collective $4.4 billion from the stimulus at their disposal.


APPLICATIONS OPEN TO PAY $1,000 BONUSES TO ELIGIBLE MICHIGAN CHILD CARE WORKERS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Applications opened Monday for a state program intended to pay a $1,000 bonus to each full-time child care professional in Michigan.

The $350-million Child Care Stabilization Grant program was part of a bipartisan state budget agreement.

“Child care is the backbone of a strong economy and childcare professionals and programs go above and beyond every day to care for our kids, helping them learn and grow in a safe environment,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a news release.

“By bringing both parties together, we were able to put Michiganders first and deliver every child care professional a $1,000 bonus in recognition of their incredible sacrifices over the last 18 months, expand low or no-cost care to 105,000 kids, and help providers improve their programs.”

Licensed child care providers are eligible to apply and can get more information at Michigan.gov/childcare. Child care professionals will be awarded bonuses directly from their employer and do not need to apply, the release said.

Laurie Clark-Horton, owner of L.A.C.C. Child Care Academy in Detroit, said she has worked in the field for more than 24 years and the past 18 months have been the most challenging of her career.

“Funding from the Child Care Stabilization Grant will help me thank my hard-working staff and continue providing high-quality care 24 hours a day,” she said.


DETROIT-WINDSOR TUNNEL REOPENS MONDAY TO VACCINATED FOREIGN TRAVELERS

DETROIT NEWS — Whether it’s to visit a favorite mall, with family or to sightsee, vaccinated foreign travelers at the border with Canada on both sides will be able to travel again using the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel starting Monday.

The tunnel reopens at midnight after being closed to the general public March 21, 2020, just after the pandemic began, and for the first time since then, vaccinated Canadians will be able to cross the U.S. border for nonessential purposes. The reopening includes land borders with Canada and Mexico, and means Michigan’s border with Canada is open to those coming to the U.S. by land or ferry for non-essential travel.

Travelers crossing the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico will have to provide proof of vaccination upon request of Customs and Border Protection officers. By January, foreign nationals traveling by land border to the U.S., both essential and non-essential, will be required to be fully vaccinated.

The Canadian border opened to nonessential travel in August as long entry requirements were met.

“It will be great to see our customers again, and we offer our thanks for the patience shown as we continue to navigate through this global pandemic together,” said Neal Belitsky, Detroit-Windsor Tunnel president. “We are happy to announce that we are reopening border travel to the U.S. through the tunnel to vaccinated, nonessential travelers, and we will be working with our partners in the U.S. and Canadian governments to ensure a safe return to service.”

The toll for the tunnel on the Detroit side will remain cashless while toll workers on the Canadian side of the border will accept cash until the end of the year. Then cash will no longer be accepted as a form of payment.

Few are expecting a flood of tourists immediately. Those entering Canada, including Canadians returning from even the briefest of visits on the American side, must show the negative coronavirus molecular test result within 72 hours of arrival. Lawmakers, businesses and residents say the costly requirement, some tests are $200, will deter the day-trippers, shoppers and families for which their economies have yearned.

On Monday, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens and U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-New York, will host a virtual press conference Monday to highlight COVID-19 testing requirements to return across the land border crossing.

At issue are the mandatory PCR tests to return to Canada following a visit to the U.S. Dilkens said the testing requirement for Canadians to return to Canada “is going to be a deal killer for most.”

“Our government has to find a way to find symmetry and harmony with the U.S. so that the rules are the same,” Dilkens said during a radio interview Oct. 28. “If they don’t (end the PCR test), then the reopening of the border won’t be a reopening of the border for most people.” Transit Windsor’s tunnel bus service currently remains suspended. Monday will mark the first time in 19 months that fully vaccinated Canadians will be allowed to cross the U.S. land border for nonessential travel such as tourism or family visits.

Health screenings at the borders may be required by the federal government as well as Canadian government guidelines. Travelers are being encouraged to consult with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website and Canada’s Public Health Agency for more information.

Before the pandemic, the tunnel served 12,000 daily customers and 4 million annually. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is operated by Detroit-based American Roads through a lease with the city of Detroit that began in 1998 and runs through 2040.

John Roach, spokesman for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said Sunday: “The reopening of the Detroit-Windsor tunnel is another sign that our economies are getting back to normal and gives workers and travelers another option to cross our international border with Canada. The city will continue to do everything it can to operate safely in the COVID environment.”


11 STATES FILE SUIT AGAINST BIDEN’S BUSINESS VACCINE MANDATE

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Attorneys general in 11 states filed suit Friday against President Joe Biden’s administration, challenging a new vaccine requirement for workers at companies with more than 100 employees.

The lawsuit filed in the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals argues that the authority to compel vaccinations rests with the states, not the federal government.

“This mandate is unconstitutional, unlawful, and unwise,” said the court filing by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, one of several Republicans vying for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat next year.

New regulations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandate that companies with more than 100 employees require their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested for the virus weekly and wear masks on the job. The requirement is to kick in Jan. 4. Failure to comply could result in penalties of nearly $14,000 per violation.

Schmitt said Missouri has 3,443 private employers who could be covered by the vaccine requirement, with nearly 1.3 million employees.

He said he sued “to protect personal freedoms, preserve Missouri businesses, and push back on bureaucratic tyrants who simply want power and control.”

The Biden administration has been encouraging widespread vaccinations as the quickest way out of the pandemic. A White House spokeswoman said Thursday that the mandate was intended to halt the spread of a disease that has claimed more than 750,000 lives in the U.S.

Missouri was joined in the lawsuit by the Republican attorneys general of Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. The office of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, a Democrat, also joined in the suit, along with several private, nonprofit and religious employers.

The Daily Wire, a conservative media company, filed a challenge in federal court on Thursday. So did companies in Michigan and Ohio represented by a conservative advocacy law firm, as well as two Wisconsin manufacturers represented by a conservative law firm.


MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING COMMISSION RELENTS, CREATES MAJORITY-BLACK MAPS FOR HOUSE

BRIDGE MI — After pushback from African-American leaders over political districts, Michigan’s redistricting panel on Thursday proposed a new state House configuration that creates majority-Black districts in Detroit.

The latest map comes after weeks of back and forth between Detroit-area commissioners and the panel, and after hundreds of concerns regarding the commission’s handling of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 law designed to allow people of color to elect representatives of their choosing.

Commissioner Brittni Kellom, a Democrat from Detroit, told the 13-member panel the latest changes “make us more responsive to the comments in the community of Detroit.

“One thing that I can stand by is that most, if not all, of the neighborhoods in Detroit are back together.”

Under the proposed maps passed Thursday, called Magnolia, the state would have a handful of legislative districts with a Black voting age population over 50 percent. Most of the districts are in Detroit.

Although that would be significantly less than the state’s current 17 majority-Black state legislative districts, it’s an increase on what the commission has so far proposed.

The Magnolia map creates 56 districts that lean Democratic in the House and 54 that favor Republicans. The chamber is now controlled by Republicans 57-52.

As of Thursday, the commission had approved three maps apiece for the state House, Senate and Congress.

The commission hopes to approve all maps by Friday before starting a 45-day comment period. Final approval is expected by Dec. 30.

Besides the creation of majority-minority districts, the new House map also has different borders for Ann Arbor and Livingston County.

For weeks, the commission has been engulfed in controversy after proposing congressional, state House and state Senate maps that did not create any majority-Black districts.

Over and over, the commission heard from leaders and Detroit residents who said the lack of majority-Black districts would make it too difficult to elect their candidates of choice because districts extend into suburbs.

The commission has followed the advice of Lisa Handley, a partisan fairness consultant, and of Bruce Adelson, a voting rights attorney.

Until recent days, both have recommended the panel create districts in Detroit with a Black population between 40 percent to 45 percent, arguing that anything more could be deemed racial gerrymandering.

But this week, Adelson said the commission could draw districts that have a Black voting age population of up to 55 percent, as long as it’s not meant to dilute their vote and protects communities of interest.

State Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, who has advocated for different districts for Black residents, told reporters prior to the vote the Magnolia map was a good first step.

“We want to see as many people of color, and Black people in particular, being represented in our communities as they already are,” Yancey said.

Panel at odds with attorney

The new map emerged after yet another marathon session by commissioners, and another controversy over rules and deadlines for the panel that was created in 2018 to draw the maps that last for 10 years.

Before then, the party in power in Lansing handled redistricting after the decennial census, creating legislative boundaries so skewed that Republicans maintained power in the Legislature despite sometimes getting fewer overall votes than Democrats.

The commission, which was created by a voter-approved constitutional amendment, voted Thursday to amend rules and allow commissioners until noon Monday to create their own redistricting maps.

Until then, many commissioners believed they had until Dec. 30.

The new rules, though, require all maps to undergo a 45-day public comment period — despite language from the state constitution that would suggest otherwise.

The change was led by Commissioner Steve Lett, an independent who is an attorney, and Rebecca Szetela, an independent who serves as chair of the commission.

Lett said not giving individual maps a 45-day public comment period would mean they were introduced “totally out of thin air.”

Szetela told commissioners the panel was not amending the constitution, but just “voting on an interpretation.

“We’re clarifying our interpretation of the statute, or the constitutional amendment,” Szetela said. “We are not rewriting or redefining the constitution, we’re just determining how we are going to interpret it.”

The changes buck the advice of the commission’s general counsel Julianne Pastula, who told members she sees “no language allowing” the change.

After the vote, some commissioners expressed concerns.

“I feel like we do not have the right to interpret the constitution,” said Commissioner Cynthia Orton, a Republican. “I feel like we do not have a right to vote on limiting commissioners.”

Tony Daunt, the executive director of conservative advocacy group FAIR Maps, told Bridge Michigan the constitutional amendment that created the commission left too much room for interpretation.

“What that entire process showed is that the drafting, and the drafters, of this (constitutional) amendment put forward a floppy Rube Goldberg contraption of an amendment,” Daunt said.

“I think a lot of the confusion and certainly the complete lack of objective standards of leaving it up to a bunch of subjective interpreters was on purpose.”

Daunt has unsuccessfully sued the state to overturn the creation of the commission.

This is the latest dispute involving the commission.

Last week, the commission decided to go in a closed session and privately discuss two legal memos regarding the Voting Rights Act and the history of discrimination in Michigan.

Some state lawmakers have asked Attorney General Dana Nessel for a ruling on the legality of the closed session.

This week, commissioners have exchanged sharp words over the districts.

On Monday, Kellom, a Democrat from Detroit, said Commissioner Rhonda Lange’s map was “discriminatory.” Lange disputed that assessment.

Later that day, Kellom said she felt commissioners were being dismissive of her suggestions. As she started to cry, Szetela told her to “just stop.”

The Detroit Caucus in the Michigan Legislature on Thursday called on Lange to apologize.

Both Kellom and Szetela issued a joint statement saying the panel continues to collaborate.

“Let’s not let a moment in time define the outcome of an ongoing process,” the statement said. “So instead, we’re focused on our mission to draw fair maps through public engagement in following the seven ranked redistricting criteria.”


GOV. GRETCHEN WHITMER SIGNS ‘TAMPON TAX’ REPEAL

DETROIT NEWS — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill Thursday to repeal taxes on the sale of feminine hygiene products, saying the legislation would make a difference for “every menstruating Michigander.”

The long-sought reform removes the unfair “tampon tax,” which only half the state’s population has to pay, Whitmer contended during an event at the Greater Lansing Food Bank.

“By repealing the tax on menstrual products, we are saving families from paying taxes on up to $4,800 in spending over the course of a lifetime,” Whitmer said. “And this is a bipartisan tax cut.”

The governor signed one of two bills Thursday that will ultimately exempt feminine hygiene products from the 6% sales and use taxes. The legislation will reduce government revenues by about $6.3 million per year, according to a Senate Fiscal Agency analysis. The bill describes “feminine hygiene products” as “tampons, panty liners, menstrual cups, sanitary napkins and other similar” items.

Twenty other states have already removed their “tampon taxes,” Whitmer said.

Thursday was a “historic day,” said Lysne Tait, executive director of Helping Women Period, a nonprofit that supplies menstrual health products to people who are either homeless or low-income.

“The burden of this sales tax on necessary healthcare items promotes period poverty and impacts the amount of money families have to spend on other necessities,” Tait said. “This is a step in the right direction, and I look forward to the day when no one has to worry about affording menstrual products, month after month.”

Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grands Rapids, one of the sponsors, labeled the bills “common sense.”


MICHIGAN POISED TO VACCINATE KIDS AGES 5-11 AS SOON AS WEDNESDAY

DETROIT NEWS — Doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for kids ages 5 through 11 have already arrived in Michigan and providers are ready to start giving the shots as early as Wednesday.

The federal Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the children’s vaccine on Friday, but health care providers had been waiting for sign-off from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before administering the shots.

That came Tuesday night when U.S. health officials with the CDC gave the final signoff to Pfizer’s kid-size COVID-19 shot. Earlier Tuesday afternoon, a CDC advisory panel voted in favor of giving children in that age group Pfizer’s pediatric COVID-19 shots.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration pre-ordered about 287,700 doses to be ready for the eventual federal approvals, and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Chelsea Wuth said the doses started to arrive on Monday.

“We will be ready (Wednesday) to start vaccinating pending approval,” Wuth said Tuesday ahead of the CDC’s approval. “MDHHS is excited about potential authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11.

“We know COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective and the way out of this pandemic.”

Each dose contains about a third of the amount of vaccine used for adolescents and adults, according to the FDA. Children will need two shots to be fully vaccinated.

The governmental approval was greeted with relief by some parents and trepidation by others. The vaccine was found to be 90.7% effective in clinical trials.

About 3,100 children participated in clinical trials that studied the vaccine’s safety and efficacy in 5- through 11-year-olds, the FDA reported. No serious side effects have been detected so far in ongoing studies.

Whitmer last week ordered the state departments of Health and Human Services and Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to “take all appropriate action” to make the vaccine available to kids as soon as they’re eligible to receive it.

The children’s vaccine will be available at pharmacies, doctors’ offices and local health departments, according to MDHHS.

“With over 4,000 providers in the state, there should be no problem finding a vaccine,” Wuth said. “Our initial supply is expected to last through the end of the year, and we will be able to order more before then from CDC.”

On Tuesday, Meijer grocery stores were already scheduling childvaccinations, and the Oakland County Health Division said it received 14,400 pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

The county plans to hold its first pediatric COVID-19 vaccination clinics next week, representatives said in a statement. The Health Division is slated to announce clinic locations and times later this week.

Oakland County has about 98,000 residents ages 5-11 years old, according to the release.

“We’re excited having the vaccine available for children. It’s a huge step in ending this pandemic and the best way to keep our kids healthy and in school,” said Oakland County Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust, a pediatric ear, nose and throat surgeon.


MICHIGAN TO OFFER NON-BINARY DESIGNATION FOR DRIVER LICENSES NEXT WEEK

BRIDGE MI — Michigan residents will soon be able to select a gender-neutral designation on their driver license or state ID cards: an X.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office will begin offering the nonbinary gender designation beginning Nov. 10, providing a new option for residents who do not identify as a traditional male or female, according to documents obtained by Bridge Michigan.

Benson confirmed the pending change in a statement: “I am proud to support Michiganders across the state who for many years have called on the Department of State to provide a nonbinary sex marker on their ID that matches their lived reality,” she said. “We have been working towards this goal since 2019, when we first removed the barriers for residents to change their sex marker in order to help protect their safety and accurately reflect their identity.”

Twenty other states already allow a gender-neutral sex designation without requiring documentation from a medical provider, according to a Secretary of State memo to law enforcement groups. The U.S. Department of State issued its first nonbinary gender passport last week.

LGBT advocates had urged Benson to offer a nonbinary option for driver licenses, which currently only allow M or F designations. They celebrated the pending change when contacted by Bridge Michigan on Tuesday afternoon.

“There are individuals who do not necessarily identify with part of the gender binary, and those who are gender nonbinary should have the opportunity to have documents that accurately reflect who they are,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project.

“I think this is a terrific thing.”

But law enforcement groups fear their software may not be ready for the new ID designation, and while they have had earlier discussions with Benson’s office, her Monday letter caught many off guard, said Bob Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We’ve expressed our concerns repeatedly to the secretary of state’s office on issues we’d like to address and resolve, but in spite of that, the policy is going (to change),” he told Bridge Michigan. “We’ll just have to do the best we can.”

The records management systems police use to log crime reports and other data have traditionally been set up with either or fields for male or female individuals,  and warrant entries also include specific sex designation, Stevenson said.

Still, police hope they can update systems to coordinate with the new IDs, but doing so will cost money, he told Bridge Michigan.

“It’ll take a while before the ‘X’ licenses get into distribution, and I wouldn’t imagine there will be hundreds of thousands of them immediately, so I think we’ll have time to work through this,” Stevenson said.

Benson, in her Monday letter, wrote she told law enforcement leaders about the possible ID change two years ago and expects “many” have already updated their systems or connected with agencies in other states that have done so.

The change has been a long time coming: In early 2020, Benson confirmed she was contemplating a nonbinary designation for driver license and state ID cards. Earlier attempts had been complicated by state database software that could not readily accommodate the change.

Benson spokesperson Jake Rollow said Tuesday the department overhauled the “core technology behind its driver’s license and ID” systems. The work, completed in March 2021, expanded online transaction options and made the nonbinary gender designation option “feasible” with additional programming.

Residents who wish to change their sex-marker to ‘X’ will be able to do so by visiting any Secretary of State office, Rollow said, encouraging them to schedule an appointment online or by phone.

The change is important for nonbinary, intersex or gender-nonconforming residents who have traditionally been confronted with limited options from government, said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan.

“This hopefully will mitigate harassment and discrimination and make people that chose to use the X, if you will, to feel as though they’re being treated fairly and with respect,” she said.


THERE’S A SNOWPLOW, SALT TRUCK DRIVER SHORTAGE IN MICHIGAN: WHAT IT MEANS FOR ROADS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — As Michigan residents begin to dust off their heavy coats and prepare for a bone-chilling and especially wet winter, officials say a shortage of snowplow drivers and salt truck drivers is brewing.

While perhaps taken for granted, having plowed roads is incredibly important for the economy, for emergency services and day-to-day life.

“And so it’s a little more critical to get on top of it in a very busy urban area like Detroit or Grand Rapids,” said Mark Geib, administrator of the Transportation Systems Management Operations division at the Michigan Department of Transportation. “It’s not just for the traveling public, but it’s also for emergency services, the ambulances, and police and fire and all that. So, you know, we need to keep the roads clear so people can get around, especially in emergency situations.”

Michigan is expected to get more precipitation and a “wetter-than-average” winter, meaning more snowfall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Geib said he hasn’t seen a snowplow driver shortage anything like this during his 30 years at MDOT.

The Michigan Department of Transportation contracts out the responsibility for about 75% of the roads to counties and manages the other 25% itself, according to Geib.

Individual counties, like Oakland, Wayne and Macomb, are also struggling to fill their rosters. Leo Ciavatta, Macomb County maintenance superintendent, said they’re missing about 30% of what they need. Wayne County is looking to fill about 50 spots, and Oakland is looking to fill 30, according to WWJ-AM (950). Despite the shortage, Geib said there’s no need to take your shovel to Interstate 75 just yet — the roads will be plowed, one way or another.

If enough drivers aren’t hired and a snowstorm hits, Geib said people from adjacent garages and regions will help out where the storm hit hardest. Sometimes, employees capable of driving snowplows will be pulled from other divisions to help out.

In Macomb County, contractors are on standby as reinforcements if there’s a large snowstorm.

“Safety is our number one priority,” Ciavatta said.

Geib said the shortage is likely due to a competitive job market and the private sector offering bonuses and higher wages, and it can be hard for MDOT to compete because it has  pre-set salaries.

He said he hopes that once contractors that operate machines during the summer start to wind down those jobs, they’ll be able to work temporarily during the winter.

“We do offer very good benefits and lead time,” Geib said. “But, of course, the people we hire to do snowplowing, it’s more difficult for them to take lead time because, you know, in the winter, we need them.”

MDOT snowplow wages range from $20-$26 an hour for eight-hour shifts with up to four hours of overtime. In Macomb County, wages start at $17.59 and reach about $22 an hour.

“(Wages) will probably go up over time, especially if this shortage continues,” Geib said. “Because, you know, in the end, we have to have people to do this because winter maintenance is one of the most important things we do to keep the roads safe, keeping them clear, so the economy can keep going.”

Driving a snowplow requires a commercial driver’s license and typically some experience truck driving or operating machinery. You can apply for jobs in metro Detroit and across the state at:

MDOT: https://www.neogov.com/

Oakland: http://www.rcocweb.org/148/Careers

Wayne: https://www.waynecounty.com/departments/phr/job-postings.aspx

Macomb: https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/macomb


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | CASES CLIMBING IN MICHIGAN, AFTER TWO WEEKS OF DECLINES

BRIDGE MI — Michigan reported 9,313 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, or an average of 3,104 for each of the last three days, pushing the seven-day average to 3,600 cases a day, up from 3,400 on Friday.

The state also reported 65 additional COVID-19 deaths.

Cases have increased on Monday and Friday, despite two weeks of decreases statewide and declining case numbers nationwide.

Metro Detroit saw some of the biggest increases, as cases climbed in Detroit, suburban Wayne County and Oakland and Macomb counties.

Macomb reported 1,061 cases over the three days and is averaging 38 cases per 100,000 people per day, up from 31 cases per day per 100,000 a week ago.

The percentage of cases that were positive was 11.6 percent over the most recent three days, putting the weekly rate also at 11.6 percent. The last time the weekly rate was higher was April 27 when it was 11.7 percent.

Hospitalizations also rose over the weekend, with 2,305 patients treated for confirmed or suspected COVID-19, up from 2,247 on Friday.


SPARROW NURSES WITHOUT CONTRACT SAY ‘CRITICALLY LOW’ STAFFING PUTS PATIENTS AT RISK

DETROIT FREE PRESS — In her nine years as a labor and delivery nurse at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Destinee Griffin has called in sick to work just once.

She keeps a box of the cards patients have written her, thanking her for helping to bring their babies into the world. But over the last 20 months, working conditions and patient care have deteriorated so drastically, she said she’s willing to walk off the job if things don’t change.

“It is absolutely a last resort,” Griffin said Thursday. “I honestly hope that leadership and management does not push us (to)  that. I am nervous about what would happen if that happens. But if needed? I will. I will strike if I need to.”

As of Oct. 30, Griffin and some 2,200 Sparrow nurses, pharmacists and other health care workers no longer have a contract.

Their union, the Professional Employees Council of Sparrow Hospital-Michigan Nurses Association, PECSH-MNA, has been negotiating with the hospital since the summer.

And while both sides have agreed to federal mediation, union leaders said they still haven’t received a deal that addresses “critically low” staffing levels, said nurse and PECSH President Katie Pontifex. That’s pushing them to hold a Nov. 3 “informational” picket.

“If that doesn’t move them, then we will move forward with a strike authorization vote,” Pontifex said. “And we hope that will move them. But we are willing and ready and prepared to do whatever we need to do to ensure the safety of our community.”

But hospital leaders said they’re doing everything they can, amid rising health care and staffing costs, employee turnover and absences, a cut in insurance payments following Michigan’s auto no-fault reform, and increasing patient volumes.

“I’ve never been in a place where we tried to do as much” for the staff, Alan Vierling, the president of Sparrow Hospital,  said Friday. “We’ve addressed issues from assault by patients on staff. We’ve put in rest(ing) rooms and we’ve done massage chairs, and we’ve given bonuses and we’ve given money, and we’ve made resources available.

“And we continue to try. And people are tired. People are tired across the country. … Is Sparrow any different? I don’t know that.”

Staffing crisis, patient risk

Bitter fights over whether hospitals are doing enough to retain and recruit health care workers aren’t unique to Sparrow. The issues here — like hazard pay, longevity bonuses, health insurance costs and wages — are being hashed out across the country, as patient volumes and staffing shortages continue to put enormous pressure on an already burned-out workforce.

But lately, contract fights have reached a new and unsettling pitch, workers in several health systems say. After 20 months of putting their own lives on the line and bearing witness to pandemic-era levels of death and suffering, now they’re watching an exodus of team members leaving the health care field altogether. And they struggle with what they say has, as a result, become an unsafe level of patient care.

On the medical-surgical inpatient floors, it’s now common for each day shift nurse to have anywhere from five to seven patients to care for at a time, Pontifex said.

Shortage driven by multiple factors

These shortages can’t just be blamed on changes in the labor market, Pontifex said.

“They’re not retaining the experienced staff that they already have right now,” she said. “There is actually not a nursing shortage nationwide. There is a shortage of nurses willing to put themselves in harm’s way, by working in an unsafe environment.”

Sparrow could improve retention, she said, by helping workers feel valued: hazard pay, longevity bonuses, retention bonuses and lower health insurance costs. These simply aren’t happening for their union members, Pontifex said.

In their initial offer to the PECSH-MNA, Sparrow offered a 1% cost of living raise for each year of the contract, Pontifex said. As of Friday, Sparrow increased that offer to a 4% raise for all members, and an additional 3% over the following two years of the contract, said hospital spokesperson John Foren.

Combined with an additional 1% raise for workers in certain pay brackets, the health system will spend $15 million in wage increases over the span of the three-year contract, Foren said. Sparrow also has proposed a $1,000 one-time bonus for all full-time workers in the union, as well as $500 for part-timers.

But the raise hikes still wouldn’t cover cost of living increases, Pontifex said, pointing to the 5.9% increase in Social Security for 2022. There’s also a 12% rise in health care costs next year and significantly higher premiums, especially for part-time workers whose family members are on their insurance, she said.

Vierling said health insurance coverage costs are rising for the hospital, and those retention bonuses didn’t come previously because they were heading into new contract negotiations. Plus, he said, generous bonuses were already offered to those willing to pick up additional hours.

“So over a period of eight weeks, they would work one additional shift per week, and two of those would be over weekends,” Vierling said. “And if they did that, we would give them a $10,000 bonus at the end of that time period.”

Sparrow’s Chief Nursing Officer Amy Brown said the hospital system has tried to add more workers.

“We implemented the temporary float pool,” nurses who could be sent to help wherever there were staff shortages, she said.

“The $10,000 opportunity (was available) for part time, per diem, and full time (staff). We also offer bonuses for people to pick up additional shifts. And then we also had multiple times where we had (travel) agency nurses that are working as well.”

Vierling added: “We lost $5.7 million in September, spent on labor costs above what we would have ordinarily spent, because we’re trying.”

Meanwhile, more nurses have been hired, he said, but their orientation period is taking longer than usual because many are fresh out of nursing school — and had to do a portion of that training virtually.

Vierling and Brown say nurses are calling in sick so much that it’s adding to the shortage problem.

“We had 90,000 hours of nurse call-in time in a period of a year,” Vierling said. “That’s 20 nurses calling in 12 hours a day, every day. And so that does play a role.”

But Pontifex said that’s not fair.

“We are being gaslighted every day about how we don’t have a staffing problem, we have a call-in problem. Well, when you tell me that we are 90 nurses down (hospital) wide, and I ask you how many call-ins there are, and they say 20, that’s not call-in problem. That’s an open shift problem. And it’s exacerbated by the fact that you can’t retain your caregivers.”

Sparrow lost $31 million in 2020, Foren said, “and that was after substantial federal relief funds. We’re expect(ing) to post an operating loss for 2021, like a lot of health systems. But that’s some of the bigger context. … We have taken some real financial hits, so we’re also negotiating in that climate.”


PLANET FITNESS DONATES TREADMILLS, STATIONARY BICYCLES TO ALL 38 DETROIT FIREHOUSES

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Planet Fitness is donating and will help install treadmills and stationary bicycles in each of Detroit’s 38 firehouses.

The treadmills and stationary bicycles will be used by firefighters and emergency medical personnel during their shifts and allow them to maintain and improve their cardiovascular health, Detroit Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said.

“The leading cause of death for firefighters is overexertion/sudden cardiac arrest,” Jones said in a statement. “Additionally, the equipment can help the firefighters relieve stress throughout their 24-hour shift especially after returning from a traumatic or tragic scene.”

The equipment is valued at $130,000.

“We’re proud to build on this commitment by helping these first responders who put their lives on the line every day to help others,” said Bryan Rief, chief executive and co-owner of Northville-based PF Michigan Group.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | CASES JUMP AGAIN TO 4,039 PER DAY; 122 MORE DEATHS

BRIDGE MI — Michigan reported 8,078 new cases, or 4,039 per day, on Friday,  the second increase this week after over a week of declining case counts.

The new cases pushed the seven-day average up to 3,400 a day, an increase from 3,318 on Wednesday. The average case count had fallen from Oct. 15 through Tuesday before rising again.

The state also reported 122 additional COVID-19 deaths, pushing the October total to 996. That is the eighth-highest monthly total during the 20-month pandemic.

In 2021, only January (1,836), April (1,740) and May (1,370) had more COVID-19 deaths.

The rise in cases came as the percentage of positive coronavirus tests rose to 11.8 percent out of more than 87,400 tests, from 11.3 percent on Wednesday. The seven-day rate remained 11.4 percent, the same as it was a week ago.

Hospitalizations for COVID-19 rose to 2,247 patients from 2,225 on Wednesday.


COVID VACCINE FOR KIDS 5 TO 11 CLEARS ANOTHER FEDERAL HURDLE

BRIDGE MI– The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the two-dose Pfizer COVID vaccine for children 5- to 11-years old Friday, setting the stage for youngsters being allowed to take the vaccine perhaps as soon as late next week.

Friday’s announcement came just days after a recommendation by an FDA advisory panel, which concluded that the benefits of protecting young children from the virus outweigh the rare side effects of the vaccine.

The pediatric version of the Pfizer vaccine is more than 90 percent effective for the age group, according to its manufacturer, and would be given in a lower dose than is given to older recipients.

While young children are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19, they are not immune. More than 600 pediatric deaths have been reported nationally since the pandemic began. And in Michigan, Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a serious condition in which a COVID infection inflames organs and tissues, has been reported in 172 people under 20 years old, including 122 who were admitted to a hospital intensive-care unit, according to the latest state data.

Pfizer still must get a green light from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before it can be offered to Michigan families. The CDC advisory board meets Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. The FDA and CDC typically follow the advice of their medical advisors, but they are not bound to do so.

While some parents (and schools) eagerly await the availability of the pediatric vaccine, providers might find it a tough sell for others. About 3 in 10 parents will “definitely not” have their child vaccinated — about twice the number (15 percent) of adults who in December 2020 said they would not be vaccinated themselves, according to an ongoing survey by KFF, a San Francisco-based health policy research organization also known as The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has preordered more than 278,000 doses of the pediatric Pfizer vaccines, which are given at one-third the adult dose and arrive with smaller needles.

“At this stage of the game and on the logistical front, things are moving pretty smoothly,” said Anne Scott, health centers operations officer for the Michigan Primary Care Association. MPCA represents a network of health centers around the state, primarily serving low-income Michiganders. She said health centers are trying to find ways to make sure staff can set aside time to help anxious parents sort through the information about vaccines.

“We are ready. We have the ability, and we have the supply,” she said of vaccination efforts. “What we’re talking about now is how (ready) will we be available to answer questions.”


SEVERAL COMMUNITIES UNDER BOIL WATER ADVISORY, 2 DISTRICTS CLOSED AFTER WATER MAIN BREAK

WXYZ-TV (DETROIT) — Several metro Detroit communities have issued a boil water advisory and one school district is closed after a massive water main break Sunday along 14 Mile in Farmington Hills.

The communities currently under a boil water advisory are: Novi, Walled Lake and a portion of Commerce Township.

 The Novi Consolidated School District and Walled Lake Consolidated School District are also closed Monday due to the water main break.

14 Mile Road continues to be completely closed to traffic between Halsted and Drake Roads due to the water main break.

It sounded like a waterfall and looked like a geyser. A water main break shot up from the ground along 14 Mile in Farmington Hills, breaking through the sidewalk. The gushing water started just after 5:00 p.m. and continued until nearly 9:30 p.m.

“The amount of water is just unbelievable,” said neighbor John Shinske. “The whole street is flooded.”

A neighborhood backs up to this part of 14 mile. The four homes directly in the water’s path were severely damaged. A river of water and debris poured from their backyards into the street, as pieces of one home floated away.

“The sheer force blasted most of the wall of the rear of this house off, entered the home and poured through the home,” said Farmington Hills Fire Chief Jon Unruh.

Outside the damaged homes, thousands of homes across 8 Metro Detroit communities are now impacted. That includes Keego Harbor, Sylvan Lake, West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills, Commerce Township, Novi, Walled Lake and Wixom.

According to the Great Lakes Water Authority, the regional pressure levels never dipped to the point that would require a regional boil advisory, however some communities have issued their own out of an abundance of caution.

Farmington Hills issued a statement saying it was an isolated break and, “The city of Farmington Hills water system is fully functional and operational. There is no system wide boil water advisory at the current time.”

“We just went and bought a lot of water, we’re still probably going to buy more tomorrow,” said West Bloomfield resident Aleena Dabbish.

For these residents, it’s all too familiar. In 2017 near this exact same intersection, the same water main suffered a massive break. It put more than 250,000 people under a boil advisory that lasted days.

“I know that Great Lakes Water Authority has worked on improvements to the systems and hopefully those valves and things they renewed will be beneficial for this break,” Chief Unruh said.

But given that past experience, many residents aren’t expecting to use their water anytime soon. They worry this is only the beginning of a long week ahead.

“Oh yea, probably over a week, that’s a possibility. That’s what happened a while back when they turned off the water for a few days,” Dabbish said. “Just gotta wait and hold on and buy a lot of water I guess.”

What to do if your community is under a boil water advisory:

“Water should be boiled for at least one minute and allowed to cool before consumption. Boiled, bottled or disinfected water should be used for drinking, making ice, washing dishes, brushing teeth, and preparing food until further notice.”


MICHIGAN TO PAY BENTON HARBOR RESIDENTS FOR DISTRIBUTING WATER

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan will begin paying Benton Harbor residents who work at state-supported bottled water distribution sites to “ensure the continued success” of the efforts, according to a Thursday press release.

The announcement from the state Department of Health and Human Services said the individuals will be called “community ambassadors,” will earn $15 per hour and must be approved by the organization they volunteer with.

“Benton Harbor residents have stepped up to help one another as the state provides free bottled water to the city to reduce the risk of exposure to lead in their drinking water,” said Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department. “Ensuring that residents are compensated for their time is a priority for the state and will help ensure a sustainable, long-term solution and is the right thing to do.”

Some advocates who have volunteered to pass out water in Benton Harbor, a southwest Michigan city with about 10,000 residents, had been pressing state officials to pay city residents who help.

Elevated lead levels were first detected in Benton Harbor in 2018 during routine testing, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. Much of the city’s water distribution system is about 100 years old. On Sept. 9, a group of organizations filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking the EPA to provide an immediate source of safe drinking water in schools and child care facilities in Benton Harbor, along with other actions.

A month later on Oct. 6, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the availability of bottled water was being expanded in Benton Harbor “out of an abundance of caution.” The press release encouraged residents to use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, rinsing foods and mixing powdered infant formula.

On Oct. 14, Whitmer signed an executive directive implementing what her office called an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to the situation in Benton Harbor. The governor set a goal of replacing 100% of the lead service lines in the city within 18 months.

Under the new initiative, individuals who want to serve as “community ambassadors” are recommend to connect with an established distribution site, according to the department of health.

The health department and volunteers have provided more than 100,000 cases of free bottled water at community distribution sites and deliveries to residents who are homebound or lack access to transportation, Thursday’s press release said.


MICHIGAN PARKS LOOK INCREASINGLY LIKELY TO GET BIG COVID FUNDING BOOST

BRIDGE MI — Michigan’s long-suffering parks look increasingly likely to get a big funding boost to help fill pothole-laden roads, update ancient bathrooms and revamp outdated campsites.

Republican lawmakers this week introduced three bills that, taken together, would direct $968 million of Michigan’s $5.8 billion in unspent COVID-19 stimulus dollars to state and local parks.

Two of the bills closely align with a parks funding plan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced earlier this year, a signal that the Democratic governor and Republican-led legislature are in general agreement about using some of Michigan’s stimulus windfall to spiff up Michigan’s popular but poorly maintained parks.

Senate Bill 703, sponsored by Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, would allocate $250 million to drive down a $264 million maintenance backlog in Michigan’s state parks, and would devote $30 million apiece to the Mackinac State Historic Parks and a new “Northern Michigan tourism and sports fund.”

Senate Bill 704, sponsored by Michael MacDonald, R-Macomb, would devote $150 million for grants to help local parks systems make their own facilities upgrades.

A third bill, sponsored by Sen. John Bumstead, R-Newaygo, would use $508 million to fill the State Park Endowment Fund up to its $800 million cap. That would create new long-term funding for the parks system, which relies upon disbursements from the endowment to buy new land and cover expenses at the land it already owns.

But it’s unclear whether padding a trust fund is an allowable use of federal COVID stimulus dollars, which states are required to spend by the end of 2026.

Clay Summers, executive director of the Michigan Parks & Recreation Association, which represents public parks systems throughout the state, said his organization is seeking more clarity before deciding whether to support the third bill.

Using COVID dollars to create permanent parks funding “certainly makes all the sense in the world from a practical standpoint,” Summers said, “… but we’re not sure of the legality at this point.”

If the endowment fund proposal passes legal muster, McBroom estimated that it could boost the parks system’s annual funding by tens of million dollars.

“It’s going to allow us to not suffer this backlog on infrastructure in the future,” he said.

Spokespeople with Whitmer’s office said they “look forward” to working with the legislature to get money out the door.

“One of our state’s greatest strengths is our pristine natural resources,” Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy said in an email to Bridge Michigan. “That’s why Governor Whitmer and the legislature have put forward very similar proposals to make historic investments in our state and local parks.”

The spending proposals build upon recommendations from a 2012 Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Blue Ribbon Panel convened under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

The proposed funding would represent a major windfall for the state parks system, whose annual operating budget this year is just $80 million, along with $20 million for capital improvement projects.

Taken together, state parks chief Ron Olson said, the funding boosts would be “tremendous” for a system that, while beloved, has long struggled to maintain its assets.

Following decades of worsening conditions at Michigan’s 103 state parks, the state in 2010 created an $11 annual recreation passport visitors can buy to gain year-round access to state parks. That infused the system with new operating cash, helping the system’s budget to grow from about $48 million in fiscal year 2011 to $80 million this year.

But the added passport revenue has not been enough to make a dent in the maintenance backlog that had ballooned over decades, leaving crumbling roads, outdated facilities and unmaintained trails.

Money to address those issues would come at a crucial moment: Michigan’s parks have never been more popular. At state parks alone, visitation is up 30 percent since the pandemic began.

“It’s a legacy-builder,” Olson said of the possible funding boost. “This is a way to create that up-to-date atmosphere so people can enjoy themselves in a clean, safe park.”

The bills have been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where they await a hearing.


HERE’S A HALLOWEEN TREAT FOR METRO DETROIT KIDS: TEMPERATURES NEAR 60, NO MORE RAIN

DETROIT FREE PRESS — It looks like Mother Nature is going to have the last word on whether Halloween trick-or-treating is on Saturday or Sunday.

The forecast for Friday and most of Saturday: A steady downpour.

Sunday the skies should finally clear, with some sun — with highs near 60.

“The rain we’re going to get today is going to be off and on,” National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Considine said Friday morning. “It’s going to be primarily light, with some bouts of moderate rain.”

Expect a total rainfall for metro Detroit of ½ to 1 inch through Saturday. That’s not enough for flooding, but plenty for puddles even on Sunday. It has been an especially wet month.

So make sure your trick-or-treat costume goes with galoshes.

Rain was a big problem for Detroit this summer.

An investigation of summer flooding on behalf of metro Detroit’s regional water system concluded Wednesday that in addition to the weather, electrical problems at a pump station on the city’s east side “played a large role” in swamping basements.

Northville girl’s parents struggled with Halloween costume until engineer helped

Considine said with just a few days to go, the way things are going, some new monthly records may even be set. There’s a good chance Detroit will tie with the second hottest average temperature for October in 1947 at 60.3 degrees.

The hottest October on record was 62.7 degrees in 1963. And Oct. 14, Detroit’s high was 81 degrees.

Depending on how much rain falls before the end of the month, October also could end up being among the 10 wettest on record. The average rainfall for the month is about 2.29 inches. So far, 4.15 inches of rain have fallen, with more to come.

That should bring metro Detroit closer to the wettest October with 7.8 inches in 1954.

“It’s been a wet month,” Considine said. “This rain we’re having here today is going to slowly depart Saturday, and then we are looking at a dry day Sunday. But the ground is certainly going to be wet.”

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or fwitsil@freepress.com.

Halloween pandemic precautions

CDC’s precautions include:

Getting vaccinated, if you are eligible.

Avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.

And wear masks if you are in public indoor areas.


METRO DETROIT HEALTH DEPARTMENTS PREPARING PLANS TO VACCINATE KIDS

DETROIT NEWS — Metro Detroit health departments are developing plans to vaccinate young children against COVID-19 as they await emergency authorization for pediatric use of the vaccine from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC sign off, vaccines could be available in November to Michigan’s 825,000 children between the ages of 5 through 11.

The Oakland County Health Division said Wednesday that it is collaborating with local school districts on how to best rollout the doses and has placed preliminary orders for the vaccine following the CDC’s anticipated approval. Officials in Wayne and Macomb counties said they too are anticipating providing the vaccinations as quickly as possible.

Oakland County said it will release details on pediatric COVID-19 vaccine clinics after the CDC approves it for emergency use in younger children and issues guidelines. More than 276,000 eligible residents in Oakland County remain unvaccinated, officials noted.

“Immunizing residents who remain unvaccinated is vital to limiting the transmission of COVID-19,” Oakland County Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust said in a statement. “The more residents who get the COVID-19 vaccine, the closer we will be to slowing the pandemic to manageable levels.”

The counties are preparing plans for administering pediatric doses as Michigan on Wednesday reported another 7,867 cases of the virus and 142 deaths over two days and the highest seven-day rolling average of daily cases since May.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday issued an executive directive to state departments and agencies to expedite the ordering and distribution of Pfizer vaccinations for children ages 5 through 11 in Michigan. The state has pre-ordered 287,700 doses of the vaccine to ensure a supply is on hand when approval is granted.

According to the manufacturer, the Pfizer vaccine is more than 90% effective for the younger age group.

An advisory panel of the FDA on Tuesday voted unanimously, with one abstention, that the vaccine’s benefits in preventing COVID-19 for children age 5 through 11 outweigh any potential risks. The FDA is expected to make its own decision within days.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is set to meet next week to consider the FDA’s recommendation.

In Wayne County, health officials have requested additional vaccines to be able to accommodate and administer pediatric vaccines once they are approved, said Tiffini Jackson, a spokeswoman for Wayne County.

“We will continue to work with the schools and providers in Wayne County as a resource and partner,” she said. “We’re in the process of contacting schools to offer on-site vaccination clinics. We will also continue to schedule an in-home vaccination appointment.”

Andrew Cox, health officer of Macomb County’s Health Department, said when new populations are approved by the CDC for COVID-19 vaccines “we have responded by making the vaccine available to those individuals as quickly as possible” and “this will be no different.”

“In anticipation of the authorization for pediatric doses of COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5-11 years old, we are planning on integrating operations to serve this population into health department vaccination clinics in Clinton Township and Warren,” he said.

“In addition, we will continue our ongoing partnership with our pediatricians and with the Macomb Intermediate School District as well as Macomb County school districts to pursue opportunities to make the vaccine available to this important audience as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

About 73.4% of Oakland County residents ages 12 and up have received at least one vaccine dose. That’s compared with 71% in outer-Wayne and Washtenaw counties, 62.5% in Macomb County and 46.1% in Detroit, where the vaccination rate has lagged. Overall, 63.7% of residents in Michigan have received at least one dose, state data shows.


MICHIGAN REDISTRICTING PANEL, WHICH PLEDGED OPENNESS, MEETS IN SECRET

BRIDGE MI — As opposition builds to proposed legislative maps, the state’s redistricting commission on Wednesday met in private to discuss whether the districts comply with federal law.

Members did so despite wide objections and repeated pledges of openness and transparency, as well a constitutional amendment mandating they “conduct all of its business at open meetings.”

The 13-member commission, created by voters in 2018 after lawmakers drew legislative boundaries for decades behind closed doors, moved on Wednesday to suspend rules and discuss two memos in a closed session: one titled “Voting Rights Act” and another called “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.” The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission instructed reporters to leave the meeting, blocked the room’s door windows with paper, and paused a live stream of the session.

The private discussion followed days of criticism from African-American leaders who questioned if the maps adhere to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is designed to allow minorities to elect candidates of their choosing.

The redistricting panel, by year’s end, is expected to approve legislative boundaries that will be used for the next decade. Michigan now has 17 majority-minority districts in the state Legislature, and two in the congressional delegation. But most of the commission’s proposed maps only have one district that is over 50 percent majority Black.

“I think that this would allow us to freely discuss attorney-client matters with our lawyers freely and openly, where we all as a group can ask questions,” said Rebecca Szetela, an independent who serves as chair of the commission.

Although the contents of the memos are unknown to the public, Szetela told Bridge Michigan they were a legal opinion.

Eleven out of 13 commissioners voted to meet in closed session to  “discuss privileged and confidential memoranda.”

After the meeting, which lasted over an hour, the commission went back into session and quickly adjourned around 5:20 p.m., despite being scheduled to finish at 8 p.m.

The dissenting votes were cast by Republicans Erin Wagner and Rhonda Lange, who told commissioners the issues should be publicly debated.

“If this commission is working in full transparency, in my opinion, let’s be transparent,” Lange said. “I know that’s probably not what most of you want to hear.”

The commission’s move was criticized by both the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said the commission cannot move forward until they address “what was discussed in closed session.”

“We have yet to hear the commission’s debrief on the public hearings,” Barnes said. “Instead of having an open and transparent discussion, the commission retreated behind closed doors.”

The Michigan Republican Party called the private meeting a “new low.”

“Michiganders were sold on a commission that would be transparent and accountable in the creation of fair state and federal districts under the constitution,” said Gustavo Portela, a party spokesperson.

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to deliberate in private under 11 circumstances, including discussion of personnel matters, collective bargaining negotiations and privileged attorney opinions.

The act allows government boards to discuss pending litigation with attorneys (there is no pending litigation against the commission) as well as “material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or federal statute,” which generally means written opinions from lawyers.

Julianne Pastula, the commission’s general counsel, told reporters Wednesday evening she believes the commission followed the state’s Open Meetings Act.

When asked by Bridge Michigan if the panel would release all or parts of the memos, she declined.

“The commission holds the privilege on those memorandums and I think that the commission can — it has demonstrated a strong commitment to transparency,” Pastula said. “In the case of today, and discussing having a legal discussion with their attorneys, that is a reasonable way to move forward with that relationship.”

Pastula said the commission took minutes of the closed session, but they would not be made public.

Edward Woods III, the commission’s spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan in a text message that “no business (was) being conducted in closed session.”

He added the commission blocked the doors’ windows because it had received a death threat that delayed the meeting.

Observers say debating a crucial issue such as minority representation in private is troublesome and of questionable legality.

“The public has a right to know what the legal guidance— provided to the commission at taxpayer expenses— is so the public can understand how it will affect the decisions of public officials,” said Steven Liedel, an attorney who worked as legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“Unwise decision and terrible precedent for the MICRC, given lack of discussion of these legal issues.”


WHY AN OAKLAND COUNTY HIGH SCHOOL HIRED AN EXPLOSIVE-SNIFFING K-9

DETROIT NEWS — While most of us see the world through our eyes, Lucy — the star member of the explosives-detection K-9 team at Avondale High School — navigates the world through her nose.

The yellow Labrador retriever’s full-time job at the Oakland County high school is to detect guns and munitions brought onto school grounds or inside the school and to look lovable and charming doing it.

On Wednesday, the school’s staff and Lucy’s handler Lisa Zang showed off the retriever’s skills inside the high school’s auxiliary gym. Two sticks of dynamite were hidden inside one of eight metal buckets on a spinning scent wheel.

Zang gave the wheel a spin and asked Lucy to begin her search among the seven empty buckets and one with the hidden munitions.

Lucy moved to each bucket, dunking her head deep inside, giving it a long sniff and moving on until she found her target in the fourth bucket. And then down she sat, her signal to her human that she found the munitions.

“She doesn’t do anything visually, it’s all through her nose,” says Zang, Lucy’s trainer from Rochester Hills-based Elite Detection K9. “It can be pitch black in here and it’s still her nose that does the work.”

Avondale High School is the first school in Michigan to add a full-time explosives-detection K-9 team to its security staff, according to the district and the training company.

Lucy’s workday is divided into three parts: before, during and after school. She stands at the school’s main entrance and exit while its 1,100 students and staff walk by, acting as a warm and fuzzy metal detector and security guard.

If she finds her target, she signals her handler. So far this school year, that hasn’t happened.

Greg Guidice, Elite Detection K9 president and CEO, said the program is intended to reduce school violence by deterring students from bringing weapons to school.

“The reality is it’s a small percentage that a school will experience an active shooter but when it happens it’s tragic,” Guidice said. “Providing a trained dog is a proactive solution to a student wanting to create a nefarious act.”

Lucy is there to detect and warn officials of the invisible threat of hidden firearms or explosives, Guidice says. Lucy is trained in the nine major categories of explosives from black powder in a bullet to dynamite to C-4 to TNT. The company has a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives license to use live explosives during her training which is conducted after school hours. On Wednesday, Ric Hetu, Elite Detection K9 master trainer, spoke to a group of students eating lunch near Lucy’s demonstration for the media.

“What is Lucy looking for when she is searching your backpack?” Hetu asked the students. “Maybe a handgun, some kind of explosive, maybe it’s as simple as a firecracker.”

Once kids are in class, Lucy makes the rounds down hallways, along lockers and sticks her head into locker rooms and bathrooms. She does not need to search every person near her, officials say, because her sense of smell is extremely sensitive.

Lucy is also available for pats and hugs for students who need emotional support during the day. Students know they can reach out and pat Lucy or book an appointment for a longer therapy time.

Having a trained dog at the school keeps students safe so they can focus on learning, says James Schwarz, superintendent of the Avondale School District.

The decision to have a dog on staff at the school stems from a partnership between Elite Detection K9 and the high school which started nearly two years ago, Schwarz said, during which the nonprofit brought puppies it was raising for training to the high school for socialization with students.

Then the company, which is located near the school, started using the high school after school hours to train its dogs on explosives and ammunition. Elite Detection K9 is funded by Leader Dogs for the Blind. It is an independent nonprofit with its own board.

“The idea grew into we would want to have a dog of our own,” Schwarz said. “A preventative, proactive measure that would be an arm of our security as well.”

Schwarz said the high school has not had a past incident of a firearm or ammunition found in school and so far Lucy has not detected any contraband around campus.

“The students know the dog is an expert in sensing explosive material. It acts as a preventative,” Schwarz said. “It provides peace of mind. That is where the community has embraced it.”

The district has a one-year contract for Lucy and pays around $35,000 for her services. The actual cost of training a dog for a year is around $80,000, Guidice said.

Lucy must continue with four hours of training on live ammunition every week which it does at the school.

Superintendents from other Oakland County districts have asked Schwarz about Lucy, the program and its success.

“From our experience, it’s been a win-win,” he said. “From the social-emotional and physical security aspect of it, you can’t replicate it any other way unless you are using metal detectors and wands.”


COULD THE DELTA COVID-19 SURGE BE ON ITS WAY OUT IN MICHIGAN? MAYBE, EXPERTS SAY

delta variant, may be starting to retreat after more than three months of a steady rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

The seven-day average of new daily cases fell to 3,210 on Monday — about 500 new daily cases fewer than at the Oct. 13 peak, when the seven-day average topped out at 3,745 daily cases.

Though the trends are encouraging, it may be too soon to declare it over just yet, said  Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state health department’s newly appointed chief medical officer.

“Time will tell,” Bagdasarian told the Free Press on Tuesday.

That’s because transmission of the virus remains high in every county in the state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s thresholds.

And even though Michigan has now seen nearly two weeks of steady declines in new daily cases, the percentage of positive tests also remains high — plateauing at a seven-day average of about 11.3% over the last two weeks. Hospitalizations from the virus appear to be leveling off as well.

“With some of these indicators, there can be a delay, and we can see plateaus, and even slight dips, and then a rise again,” said Bagdasarian, an infectious disease epidemiologist.

Joshua Petrie, an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, agreed.

“It’s possible,” he said, that the worst of the delta wave of the virus is behind us in Michigan, but it’s also possible that this is just a lull before colder weather drives people indoors and the coming holidays spur travel and large gatherings, which could ramp up the spread of the virus yet again.

“I think it still warrants a little bit more wait and see. … When you’re at high case levels, even if you are declining, you’re always at risk for a rebound. We could continue declining or begin to bounce back up. It’s a little bit hard to predict.”

The delta variant’s impact on Michigan hasn’t been as severe nor has the curve of new daily cases been as steep as in previous waves of the pandemic.

In March and April, when the alpha variant, also known as the B.1.1.7 strain, swept the state, the rate of infection was nearly twice as high, as were hospitalizations from the virus.

The state’s fourth surge was blunted, Bagdasarian said, by a higher COVID-19 vaccination rate than in previous spikes. About 53.3% of the state’s total population is now fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Michiganders who have some immunity from previous infections also played a role in slowing the curve of the most recent surge, Petrie said. Since the pandemic began, 1.1 million Michiganders have had confirmed cases of the virus, the state health department reported Monday.

“I think all those sources of immunity helped to protect against what’s going on now with delta,” he said, “but vaccines are the easiest way to get that immunity.”

Petrie isn’t convinced the delta wave will be Michigan’s last coronavirus surge.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another hopefully smaller surge on the road, particularly because we do still only have about 50% of the population vaccinated,” he said. “So there’s still a lot of susceptible people out there. But hopefully, we do start to get into a phase where it’s kind of more manageable, maybe just seasonal epidemics.”

In the meantime, health officials recommend continuing to wear a mask indoors as well as getting COVID-19 vaccines if you’re eligible, said Chelsea Wuth, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“With the recent approval of booster doses for all vaccines, continued masking, and Michiganders continuing to get vaccinated — with anticipated authorization for ages 5-11 to receive the Pfizer vaccine — we will continue to do everything we can to help Michiganders prevent the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic,” she said.


COVID VACCINE FOR 825,000 MICHIGAN CHILDREN NEARER TO FEDERAL APPROVAL

BRIDGE MI — A federal health advisory panel voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to recommend approval of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine for children 5 to 11, a group that covers roughly 825,000 youngsters in Michigan.

The Food and Drug Administration panel’s guidance could lead federal health authorities to formally approve the two-dose regimen for young children as soon as next week.

With impending emergency approval in mind, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order Tuesday seeking to expedite shipments of the pediatric vaccine to Michigan. “This is an age group that deserves and should have the same opportunity to be vaccinated as every other age,” Dr. Amanda Cohn, chief medical officer of the CDC’s National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, told the panel at the end of its day-long meeting.

The recommendation, however, didn’t come without heartburn. Several advisors said the decision was particularly difficult, even as 17 of 18 panel members recommended the vaccine’s emergency authorization. (One member abstained.)

There were concerns about whether schools might try to mandate the vaccines, and questions about the extent to which children contribute to COVID’s spread. Tens of millions of children likely have been infected already, which can contribute to herd immunity, said Dr. James Hildreth, CEO of Meharry Medical College in Nashville.

“It just seems to me that in some ways we’re vaccinating children to protect the adults and it should be the other way around,” Hildreth said at the meeting. “Our focus should be to get the adults vaccinated to protect the children, so this is a really tough one for me.”

Still, he added, high-risk children should have access to the vaccine, and he later said he voted in favor of authorizing the vaccine so those higher-risk children could get it.

Others noted the low risk of side effects and that studies on the Pfizer vaccine’s impact on children will continue. Pfizer is the first of three U.S.-approved vaccines to seek federal approval for younger children, though a version by manufacturer Moderna is on its heels.

“I think there are a number of things that are reassuring,” Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said as the committee moved toward a vote.

Pfizer’s vaccine is more than 90 percent effective for this age group, according to the manufacturer. (Its vaccines are already approved for those 12 and older.)

And while children are far less likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus, they are not immune. More than 600 pediatric deaths have been reported nationally, and in Michigan, Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a serious condition in which a COVID infection inflames organs and tissues, has been reported in 172 children, with 122 of them admitted to the ICU, according to the latest state data.

FDA scientists, in their briefing document to the committee, said the risks associated with a COVID infection outweigh the risk of complications from the vaccine. The two doses are given three weeks apart.

“I know enough to move forward” with the vote, Offit said during the day-long meeting.

The decision Tuesday from the independent advisory group now goes to the FDA for the final say on whether the vaccine will be authorized. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will then decide how it will be used. Its advisory committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday and Wednesday of next week.

If both the FDA and CDC sign off, the pediatric Pfizer vaccine could be available to children as soon as later next week.

Efforts to vaccinate the state’s children against COVID, however, will take a different shape than mass vaccines for adults and older children, providers and health officials have told Bridge Michigan. Anxious children may need more privacy than a large vaccine clinic can offer, for example.

The rollout will rely, too, on the efforts of pediatricians’ offices, family doctors and community clinics, where parents can ask questions of doctors with whom they have established and trusted relationships.

COVID vaccine efforts also may offer providers a chance to talk with parents about catching up children on other vaccines that have been widely delayed or neglected during the pandemic, Dr. Jennifer Morse, medical director for District Health Department #10 and the Central Michigan District Health Department, said Tuesday at a news conference for Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare.

It’s unclear what kind of demand there will be for the pediatric vaccines, complicating planning efforts, Morse and others have said. A sizable minority of Michigan residents have declined to take a COVID vaccine despite their general availability across the state.

“The good thing is (that) our nurses give a lot of vaccines to a lot of kids of all ages, and they’re extremely good at it. And so for them, it’s not really anything different than a normal Tuesday,” Morse said.


MICHIGAN HOUSE APPROVES CONTROVERSIAL SHORT-TERM RENTAL PROTECTIONS IN OVERNIGHT SESSION

DETROIT NEWS — House lawmakers approved legislation in a 55-48 vote early Wednesday that would prohibit cities and townships from banning short-term rental housing in an overnight session.

Last-minute changes to the bill do not appear to have wooed opponents of the measure.

The controversial legislation would include short-term rentals as a valid residential use under Michigan’s zoning act, upending zoning changes local communities have made or are considering to limit and regulate short-term rentals by deeming them commercial.

Lawmakers have argued that noise and nuisance rules are enough for communities to bring problematic renters in line.

A House substitute adopted early Wednesday added language that seemed to attempt compromise, allowing local governments to limit the number of short-term rentals with a common owner to no fewer than two and limit overall short-term rental units within the community to no less than 30% of all existing residential units.

The bill also was amended to create a narrow exemption for existing local short-term rental overlay districts implemented by July 11, 2019, to remain in place, a carveout that appears to largely benefit the city of East Lansing.

“The measure approved by the House is a solid compromise that provides both certainty for private property owners across the state and flexibility for local municipalities that deserve to have some control over the planning and zoning of their communities,” said Rep. Sarah Lightner, the Springport Township Republican who sponsored the bill.

Lightner argued the legislation protected the private property rights of Michigan residents who wanted to rent their property while also reining in corporations looking to “scoop up large numbers of homes to rent out, effectively acting as hotels without having to abide by safety standards or pay taxes like hotels.”

The legislation would allow for the continued rental of private residences through such services as Airbnb and VRBO and, in its initial form, it was backed by the Michigan Realtors and the fiscally conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Numerous local government groups — including the Michigan Townships Association and Michigan Municipal League — urged the Legislature earlier this year to not usurp local control over short-term rentals. Some communities spent months planning and discussing regulations only to have them threatened by the Legislature’s proposal.

Among the opponents of the legislation earlier this year are several Michigan tourist destinations: Frankenmuth, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island and Grand Haven.

Wednesday’s changes to the legislation were not enough to satisfy local government opponents who have argued the most egregious part of the legislation is the designation of short term rentals as a residential use.

“Everything that comes after that is secondary into how locals can regulate this,” said the Michigan Municipal Leagues Jennifer Rigterink. “They’re already strapped by what is in” the residential designation.

Compromises that would allow communities to limit short-term rentals to two per common owner have a loose definition of owner, Rigterink said, so that, in theory, a husband, wife and other acquaintances could have two each and still comply with the legislation.

“All you would have to do is tweak the ownership makeup,” she said.

Additionally, the sections capping short-term rentals at no less than 30% use the word “units” while other sections of the bill use the term “dwellings,” potentially setting up the legislation for litigation in the future, Rigterink said.

“Again, in theory that sounds good, but how does a local unit of government enforce that? How does a local unit government regulate that? Local government was not consulted on these changes,” she said.

This session’s focus on the short-term rental issue marks at least the third time since 2017 that the Legislature is advancing bills that would “ban the ban” on short-term rentals.

A separate Senate bill largely similar to its House counterpart moved out of Senate committee earlier this year but has yet to be considered in a full chamber vote.


UNVACCINATED AMERICANS TO FACE TIGHTER COVID TESTING REQUIREMENTS IN NEW US TRAVEL SYSTEM

USA TODAY — The U.S. will roll out a new travel system in two weeks that will open borders up for millions of vaccinated international visitors.

The system launching Nov. 8 will end the U.S. travel ban that has been in place for dozens of countries since the start of the pandemic. It will also make reentry more challenging for unvaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents and establish stringent testing requirements for the rare unvaccinated foreign nationals allowed to visit.

“For anyone traveling to the United States who cannot demonstrate proof of full vaccination, they will have to produce documentation of a negative test within one day of departure,” instead of the current three days, according to the White House.

Fully vaccinated Americans will still have a three-day window for COVID-19 testing with negative results, but if they are not able to show proof of vaccination, they too will be subject to the one-day testing requirement.

“These are strict safety protocols that follow the science of public health to enhance the safety of Americans here at home and the safety of international air travel,” senior administration officials said in a Monday briefing.

With few exceptions, only foreign nationals with vaccinations approved for emergency use by the World Health Organization will be allowed to board planes to visit the U.S.

What are the exceptions?

Senior administration officials stressed that exceptions to vaccine requirements for foreign visitors would be rare, but would be made for children under age 18 and travelers from countries with less than a 10% vaccination rate due to lack of vaccine availability. The White House said that currently affects about 50 countries, but the list is continually changing.

Travelers with some medical conditions, including people who have had severe anaphylactic reactions to the COVID vaccine, will also be exempt from the vaccination requirement.

Children under age 2 will not need to test for COVID-19.

Additionally, travelers who’ve recently recovered from the coronavirus may bypass testing and “instead travel with documentation of recovery from COVID-19 (i.e., your positive COVID-19 viral test result on a sample taken no more than 90 days before the flight’s departure from a foreign country and a letter from a licensed healthcare provider or a public health official stating that you were cleared to travel),” according to the CDC.

Who will be able to enter the US?

Starting Nov. 8, foreign travelers will be able to enter the U.S. by air if they can show proof of full vaccination as well as negative results from a pre-departure coronavirus test taken within three days of boarding a plane into the country.

Airlines will collect personal information from all U.S.-bound travelers for contact tracing. Airlines are required to keep the information on hand for 30 days so health officials can follow up with travelers who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Masking will be required, but there will be no quarantine mandate. The change will make entering the U.S. possible for travelers from countries currently listed on the U.S. travel ban, which prohibits entry for travelers who have been in any of the regions within the past 14 days. Travel bans took effect in early 2020 and include:

  • China
  • India
  • Iran
  • Brazil
  • South Africa
  • United Kingdom
  • Republic of Ireland
  • The European Schengen area: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City

Travelers arriving from countries not included in the ban will face stricter entry requirements come Nov. 8. Right now, the U.S. asks international air passengers only to get tested within three days of their flight to the U.S. and show either the negative test result or proof of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding.

What about Mexico and Canada?

New travel rules will also take effect for foreign nationals arriving by land or passenger ferry from Mexico and Canada.

Starting Nov. 8, fully vaccinated foreign nationals can cross the land borders for nonessential reasons such as tourism or visiting friends and family.

Entry rules along the border will change again in early January, with all travelers – including those traveling for essential purposes – required to show proof of full vaccination.

These rules are for travelers. There are different requirements for immigrants. According to the CDC, “People applying to enter the United States as immigrants (with exceptions) are required to have a medical examination that includes a COVID-19 vaccination requirement before they are issued an immigrant visa.”


THOUSANDS OF MICHIGAN FIRMS FACE DEC. 8 COVID VACCINE MANDATE DEADLINE

BRIDGE MI — About 3,200 Michigan-based workers at Steelcase Inc. learned last week that they must prove by Dec. 8 that they have been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

That’s because the Grand Rapids furniture maker, which employs 4,800 total workers in the United States, is a federal contractor that supplies government offices. The workers now face a choice: Get vaccinated, seek an exemption or risk suspension or firings.

Workers in thousands of Michigan businesses are expected to confront the same choices and deadline, as the national mandate for federal contractors will affect “every county in Michigan,” said Sue Tellier, owner of JetCo Federal Supply in Grand Rapids and second vice chair of the Small Business Association of Michigan’s board of directors.

The mandate is one of several announced by President Joseph Biden on Sept. 8 that are rolling out this fall, affecting federal workers, companies that do business with the federal government — including universities that accept research funding — and the nation’s largest employers.

In Michigan, estimates say 42 percent of the state’s labor force, some 2 million workers, will be under some form of a mandate by year-end, including employees at private workplaces, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and at least 10 health care systems, including Beaumont, the state’s largest.

It’s unclear how many workers in Michigan will be affected by the federal contractor mandate, but thousands of state businesses are registered to bid on government contracts.

The situation is “creating significant uncertainty” for the businesses and subcontractors, said Craig Smith, a federal contract attorney and partner with the Washington, DC-based law firm Wiley Rein.

“All of a sudden, you get asked to add these obligations to your contract,” Smith said. “That may be quite a surprise for many companies.”

The mandate comes atop a national worker shortage and “clearly a variety of perspectives on vaccination,” Smith said.

For employers, Tellier said, “the ripple effect is massive.”

Rules and guidance

Rules for the contractor mandate were announced in late September. The order said the vaccine mandate only applied to “covered contracts,” which were valued at under $250,000 and either were starting or being extended this fall.

But shortly afterward, the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force, led by the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team, issued guidance for how businesses should respond to the rules.

Its advice: Contractors, even those not specifically mentioned in the order, should comply with it anyway. Also stated in the guidance:

  • No test-out option allows employees to take regular COVID-19 tests instead of getting vaccinated.
  • The effective deadline for vaccines is Nov. 24 because there must be a two-week interval between final dose and the deadline.
  • Employees affected include part-time and remote workers.

When he announced the mandates, Biden said the unvaccinated were driving the spread of the disease along with increased hospitalizations and deaths. In the workplace, he said, costs of absences and outbreak-related closures were also a problem.

Since then, COVID-19 cases and deaths have declined nationwide: On Oct. 22, 1,834 deaths were reported, down from 2,033 on Sept. 8. New cases dropped by more than half, with about 77,933 on Oct. 22.

So far, about 220 million people — or 77.6 percent of those eligible — have received at least one dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mandates already playing out

Many business advocates in Michigan are watching the situation with concern, even if they support vaccinations.

Wendy Block, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, said members continue to ask enforcement questions and few answers have been available.

Business owners also worry the mandate will drive employees away at a time when hiring is difficult. The state’s labor force has declined by about 180,000 workers to 4.7 million since the start of the pandemic, according to preliminary data from September.

That’s true “particularly in regions where there is staunch opposition to the vaccine,” Block said.

“Federal mandates only seem to be serving the purpose of people digging in (with their stance for or against the vaccines),” Block said. “In this fierce talent market, people have choices.”

So far, some Michigan universities and health systems have enacted vaccine mandates, offering a glimpse of how a vaccine mandate will play out.

At Beaumont, 370 workers out of 33,000 were suspended for not getting a vaccination or qualifying for an exemption. Another 70 quit. At the University of Michigan, officials say a few hundred staffers who are not vaccinated will be placed on unpaid leave for 30 days if they don’t report the start of their vaccination process by Nov. 8.

Steelcase did not reply to questions about how it anticipates the move to affect its workforce. The company has 102 Michigan job openings — some with multiple hires possible, such as distribution workers — listed on its corporate website.

Block, with the Michigan Chamber, said prioritizing health is important. However, the mandate brings “a lot of complicating factors” to employers that have spent 18 months navigating workplace health and unfilled jobs.

“It feels like a step too far for many businesses and their employees,” Block said.


COVID-19 OUTBREAKS REPORTED IN 10 OAKLAND COUNTY SCHOOLS; 47 CASES CONFIRMED

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Ten new COVID-19 outbreaks with 47 new cases were found in Oakland County schools last week, up from zero the previous week.

Statewide new cases dropped by more than half from 947 to 428, while school outbreaks dropped to 76 from 101 the previous week, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services which reports school outbreaks each Monday.

The 10 Oakland County schools with the new outbreaks — all among students — are St. Williams Catholic in Walled Lake (3 cases), Walled Lake Central (3 cases), Wixom’s Loon Lake Elementary (3 cases), Wixom Elementary (3 cases), Southfield’s McIntyre Elementary (5 cases), Norup International Academy in Oak Park (4 cases), Bradford Academy in Southfield (3 cases), Beverly Elementary in Beverly Hills (3 cases), Lawrence Tech University football team (12 cases) and Webber Elementary in Lake Orion (5 cases).

Nine Oakland County schools continue with ongoing COVID outbreaks: Keller Elementary in Royal Oak (four cases), Holy Family Regional School (two outbreaks, seven cases) in Rochester Hills; Lake Orion High School (seven cases), Berkshire Middle School in Beverly Hills (three among students and staff), Troy Union Elementary (three among students), Country Oaks Elementary in Commerce Township (two outbreaks with a total of six cases), Troy’s Wattles Elementary (two outbreaks and a total of 11 cases), Berkeley’s Angell Elementary (four cases) and West Bloomfield’s Keith Elementary with three cases.

Ongoing outbreaks are those that had already been identified in previous weeks but have had at least one new associated case reported to the local health department in the last 28 days. Outbreaks are removed from the list when there are no new confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases identified after 28 days have passed since the last known school exposure from a case.

In recent weeks the MDHHS has adopted new standards for determining outbreaks and cases in K-12 schools.

With the new outbreak definition the local health department must find multiple cases comprising at least 10% of students, teachers or staff within a specified group. Or, at least three cases within a specified core group that meets criteria for a probable or confirmed school-associated COVID-19 case with symptom onset or positive test result within 14 days of each other; who were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting outside of the school setting; AND epidemiologically linked in the school setting or a school-sanctioned extracurricular activity are considered outbreaks.

A school-associated COVID-19 case (confirmed or probable) is defined as a student, teacher, or staff member physically present in the school setting or participated in a school sanctioned extracurricular† activity within 14 days prior to illness onset (or a positive test result) OR within 10 days after illness onset (or a positive test result).


FIRST LADY JILL BIDEN VISITS SAGINAW CHIPPEWA CENTER TO DISCUSS YOUTH MENTAL HEALTH

DETROIT NEWS — One man choked up as he spoke about his family taking two children into his home after their mother lost her struggle with substance abuse as the nation’s first lady held a listening session in Michigan on Sunday on youth mental health.

Participants of the session at the Ziibiwing Center in Mount Pleasant talked about their experiences involving mental health and trauma.

Biden, a community college professor, mostly listened and spoke intermittently, according to pool reports of her visit. She mentioned that she also has seen the mental health effects of the pandemic firsthand.

“I’ve seen that in my own classroom,” she said. “Many of them have lost relatives to COVID. I wanted to come see this program, because I said to my staff, ‘What are we going to help the teachers?’ We want to do the right thing by our students and by our families.”

Biden also made stops in Detroit, where she was the guest of honor Sunday evening at an annual dinner for the oldest Jewish educational institution in the state.

She joined U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in Freeland to visit the Ziibiwing Center, a cultural center and tribal museum that honors the ancestors of the Ojibway.

They joined members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe at 1:30 p.m. for the 40-minute listening session on youth and mental health.

On the road leading into the center, a small group of protesters held signs that said, “TRUMP WON” and “#FJB.”

Biden and Murphy were greeted outside the center by Tim Davis, chief of Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; Melissa Isaac, director of Education/Project AWARE; Dr. Kehli Henry, Project AWARE Coordinator; and two members of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Youth Council.

A group of about a dozen Chippewa tribe members performed a traditional ceremonial greet featuring dancing, singing and drums, outside the Ziibiwing Center.

She asked staff from Project Aware to explain what they are doing to help students with mental health and loss. They told her therapy groups were used for issues like social anxiety, and they provide comfort dogs for children in schools.

Students also are provided with “calming corners” in the classroom, where they can move temporarily to take a mental health break while still listening to the teacher, pool reporters said.

Biden said some of the money from the American Rescue Plan during the pandemic was provided to teachers. She said teachers should be trained in prioritizing mental health.

She spoke about practices the staff at the college where she teaches take to support each other. She also talked about the importance of adding positive elements into her students’ lives.

“We’re finding positive ways to help our children, to help our students,” she said.

At the end, Murthy asked everyone to share what gives them hope.

“Our mental health problem is so great and the needs are so great, especially after this pandemic,” the first lady shared. “I knew Joe would see that and come up with this plan to give more money to mental health, and that’s what he pledged to do. That’s what gives me hope — that our nation is starting to heal.”

Tribal members gave the first lady a blanket, necklace, which she put on (“It matches my outfit!”), a strawberry-shaped basket and a ribbon skirt.

Biden then headed to Detroit Metro Airport for the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s annual dinner held at the Renaissance Center in Detroit. She spoke alongside the “outstanding leadership” honoree Mary Barra, CEO and chair of General Motors Co. The event was closed to the press.

Biden was in Michigan last month when she spoke at Oakland Community College during a trip with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and advocated for two years of free community college.

The community college proposal has been part of the Build Back Better plan of her husband, President Joe Biden, though lawmakers this week suggested it is likely to be cut as the package is pared in size and cost.

Michigan Republican Party communications director Gustavo Portela said in a statement that Biden’s visit comes as the state’s residents are being “squeezed on our middle class.”


COVID-19 SCHOOL OUTBREAK NUMBERS CREATE QUESTIONS IN OAKLAND, MACOMB

THE OAKLAND PRESS — The disparity between COVID-19 school outbreaks and cases in Oakland and Macomb counties jumped off the page when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services posted its latest weekly update.

According to the state dashboard, 56% of the new cases — or 484 cases — in Michigan schools were in Macomb County, while zero occurred in neighboring Oakland County.

The numbers seemed odd to both counties.

A Macomb official insinuated that all counties did not follow the new state rules, but for Oakland County, the MDHHS said otherwise. “When we saw zero clusters for one reporting week in Oakland County schools in the news, we called MDHHS (on Tuesday) to see whether that was accurate,’’ said Bill Mullan, media and communications officer for Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter.

“They confirmed the report was accurate and also that the Oakland County school data we are sending them conforms to their requirements,’’ he added.

Mullan also noted that just because there were no clusters doesn’t mean there were no cases in schools. Many schools are reporting individual cases on their websites.

Macomb County Health Department Director/Health Officer Andrew Cox blamed the difference on the state’s new definition of reporting on school clusters.

He said five of the reported events were defined as outbreaks, often where the virus is shared in a classroom or among sports teams. But 20 of the events reported were defined as clusters. Reporting of the cluster events was not previously required by the state.

“So it appears, but cannot be proven, that other counties across the state did not report their cluster events — perhaps because the requirements were so new and local school districts did not gather that data,’’ Cox said. “The numbers look oddly one-sided. It did not appear that it was happening statewide.’’

When recording the data, it’s a two-step process, according to Chelsea Wuth, the MDHHS associate public information officer.

The first is that local health departments monitor the Michigan Disease Surveillance System for confirmed/probable cases of COVID in children who may be in K-12 schools. Local health departments report that to the schools and the schools are making that information visible to be consistent with a standing epidemic order.

Secondly, local health departments also use the data within the MDSS to determine if there are K-12 cases and clusters and they report those directly to MDHHS.

“We do not receive any reports directly from schools,’’ Wuth said.

Oakland County still has a high transmission rate of COVID-19. From Oct. 4-17, there were more than 5,000 new confirmed and probable cases in the county. Of those, 1,058 were ages 5-18.

“Clusters in schools is only one of several data points utilized to understand transmission in the community,’’ Mullan said. “It’s clusters, along with other data points, that combine together to help us get a truer picture of transmission in the community.’’

Oakland and Macomb counties have other differences when it comes to COVID-19.

The vaccination rates are 74.26% for Oakland and 63.35% for Macomb for those 12 and older who have received at least the first dose, according to the MDHHS.

The Oakland County Health Division issued a mask mandate for all students before the start of the school year. Macomb does not have a countywide school mask mandate.

“It’s important to note that MDHHS considers comparing county to county does not give an accurate picture,’’ Mullan said. “Depending on the jurisdiction, there are numerous barriers to identifying epidemiological or exposure linkages between cases, including: limited resources to perform in-depth case investigations at the local level, the depth in which schools participate in the case investigation process, and also whether the public engages with investigators in the case investigation process. These limitations may also vary over time and by geography, making comparisons across jurisdictions difficult.’’

The next weekly update for school outbreaks will be posted at 3 p.m. on Monday on the MDHHS website.


DEPUTIES TO BE POSTED AT WALLED LAKE SCHOOL MONDAY FOLLOWING SHOOTING THREAT

DETROIT NEWS — An arrest was made Sunday in connection to a Walled Lake school threat on social media that appeared to be made from a false account out of Missouri, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office said.

Deputies responded at 4 p.m. Sunday to the Walled Lake Central High School on reports of a school threat. There, deputies met with the parent of a student, who had called authorities.

The parent said her daughter saw a post on social media indicating “that another student and his friends would shoot up the school on Monday as he and his friends were tired of being bullied,” according to a Sheriff’s Office release.

from whom the post was thought to have originated, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The student denied posting it and detectives said it appears that someone may have created a false account on Snapchat. It was determined that the threat occurred in St. Joseph, Missouri, and the person allegedly responsible was arrested, according to the Michigan State Police OKAY2SAY, who relayed the information to the Walled Lake Schools administration.

Extra deputies will be posted at the high school on Monday, the Sheriff’s Office said.


370 BEAUMONT HEALTH WORKERS SUSPENDED FOR REFUSING COVID-19 VACCINES. 70 MORE QUIT

DETROIT FREE PRESS — About 70 Beaumont Health workers resigned rather than take COVID-19 vaccines and 370 have been suspended for failing to meet an Oct. 18 deadline for vaccination, the Southfield-based health system announced Thursday.

“We are very pleased to report the vast majority of Beaumont employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19,” the health system said in a statement. Beaumont operates eight metro Detroit hospitals and has about 33,000 workers.

“We hope that those 370 employees will choose to get vaccinated and return to work soon. If they choose to not meet our vaccine requirements by Nov. 16, their employment will be terminated.”

The hospital said it did not have details to share on how many employees who resigned or were suspended were nurses, doctors or other front-line medical workers.

Another 7% of Beaumont’s workforce — or 2,300 people — were granted exemptions to the mandate. The majority cited a religious exemption, said Mark Geary, a Beaumont spokesperson.

Beaumont is one of at least 10 health systems in Michigan that require workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment.

Henry Ford Health System, the first in the state to announce a coronavirus vaccine mandate in late June, lost about 400 of its workers because they refused to get vaccinated before its September deadline. Another 1,900 of its workers were granted exemptions from the vaccine requirement for religious or medical reasons.

The vaccine mandates come at a time when health systems across the state are also grappling with a staffing crisis, and frequently don’t have enough workers to handle the volume of patients both with coronavirus and other illnesses who are seeking hospital care.

The situation led both Beaumont and Henry Ford to shut down more than 100 available hospital beds in September because there weren’t enough workers to care for the patients who would fill them.

COVID-19 vaccines also are required for workers at Trinity Health, Ascension Health, Spectrum Health, Veterans Health Administration facilities, Bronson Healthcare, Michigan Medicine, OSF-HealthCare and Munson Healthcare, with varying deadlines for when employees must be fully vaccinated.

Though Sparrow Health System, McLaren Health Care and the Detroit Medical Center don’t currently have vaccine mandates for workers, they all will soon likely have to require them to continue to get federal Medicare/Medicaid funding.

On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping mandate that would require health care workers at nearly every hospital and health system in the country to get vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus tests.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now drafting detailed rules implementing the order. But when they will be posted and enforced is still unknown.


WARMER, WETTER THAN AVERAGE WINTER AHEAD FOR MICHIGAN, NOAA PREDICTS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan and the Great Lakes region is expected to have a warmer but wetter than average winter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Southeast Michigan is predicted to have an almost 50% chance of above-normal temperatures in some areas, according to NOAA’s 2021 Winter Outlook report, but predictions in a small part of the Upper Peninsula find  “equal chances for below-, near- or above-average temperatures.”

The report shows more certainty for Michigan than the 2020 edition, when the entire state’s winter weather patterns were a “toss-up,” according to Mike Halpert, deputy director of the NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

“Seasonal outlooks help communities prepare for what is likely to come in the months ahead and minimize weather’s impacts on lives and livelihoods,” the report said.

The predictions include weather forecasts for the country from December through February 2022. The National Weather Service will use the report to release localized predictions around mid-November.

The report also found a 40% to 50% chance of above-normal precipitation in the region.

Average temperatures for December through February in Metro Detroit are 31.3, 25.8 and 28 degrees, respectively, National Weather Service records show; average precipitation during those months is 2.25, 2.23 and 2.08 inches, respectively.

Snowfall in Detroit has fluctuated in recent years, according to the weather service, with 44-45 inches in the 2020-21 and 2019-20 seasons, up from 31.3 the previous year, which was almost half of the 61 inches the year before in 2017-18.

Increased rain and snow during the winter months could continue to cause damage that began in the summer, where widespread flooding hit the region.

Fall in southeast Michigan has already seen at least one major storm, in late September, that resulted in nearly 5 inches of rain and led to flood warnings, following a rainfall and thunderstorm-heavy summer that caused flooding and led, at one point, to power outages for over a million residents.

In addition to the Great Lakes, NOAA predicts wetter-than-average conditions in the Pacific Northwest, northern Rockies, Ohio Valley and western Alaska.


MICHIGAN COVID-19 HOSPITALIZATIONS UP 24% IN LAST 2 WEEKS

THE OAKLAND PRESS — While there’s much talk about empty shelves and supply chain woes, the COVID-19 pandemic remains an issue in Michigan where hospitalizations are up 24% over the past two weeks.

At Henry Ford Health System since the beginning of October they have seen a steady increase in hospitalizations due to COVID. As of Thursday morning there were 181 COVID patents in the hospital system. Two weeks ago that number was 144.  Henry Ford Macomb and Henry Ford in Detroit leading the way with 45 COVID patients each.each.

“Like other hospitals in Michigan and across the country, the vast majority of people being hospitalized, and especially being admitted to the ICU and being placed on a ventilator, they are unvaccinated,’’ Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection control and prevention at the Henry Ford Health System, said at a media briefing on Thursday.

Inpatients who have COVID are tracked every day.

“We’re not seeing vaccinated people really unless they have an underlying problem with their immune system such as cancer or perhaps they had an organ transplant,’’ Cunningham said. “I’m not seeing healthy vaccinated people in the hospital and certainly not seeing them in the ICU or on a breathing machine.’’

For the week ending Oct. 10, 779 positive PCR tests for COVID were recorded, that’s up nearly 47% since the week of Sept. 12. About 11.2% of tests are positive.

“Our emphasis remains on getting more people vaccinated to receive at least one dose of the COVID vaccine,’’ Cunningham said. “In Michigan we have 3 million people who are unvaccinated. The only way for us to get to the other side of the pandemic is for more people to get the immunization or shot. Not just to protect themselves, but their children who are not eligible for vaccinations, other family members, grandparents, friends, co-workers.’’

Cunningham, who is also a pediatrician, expects vaccines will be available for children between 5 and 11 years old by early to mid-November.

“In September we saw the most pediatric COVID cases nationwide since the pandemic first started. That’s because the children are back in school and not wearing masks,’’ Cunningham said.

Now the beginning of flu season brings a new twist.

“Last year we were very worried about the twin-demic – COVID and influenza coming at the same time. Because of masking and social distancing we actually saw virtually no flu activity in Michigan,’’ said Dr. Allison Weinmann, infectious diseases senior staff physician and system director of antimicrobial stewardship.

She expects that to be completely different this year as people are unmasking.

“We’re already seeing flares of other respiratory viruses such as RSV and lots of other cold viruses,’’ Weinmann said.

She said the flu shot is safe and effective and can be received at the same time as the COVID vaccine.

“We’re so lucky in the pandemic to now be in a position where we have vaccines. (COVID and the flu) are vaccine-preventable illnesses,’’ Weinmann said. “It would be a great shame to see people in the hospital, which is what we’re seeing, who have not received vaccines.’’


FDA OKS MIXING COVID VACCINES; BACKS MODERNA, J&J BOOSTERS

to Americans who got the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccine and said anyone eligible for an extra dose can get a brand different from the one they received initially.

The Food and Drug Administration’s decisions mark a big step toward expanding the U.S. booster campaign, which began with extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine last month. But before more people roll up their sleeves, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will consult an expert panel Thursday before finalizing official recommendations for who should get boosters and when.

The latest moves would expand by tens of millions the number of Americans eligible for boosters and formally allow “mixing and matching” of shots — making it simpler to get another dose, especially for people who had a side effect from one brand but still want the proven protection of vaccination.

Specifically, the FDA authorized a third Moderna shot for seniors and others at high risk from COVID-19 because of their health problems, jobs or living conditions — six months after their last shot. One big change: Moderna’s booster will be half the dose that’s used for the first two shots, based on company data showing that was plenty to rev up immunity again.

For J&J’s single-shot vaccine, the FDA said all U.S. recipients, no matter their age, could get a second dose at least two months following their initial vaccination.

The FDA rulings differ because the vaccines are made differently, with different dosing schedules — and the J&J vaccine has consistently shown a lower level of effectiveness than either of the two-shot Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

As for mixing and matching, the FDA said it’s OK to use any brand for the booster regardless of which vaccination people got first. The interchangeability of the shots is expected to speed the booster campaign, particularly in nursing homes and other institutional settings where residents have received different shots over time.

FDA’s acting commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said the agency wanted to make its booster guidance as flexible as possible, given that many people don’t remember which brand they first received. In other cases, some people may want to try a different vaccine if they previously experienced common side effects like muscle ache or chills.

Still, regulators said it’s likely many people will stick with the same vaccine brand.

The decision was based on preliminary results from a government study of different booster combinations that showed an extra dose of any type revs up levels of virus-fighting antibodies. That study also showed recipients of the single-dose J&J vaccination had a far bigger response if they got a full-strength Moderna booster or a Pfizer booster rather than a second J&J shot. The study didn’t test the half-dose Moderna booster.

Health authorities stress that the priority still is getting first shots to about 65 million eligible Americans who remain unvaccinated. But the booster campaign is meant to shore up protection against the virus amid signs that vaccine effectiveness is waning against mild infections, even though all three brands continue to protect against hospitalization and death.

“Today the currently available data suggest waning immunity in some populations of fully vaccinated people,” Woodcock told reporters. “The availability of these authorized boosters is important for continued protection against COVID-19 disease.”

The Moderna booster decision essentially matches FDA’s ruling that high-risk groups are eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, which is made with the same technology.

FDA recommended that everyone who’d gotten the single-shot J&J vaccine get a booster since it has consistently shown lower protection than its two-shot rivals. And several independent FDA advisers who backed the booster decision suggested J&J’s vaccine should have originally been designed to require two doses.

Experts continue to debate the rationale of the booster campaign. Some warn that the U.S. government hasn’t clearly articulated the goals of boosters given that the shots continue to head off the worst effects of COVID-19, and wonder if the aim is to tamp down on virus spread by curbing, at least temporarily, milder infections.

FDA’s top vaccine official suggested regulators would move quickly to expand boosters to lower age groups, such as people in their 40s and 50s, if warranted.

“We are watching this very closely and will take action as appropriate to make sure that the maximum protection is provided to the population,” said FDA’s Dr. Peter Marks.

In August, the Biden administration announced plans for an across-the-board booster campaign aimed at all U.S. adults, but outside experts have repeatedly argued against such a sweeping effort.

On Thursday an influential panel convened by the CDC is expected to offer more specifics on who should get boosters and when. Their recommendations are subject to approval by the CDC director.

The vast majority of the nearly 190 million Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 have received the Pfizer or Moderna options, while about 15 million have received the J&J vaccine.


WHITE HOUSE DETAILS PLANS TO VACCINATE 28M CHILDREN AGE 5-11

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Children ages 5 to 11 will soon be able to get a COVID-19 shot at their pediatrician’s office, local pharmacy and potentially even their school, the White House said Wednesday as it detailed plans for the expected authorization of the Pfizer shot for elementary school youngsters in a matter of weeks.

Federal regulators will meet over the next two weeks to weigh the safety and effectiveness of giving low-dose shots to the roughly 28 million children in that age group.

Within hours of formal approval, which is expected after the Food and Drug Administration signs off and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel meets on Nov. 2-3, millions of doses will begin going out to providers across the country, along with the smaller needles needed for injecting young children.

Within days of that, the vaccine will be ready to go into arms on a wide scale.

“We’re completing the operational planning to ensure vaccinations for kids ages 5 to 11 are available, easy and convenient,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said. “We’re going to be ready, pending the FDA and CDC decision.”

The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses three weeks apart and a two-week wait for full protection to kick in, meaning the first youngsters in line will be fully covered by Christmas.

The Biden administration noted that the expansion of shots to children under 12 will not look like the start of the country’s vaccine rollout 10 months ago, when limited doses and inadequate capacity meant a painstaking wait for many Americans.

The country now has ample supplies of the Pfizer shot to vaccinate the children who will soon be eligible, officials said, and they have been working for months to ensure widespread availability of shots. About 15 million doses will be shipped to providers across the U.S. in the first week after approval, the White House said.

More than 25,000 pediatricians and primary care providers have already signed on to dispense the vaccine to elementary school children, the White House said, in addition to the tens of thousands of drugstores that are already administering shots to adults.

Hundreds of school- and community-based clinics will also be funded and supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help speed the process.

The White House is also preparing a stepped-up campaign to educate parents and children about the safety of the shots and the ease of getting them. As has been the case for adult vaccinations, the administration believes trusted messengers — educators, doctors and community leaders — will be vital to encouraging vaccinations.

While children run a lower risk than older people of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, at least 637 people age 18 or under have died from the virus in the U.S., according to the CDC. Six million U.S. children been infected, 1 million of them since early September amid the spread of the more contagious delta variant, the American Academy of Pediatrics says.

Health officials believe that expanding the vaccine drive will not only curb the alarming number of infections in children but also reduce the spread of the virus to vulnerable adults. It could also help schools stay open and youngsters get back on track academically, and contribute to the nation’s broader recovery from the pandemic.

“COVID has also disrupted our kids’ lives. It’s made school harder, it’s disrupted their ability to see friends and family, it’s made youth sports more challenging,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy told NBC. “Getting our kids vaccinated, we have the prospect of protecting them, but also getting all of those activities back that are so important to our children.”

Murthy said the administration, which is imposing vaccine mandates for millions of adults, is leaving it up to state and local officials to decide whether to require schoolchildren to get vaccinated. But he said such measures would be “a reasonable thing to consider.”

“It’s also consistent with what we’ve done for other childhood vaccines, like measles, mumps, polio,” he said.
The U.S. has purchased 65 million doses of the Pfizer pediatric shot, which is expected to be one-third the dose given to adults and adolescents, according to officials. They will be shipped in smaller packages of about 100 doses each, so that more providers can deliver them, and they won’t require the super-cold storage that the adult version did at first.

About 219 million Americans age 12 and up, or 66% of the total population, have received a COVID-19 shot, and nearly 190 million are fully vaccinated.


FLINT WATER SETTLEMENT REDUCED BY $15M TO KEEP MCLAREN HOSPITALS FROM WALKING AWAY

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The total value of the proposed settlement of civil claims arising from the lead poisoning of Flint’s water supply will be reduced by $15 million as a way of keeping McLaren Health Care from walking away from the agreement.

The amount McLaren contributes to the settlement, should it receive final approval, will be $5 million under an order issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Judith Levy. As originally proposed, McLaren would have paid $20 million.

That means the total value of the proposed settlement will be reduced to $626.25 million, from the $641.25 million earlier planned.

McLaren asked for the reduction in a court filing earlier this month. The company said most of the plaintiffs with potential claims against McLaren’s Flint hospital had not opted to join the proposed settlement, preferring to instead pursue individual lawsuits. That meant McLaren could exercise its “walk away” rights and pay nothing toward the settlement. Instead, McLaren offered to remain part of the settlement and pay $5 million.

The other defendants in the case agreed to the amendment, with the exception of Flint, where the City Council has not agreed to give the OK.

Levy said in her ruling Wednesday that Flint’s consent is not required since the amendment does not affect the amount Flint must pay toward the settlement, and actually increases the amount available for Flint plaintiffs when compared to what the situation would be if McLaren walked away.

“This is not a new contract with the city of Flint defendants because it has no impact on them,” Levy said.

The state of Michigan is paying the brunt of the proposed settlement — $600 million. Flint, through its insurers, is paying $20 million. Rowe Professional Services Co., a contractor who did work related to the Flint water treatment plant, is paying $1.25 million. Rulings are awaited from Levy on requested attorney fees of about $200 million and on whether to give the settlement final approval.

Flint’s water crisis began in 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. It was intended as a temporary, cost-saving measure, but turned out to be a disastrous mistake. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has acknowledged it failed to require needed corrosion-control chemicals as part of the water treatment process when the switch was made, resulting in lead leaching from pipes and fittings into the water system.

Claims against McLaren relate to an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that experts have also linked to the switch in water supply.


MICHIGAN’S REDISTRICTING GROUP’S MAPS HARM BLACK VOTERS, RESEARCH FINDS

BRIDGE MI — A report released this week is adding to the chorus of those who question whether the Michigan Independent Citizen Redistricting Commission’s draft maps comply with the Voting Rights Act that protects minority voters.

The report, by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, calls the process “unusual” and claims it used incomplete data to draw districts that disperse Detroit’s Black voters into districts that stretch from the city into the suburbs.

The report arrived days before the panel hosts its second round of public hearings, which begin Wednesday in Detroit, and as African American voters and leaders push back on the commission’s drafts.

Michigan currently has 17 majority-Black districts — two in Congress, five in the state Senate and 10 in the state House.

But in the 10 proposed maps released by the commission last week, only one district would have a voting age population of more than 50 percent African-American.

Jon Eguia, economics professor at Michigan State University and the report’s lead author, told Bridge Michigan the commission “overcorrected” what had been previously “packed” African American districts in metro Detroit.

“Packing” refers to concentrating many voters of one type — often minorities or members of a political party — into single districts to minimize their overall influence.

“The commission … has looked with aversion to communities that truly naturally … (have) a lot of citizens that identify as Black and said ‘We don’t want those communities to be a district, we’re going to break those majorities, finding non-Blacks wherever we can find them,’” Eguia said.

“That’s an unusual approach to things.”

The report comes atop complaints from African-American leaders and political pollsters about the process and its impact on minority voters.

“With proposed redistricting maps that dilute the voices of voters of color, I worry that future candidates for office who look like me will not have a seat at the table,” said state Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Detroit.

“They will be forced to run for office in communities that are unwelcoming to them.”

Democrats, Republicans and others have called on constituents to flood the public meetings with public comments. The Detroit Caucus of the Michigan Legislature is organizing a Black Voters Matter rally at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the TCF Center in Detroit ahead of the commission’s 1 p.m. meeting there.

The criticism comes despite efforts by the 13-member redistricting panel to pay special attention to the voices of minorities — and other “communities of interest” –  in drawing the districts.

The commission was created by voters in 2018 after Michigan for decades allowed the party in power to draw political boundaries after the decennial census, a process that led to gerrymandering that benefited Republicans.

The redistricting panel, made up of civilians, has paid close attention to the Voting Rights Act that is designed to allow minority groups to elect candidates of their choosing, communities of interests, and partisan fairness.

The commission has followed the advice of Bruce Adelson, a voting rights attorney, and Lisa Handley, a partisan fairness expert, who contend districts don’t have to be more than 50 percent minority to ensure they have a strong vote. They have suggested a lower threshold.

But Eguia of MSU said estimating how Black voters will vote in the future is complicated.

“The commission has taken the work by their consultant Dr. Lisa Handley as if it were … completely right and infallible,” Eguia said. “And, as a social scientist … we know that it’s not that the work is bad, the work is the best you can do, but it’s based on very poor data because we don’t have good data about primaries.”

Eguia’s research also claimed that six of the 10 maps are incomplete. There are precincts — made up of a range of 13 people to 3,204 residents — that have yet to be assigned to a district, according to his report.

He said assigning those residents to a district is important, but also an easy fix.

Edward Woods III, the communications director of the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, told Bridge Michigan on Tuesday the analysis done by Michigan State University “did not correspond with the data used by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“We verified and checked again yesterday, and all U.S. Census blocks were assigned.”

Michigan follows a trend

Attorneys who talked to Bridge Michigan said they’ve seen a trend across the country of states “cracking” majority-minority districts by dividing minority voters into multiple districts.

In Texas, Latino groups said they’ll challenge the state’s maps on those groups.

In Virginia, activists said Democrats have tried to create districts where Black voters don’t have to be a majority as long as they can create a coalition with white voters to elect their candidates of choice.

Steve Lance, the policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, warned about breaking up those majority-minority districts.

“In most cases, these districts were drawn as a result of litigation brought by Black voters or Latino voters, Asian- American voters,” Lance told Bridge Michigan. “And once a district like this is gone, it will be gone. It would require new litigation to bring it back.”

Michael Li, the senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, told Bridge Michigan lowering the number of minority voters in a district is not always bad.

“The reality is that Black voters are very politically cohesive,” Li said. “If they vote cohesively (their candidates) might get elected in districts that are below 50 percent Black.

“You might actually increase Black representation by doing this.”


CAT IN INGHAM COUNTY FIRST IN MICHIGAN TO CONTRACT COVID

DETROIT NEWS — A cat from Ingham County is the first confirmed feline case of SARS-CoV-2 in the state of Michigan.

The cat had close contact with its owners, who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 about a week before the cat became ill. The domestic shorthair cat was tested after it began to sneeze. The cat has recovered.

As of Oct. 18, there have been 257 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in animals throughout the United States, including 99 cats, since the start of the pandemic, according to state officials.

The possibility is very low of animals spreading the virus to humans, according to Michigan officials.

“COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing and talking,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said in a news release. “Protecting pets begins by taking precautions to protect yourself by getting one of the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.”

Testing is recommended for animals with recent exposure to a person suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19. Signs of SARS-CoV-2 in animals can include fever, sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, eye discharge, vomiting and/or diarrhea.


FURTHER TESTING BEING CONDUCTED AT HOMES, BUSINESSES NEAR COUNTY AIRPORT WHERE PFAS WAS DETECTED

THE OAKLAND PRESS  — The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has collected drinking water well samples from 27 homes and businesses as part of the Oakland County Airport and Pontiac Lake State Recreation Area per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS) investigation.

Details were conveyed Sept. 21 during a public Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) meeting. PFAS is a dangerous chemical once used in many consumer products, as well as industrial firefighting foams.

As of Sept. 21, there were 184 known PFAS sites statewide.

“This looks like a lot of sites for Michigan.” said Abigail Hendershott, MPART’s executive director. “It’s really more that Michigan is actually looking (for PFAS). We’re actually taking a methodical, diligent look across our entire state to understand, where do we have groundwater contamination that exceeds those standards?”

In May a consultant for the airport, located in Waterford Township, collected eight samples in 12-foot deep groundwater.

On June 2, an EGLE contractor collected drinking water samples from 12 of 24 homes and businesses in the first phase of residential well sampling. PFAS was detected in 11 wells, with one well exceeding state criteria.

On June 24, the airport’s consultant submitted groundwater test results that began in April. Six of the eight samples collected exceeded groundwater clean-up criteria for PFAS, with the highest result being 4,800 parts per trillion for PFOS, another group of man-made chemicals.

On Aug. 5, EGLE’s contractor collected samples from 16 homes in the second phase of residential well sampling. All 16 wells had PFAS, including five wells exceeding state limits.

A residential well sampled south of M-59 had the highest PFAS concentration. The shallow groundwater flows to the south or southeast, while deep groundwater flow remains unknown.

Kevin Wojciechowski, leading the site investigation for EGLE, said use of aqueous film forming foam — a fire suppressant used to extinguish flammable liquid fires — was first detailed in 1965.

“From 1965 to 1996, there’s no records of the use, where they used it, how much they used it,” he said. “We don’t know what happened in those years.”

EGLE says that between 1996 and 2019, foam was used in seven incidents on airport property, including an accidental release during nozzle certification in March 2020.

The next testing stage

The airport will continue to investigate onsite PFAS groundwater and surface water contamination on the property, and conduct a third round of well sampling.

Bill Mullen, media and communications officer for Oakland County Executive David Coulter, said Oct. 11 that no other updates exist aside from more testing.

“We’re continuing to look into expanding this (search) area,” said Wojciechowski, including sampling 1 mile north, 1 mile south, and a 1/2 mile east and west from the airport’s edges.

William Farrell, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services, said exposure to PFAS could occur by drinking contaminated water, consuming fish caught from contaminated water, incidental swallowing of contaminated soil or dust, or eating foods packaged in materials contaminated with PFAS. Absorption through skin is not typically a concern, he said.

“All of us have been exposed to PFAS throughout the years,” Farrell said. “As a result, all of us have some level of PFAS in our blood.”

Health effects can include reduced fertility, high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, small decreases in infant birth weight, higher cholesterol levels, thyroid disease, liver damage, decreased immune system response to vaccines, and developing kidney or testicular cancer.

“If you’re exposed to high levels of PFAS, you could be more likely than the average person to develop some type of health affect in the future,” he said.

Updates can be found at www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/


MICHIGAN ADDS 8,496 CASES, 46 DEATHS FROM COVID-19 OVER 3 DAYS

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan added 8,496 cases and 46 deaths from COVID-19 on Monday, including totals from Saturday and Sunday.

The latest figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services push the overall totals to 1,090,021 confirmed cases and 21,609 deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

The state averaged 2,832 cases per day over the three days. Of the latest deaths reported, 15 were identified during a vital records review, state health officials noted.

Michigan’s COVID-19 infection numbers have been trending upward for more than 13 weeks amid concerns over the highly contagious delta variant.

The state last week added 26,105 cases and 250 deaths. That’s up from the week prior when Michigan logged 24,791 additional cases and 237 deaths from the virus. In mid-September, the state added 18,313 cases and 159 deaths from the virus in a week.

The weekly record of 50,892 cases was set Nov. 15-21. The second-highest weekly total was 47,316 Nov. 22-28.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which health experts hope will bolster confidence in vaccinations. About 67.4% of Michigan’s population age 16 and older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Sept. 22.

State officials set a goal of reaching 70% and hosted a lottery initiative to give those who received their vaccinations the chance to win cash prizes.

About 58.8% of Michigan residents 12 and older were fully vaccinated, as of Oct. 16.

The state health department estimates less than 1% of vaccinated people in Michigan are contracting the virus.

Michigan’s latest data

Michigan remains at a high transmission rate. The case rate here has been increasing for three and a half months.

As of last week, only three states had reported more cases of COVID-19 than Michigan over a seven-day span, based on state data.

Statewide positivity last week climbed to 11.2% from 10.3% the week prior, according to data from Oct. 12.

The proportion of kids getting sick with COVID-19 in the state is increasing. In Michigan, over 50% of children hospitalized have no reported underlying conditions.

Higher community transmission in Michigan is followed by a higher incidence of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. MIS-C is a condition in children where multiple organ systems become inflamed or dysfunctional. There are 169 cases in the state, the majority, or 70.2%, are in the ICU. There have been five deaths.

About 99% of positive tests available for sequencing in Michigan were identified as the delta variant over the last four weeks.

About 43% of school districts have mask policies, covering about 60% of students. Case rates among children are higher in counties where school districts do not have mask policies, according to the state health department.

Michigan health officials last Monday reported 83 new COVID-19 outbreaks among its K-12 schools and universities, with two colleges reporting outbreaks.

About 9.3% of hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, up from 8.0% the week prior.

The majority of patients hospitalized from the virus are unvaccinated, the state health department has said.

As of Sept. 27, Michigan has more than 17,583 confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants — the majority, or 13,667 cases, being B.1.1.7 — the “alpha” variant.

The delta variant, being B.1.617.2, is on the rise in Michigan with more than 700 new cases last week. There are a total of 3,492 known cases in the state.

The virus is blamed for more than 716,000 deaths and 45.3 million confirmed infections in the United States.

The state considered 945,175 people recovered from the virus as of Oct. 8.


MICHIGAN’S FORMER TOP DOC TAKES EXECUTIVE POST AT CVS HEALTH

DETROIT NEWS — Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, who led Michigan through the tumultuous first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been named vice president and chief health equity officer with CVS Health, owner of one of the country’s largest pharmacy chains.

Khaldun announced on Sept. 24 that she was leaving her job as the chief medical executive for Michigan and chief deputy director for health in the state Department of Health and Human Services, where she was responsible for public health and aging programs, Medicaid and behavioral health.

Khaldun had been a visible leader of Michigan’s COVID-19 response. She has been lauded for Michigan’s early identification of disparities in COVID-19 outcomes as well as developing strategies to address them. She was named this year a member of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian began serving as chief medical executive on Oct. 1.

Khaldun previously told The Detroit News that she had accepted a new position to pursue “an opportunity outside of state government.”

At CVS Health, which also owns health insurance company Aetna, Khaldun will lead the strategy to advance health equity for patients, members, providers, customers and communities served across all lines of the CVS Health business, the press release said. She will report to Dr. Kyu Rhee, senior vice president and Aetna’s chief medical officer.

“As a health care innovation company committed to health equity and breaking down barriers that perpetuate health care disparities, Dr. Khaldun joins our team as Chief Health Equity Officer at a critically important time,” Rhee said in a Monday statement.  “Her expertise in creating solutions to help improve health outcomes will help us continue addressing health inequities for the customers and communities we serve.”

Khaldun previously was health officer and public health director for the Detroit Health Department and chief medical officer of the Baltimore City Health Department.

Khaldun obtained her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania, master’s in public health from George Washington University, and completed her residency in emergency medicine at SUNY Downstate Medical Center/Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY.

She practices emergency medicine part-time at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.


MICHIGAN BUSINESS LEADERS ASK PRESIDENT BIDEN TO RECONSIDER VACCINE MANDATE

BRIDGE MI — A coalition of Michigan business leaders is asking the Biden administration to reconsider a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large businesses that was announced in early September.

With details on the mandate still pending six weeks later,  the business group — led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — said Monday that its concerns are mounting over rules that are expected to affect about two million Michigan workers who work at companies with 100 or more employees.

Business leaders said they expected the mandate’s detailed rules to be announced by Nov. 1. OSHA submitted them on October 12 to the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which will consider them on an emergency temporary basis. Because of that, they’re expecting a shorter review process.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration will then have 30 days to determine how it will execute the rules. Violations, Biden has said, could result in fines.

The stakes are high for business, said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber. However, he said the process for implementing the mandate has not been transparent, leaving him concerned that business concerns specific to the state will go unaddressed even as the economy continues to struggle for balance.

“Employees and employers across the country and our state have not had the traditional opportunity to provide input on details and specifics,” Studley said during a press briefing on Zoom.

Instead, Studley predicted, Michigan’s private employers of 100 or more workers will face a “one-size-fits-all, top-down” approach to occupational safety and health, something that he said will limit employer and employee rights and potentially harm Michigan’s economy.

A letter sent last month by 24 Republican governors to Biden threatened legal action against his administration if he did not cancel the mandate. So far, Biden has given no indication such objections will change his plan. When he announced the mandate, Biden said the rise in COVID cases was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and said that the measure is not only critical for public health but would help keep businesses open.

Business sentiment is far from uniform.

Indeed, a CNBC national survey this month found that 80 percent of CFOs “totally support” the mandate. Some had been considering a mandate when Biden stepped in to say the federal government would require it for large employers; others called the move “critical” to defeating the pandemic.

At the same time, Michigan’s regulatory agency could enact more stringent rules than those coming from OSHA, Studley said.

“Many of our members are concerned that Michigan might go far beyond what is required at the federal level,” Studley said.

Other participating chambers underscored that they hope Biden will hit pause on the federal vaccination mandate.

“Just slow down,” said Nikki Devitt, president of the Petoskey Area Chamber of Commerce. “Listen to us before forcing a federal mandate on our members. We not only want our communities safe from COVID, we want our businesses to get every opportunity they can for a full economic recovery.”

Biden announced the vaccination mandate Sept. 9, drawing mixed reaction from the nation’s businesses, some of which praised the move as a way to curtail the virus. In addition to the largest private employers, the first-term Democratic president’s order will also require all federal employees to be vaccinated, along with workers in firms that contract with the federal government and employees at all hospitals and other medical operations that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

According to a survey released in September by the Detroit Regional Chamber, 52 percent of statewide voters opposed allowing businesses to require proof of vaccination for employees and customers, while 44 percent support it. The survey did not ask about a government-imposed mandate.

Still, it indicates Michigan residents continue to be split over how the government should address the pandemic, a situation also playing out in protests over mask mandates in schools. At the same time, Michigan’s labor force has declined by more than 200,000 workers since the start of the pandemic, creating pressure for businesses trying to hire and refill jobs.


J&J RECIPIENTS SHOULD ‘FEEL GOOD’ ABOUT BOOSTER RECOMMENDATION: FAUCI

ABC NEWS — Recipients of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine should not be concerned about the shot’s lower efficacy now that boosters have been recommended, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC “This Week” co-anchor Martha Raddatz.

“I think that they should feel good about it because what the advisers to the FDA felt is that given the data that they saw, very likely this should have been a two-dose vaccine to begin with,” he said Sunday.

The FDA vaccine advisory panel unanimously recommended booster shots for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine Friday. The panel recommended all J&J recipients 18 years and older to get an additional jab as early as two months after the first dose — key differences from their recommendations for the Moderna and Pfizer boosters which were only for Americans 65 and older or in higher risk groups. The decision came days after early data released from a National Institutes of Health study found that boosting with a different shot than one’s original vaccine appears to be safe and effective. The data, which is not yet peer reviewed, also found that for J&J recipients, antibody levels were higher if they received a Moderna or Pfizer booster rather than a J&J booster.

Raddatz pressed Fauci on whether mixing and matching vaccine boosters for J&J recipients would be a better idea.

“But, Dr. Fauci, the panel was also looking at new data that suggest J&J recipients may be better off getting a booster shot from the more effective Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Is that a better solution?” Raddatz asked.

“That is true, the data you refer to, that if you boost people who have originally received J&J with either Moderna or Pfizer, the level of antibodies that you induce in them is much higher than if you boost them with the original J&J,” Fauci said.

He went on, “However, you’re talking about laboratory data, which very often are reflective of what you would see clinically. But the data of boosting the J&J first dose with a J&J second dose is based on clinical data. So what’s going to happen is that the FDA is going to look at all those data, look at the comparison and make a determination of what they will authorize.”

Fauci added that the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will give people the flexibility to mix and match vaccine boosters based on their individual health situations.

Now that the FDA has recommended J&J boosters for a wider group of Americans, the question turns to when Moderna and Pfizer boosters will be expanded to the general public.

Fauci said that will depend on the data being collected by the CDC and the findings coming in from Israel, which is about a month ahead of the U.S. in its vaccine rollout.

As for vaccines for children ages 5-11, Fauci said the FDA is on track to approve the Pfizer vaccine in early November.

With kids eager to go trick-or-treating and the holidays right around the corner, Raddatz also asked Fauci about his guidance for celebrating the upcoming holidays.

“I believe strongly that — particularly in the vaccinated people, if you’re vaccinated and your family members are vaccinated, those who are eligible, that is obviously very young children are not yet eligible, that you can enjoy the holidays,” he said. “You can enjoy Halloween, trick-or-treating and certainly Thanksgiving with your family and Christmas with your family.”


RAPID AT-HOME COVID TESTS FLY OFF MICHIGAN STORE SHELVES AS PANDEMIC DEMAND OUTPACES SUPPLY

DETROIT FREE PRESS — At-home rapid tests are in short supply at locally owned independent drugstores, pharmacy chains and big-box stores across metro Detroit right now, where retailers say they can’t keep them on shelves.

“We try to keep them in stock,” said Sami Shimoon, pharmacist and owner of Collie Drugs in St. Clair Shores. “It’s difficult to get them. The big-box stores are buying all the supply, and our warehouse, when they do get them, they don’t get a lot.”

On Friday, his store had a few of the BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests behind the pharmacy counter.

Most of the nearly two dozen pharmacies the Free Press surveyed from Ann Arbor to Chesterfield Township, Detroit to Downriver didn’t have any at-home, rapid antigen coronavirus tests in stock.

Large retailers like Walmart, Target, and Meijer had none Friday at stores in Belleville, Clinton Township, Taylor and Roseville.

In Michigan, coronavirus case rates have continued to edge upward in the last three months. As more people test positive for the virus, those who were exposed are more likely to also seek out testing. So are people with symptoms from allergies, colds and the flu, all of which tend to ramp up this time of year.

Students have returned to college campuses, many of which require weekly testing for those who haven’t been fully vaccinated. There’s more demand for tests among workers, too, whose employers may require them.

The supply was further tightened by a recent recall of the Ellume COVID-19 Home Test. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported Oct. 5 that a manufacturing issue led users of the Ellume test to get false positive results.

And if President Joe Biden’s sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandates take effect soon — requiring all workers at businesses with 100 or more employees to take coronvirus vaccines or undergo weekly testing — it could further strain the already tight market for tests.

Feds say help is on the way

More over-the-counter rapid tests are coming, said Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator, though it might not be for several more weeks.

The FDA approved a new at-home test earlier this month that could boost supply. It’s called the Flowflex COVID-19 Home Test made by ACON Laboratories.

In addition, Zients said the federal government has invested billions in purchase commitments so companies that make rapid coronavirus tests can increase production. The aim is to quadruple the supply of at-home rapid tests, he said.

“That means we’ll have available supply of 200 million rapid, at-home tests per month starting in December, with supply of tens of millions of additional tests coming on the market across the next few weeks,” Zients said during a news conference earlier this month.

But dozens of BinaxNOW tests were available Friday at the Walgreens on Harper in St. Clair Shores.

For Walgreens customers who are able to find them in stock, “the incredible demand for at-home testing,” Boyd said, has led the company to limit the sales of rapid at-home tests to four per customer “in an effort to help improve inventory while we continue to work diligently with our supplier partners.”

CVS also is limiting sales of rapid antigen tests at its stores, telling the Free Press in a statement: “In order to serve our customers’ over-the-counter testing needs, and due to high demand, we’ve introduced product limits of (6) on cvs.com and (4) at CVS Pharmacy for the Abbott BinaxNOW and Quidel tests. We’re continuing to work with our suppliers to meet customer demand.

“In addition, nearly 5,000 CVS Pharmacy stores across the country offer on-site testing with same day and future day appointments in most geographies. Patients can make an appointment at a test site nearest them at CVS.com or the CVS Pharmacy app.”

Seeking other testing options

When people can’t find rapid tests on store shelves, they’re often driven to seek them out at urgent care centers and other testing sites to fill the gap.

That can be a more costly option — especially for people without health insurance.

At Beaumont Health’s 28 metro Detroit urgent care centers, people without insurance coverage will pay $155 for a visit — which includes not only a coronavirus test, but a full checkup, said spokesperson Scott Hughes.

He estimated about 60% of the patients treated at Beaumont’s urgent care centers are coming for coronavirus tests, and can get results from a molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test within hours.

Even for people who are fully insured, there may now be some cost for coronavirus testing. The federal government requires insurance companies to fully cover testing for people who’ve been exposed to the virus and for those who are experiencing symptoms. But the insurers are not required to pay fully for routine testing for workplace or school protocols.

“Some insurance companies have pulled back and said, ‘Well, we’re gonna have to pass some of these costs on, you know?’ Whether it’s a copay or whether it’s 50%, it varies by health insurer,” Hughes said.

That’s why Hughes recommends calling ahead to your insurance provider so you’re aware of what it’ll cost to have a coronavirus test at an urgent care center.

Another option is to seek out a free rapid antigen test available at pop-up sites operated by the state health department. Some upcoming clinics are planned at schools, restaurants and community health centers stretching from as far north as Suttons Bay to as far west as Three Rivers. Michiganders can go to michigan.gov/coronavirus to find a site or call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 888-535-6136. The federal government also is working to increase access to free COVID-19 tests by expanding the number of sites where that service is available, Zients said, including at local pharmacies. There are now several hundred locations in Michigan. You can find one nearby online at https://findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov.

Even with more testing at pop-up clinics and drug stores, the demand for at-home antigen tests hasn’t slowed, said Linda Herbert, a pharmacy tech at Merriman Drugs in Livonia.

“Everybody’s coming here, but we don’t have them,” she said. “We’re not able to order them from our wholesaler. They just say no.”

As for when — or if — rapid tests might be available to stock her store shelves, she said, is unclear: “They don’t tell us anything.”


OAKLAND COUNTY MAN CHARGED WITH MISDEMEANOR IN MOSQUE VANDALISM

DETROIT FREE PRESS — An Oakland County man was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor in connection to vandalism reported earlier this month at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s mosque in Rochester Hills.

Ryan Ahern, 33, of Rochester Hills, is accused of breaking the front door to the community center, according to a Sunday news release from the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.

Mosque leaders previously said the incident happened on Oct. 8 as children played inside the center at 1730 W. Auburn Road in Rochester Hills following evening prayers, and was discovered the following morning. The sheriff’s office previously said surveillance footage showed a man walking the perimeter of the mosque about 9:30 that night.

Ahern was identified using surveillance video, the sheriff’s office said Sunday.

The sheriff’s department said Ahern is a person of interest in other acts of vandalism at non-religious locations and “believe the vandalism was a random act and not a hate crime.”

He was arrested at his home on Friday.’

The 33-year old was arraigned Saturday and released from custody after paying $1,000, or 10%, of his $10,000 cash or surety bond, according to the news release. There was no word on a next court date.

Ahmadiyya is a revivalist movement within Islam founded in 1889, and mosque leaders previously said the vandalism made them feel unsafe; other vandalism has occurred at Michigan mosques and, in the 1980s, an Ahmadiyya center in the Detroit area was burned down and a member was murdered.

Leaders said Sunday they hope to meet with the accused, not seek punishment, WDIV-TV (Channel 4) reported. 

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard commended his department for the turnaround time of the case.

“Anyone that damages property we will vigorously investigated and held accountable,” he said. “I commend our detectives on quick and good police work locating and arresting this individual.”

If convicted on the current charge, Ahern could serve up to a year in jail, the release said.


GOP BILL TO OVERHAUL VOTER ID, IMPOSE RESTRICTIONS ON CLERKS TO HEAD TO WHITMER’S DESK

DETROIT FREE PRESS — A bill that would impose strict ID requirements on Michigan voters, as well as restrict election funding and ban election officials from mailing absentee ballot applications unless a voter specifically requests one, will soon land on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk.

GOP lawmakers in the House approved the bill Thursday on a 56-51 party-line vote. They also voted on a bill that would lay out the steps voters must follow to ensure their ballot counts if they do not comply with the new ID requirements, as well as a third bill that would eliminate the fee to obtain a state ID. Both bills also passed without the support of any Democratic lawmakers.

The free ID bill was sent to Whitmer by the House, but the two other bills must undergo a final procedural step in the state Senate before they’re presented to the governor.

Whitmer is expected to veto the legislation. Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy wrote in an email to the Free Press that legislation “that seeks to make it harder to vote, attempts to undermine trust in our government, or attacks voting rights will see a swift veto from the governor.”

Democratic lawmakers decried the bills as based on disinformation about the 2020 presidential election and said it would disenfranchise voters.

“They’re hideous, regressive, suppressive and discriminatory,” said state Rep. Amos O’Neal, D-Saginaw.  “Audit after audit, lawsuit after lawsuit show the same thing … we did have a secure election in 2020.”

Republicans defended the measures, saying they would boost confidence in elections.

“These measures are not discriminatory practices, they are not politically motivated and they are not intended to suppress anyone’s vote,” said state Rep. Ann Bollin, R-Brighton, who chairs the House Elections and Ethics Committee. “They are intended to protect our elections and ensure that every eligible voter can vote secretly, independently, safely and securely.”

The bill — SB 303 — would eliminate the option for those voting in person who do not have a photo ID to sign an affidavit affirming their identity and vote normally.

Voters requesting an absentee ballot would have to include their driver’s license or state ID number, last four digits of their Social Security number or a copy of a photo ID with their absentee ballot application.

Voters who do not comply with the new ID rules would be issued a provisional ballot that would not count unless a voter took additional steps to verify their identity. SB 304 — which is tied to the voter ID bill — lays out the process: Within six days of the election, those issued provisional ballots would have to present an ID, along with a documentation verifying their address. If voters do not have a photo ID, they would have to provide a copy of their birth certificate or Social Security card as well as documentation verifying their address.

House Republicans also passed HB 5007, a bill that would eliminate the fee to obtain a state ID card. The bill would also require the Secretary of State’s Office to provide same-day service for those applying for a state ID card for the purpose of voting in an election, as well as those applying for an ID three days before Election Day, on Election Day or six days after an election. It is tied to the strict voter ID bill.

That bill would also prohibit election officials from accepting donations to fund election activities and equipment such as advertisements about an upcoming election, efforts to recruit poll workers or drop boxes to return ballots. The bill appears to be written in a way that Michigan election officials could not accept federal funding for elections unless the Legislature or local governments appropriated it.

The legislation would also bar the secretary of state, clerks and government employees from mailing absentee ballot applications unless a voter specifically requests one.

The bills mirror proposed changes in the Secure MI Vote petition initiative that would bypass Whitmer’s expected veto of the GOP election bills. Last week, the sponsors of the initiative began collecting the 340,047 signatures needed to introduce it to the Legislature, which can enact it without Whitmer’s signature.


LAWMAKER: ‘WE’RE GOING TO FIX’ MICHIGAN’S BROKEN PUBLIC RECORDS REQUEST LAW

BRIDGE MI — Michigan transparency advocates, journalists and citizen activists on Thursday shared horror stories of trying to navigate the state’s public records request law that they say is broken.

Loopholes, exceptions and vague language in Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act allow the state and local governments to avoid accountability by denying, delaying or rejecting requests for public documents, they said.

“It creates for us a chilling effect where we have to decide what information is worth paying for and what information we simply can’t afford,”  Michigan Radio News Director Vincent Duffy told state lawmakers considering reforms.

The University of Michigan’s NPR affiliate has used public records to review the results of lead testing in water systems, teacher certifications in schools and, most recently, to confirm that former Detroit Police Chief James Craig was not a licensed officer, Duffy said.

“Sometimes this public information is provided easily, but more often than not, the information is difficult to get because of delays or denials and dollars,” he said.

Thursday’s legislative hearing on Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act was the first step in what will be a concentrated effort to try and “fix” the law, according to House Oversight Chair Steve Johnson, R-Wayland.

There’s no new legislation yet, but lawmakers are listening, and “we’re going to do an overhaul,” Johnson promised.

The goal is not just to help journalists or entities with “big pockets” to access government documents that are produced with taxpayer funds and meant to be public, Johnson added.

It’s to “make it easier for everyday citizens,” he said.

Michigan is one of only two states that fully exempts lawmakers and the governor from public records requests, a dubious distinction that in 2015 helped Michigan earn a failing grade on a transparency and ethics report card from the Center for Public Integrity.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned in 2018 on a promise to expand FOIA and supported the 2019 legislation, but she has not done so voluntarily within her own office.

The state House has repeatedly voted to subject the governor and lawmakers to public records requests, but the legislation has stalled in the Michigan Senate, and critics say it still has too many loopholes to be taken seriously.

As lawmakers begin crafting potential reforms, state Rep. David LaGrand urged colleagues to consider the practical implications of any legislation they propose.

Some smaller governments may not be able to afford dedicated staff to process public records requests, he said, and there may be legitimate reasons for a response to take time.

“There is a fairly low threshold for making a FOIA request, and it does take up governmental time,” said LaGrand, a Grand Rapids Democrat who has championed various transparency reforms in Lansing, including personal financial disclosures for lawmakers.

“We want to be a little careful about imposing burdens on government that could have a trigger from any random citizen to make the government go do a whole lot of careful work on the front end for what may be a frivolous or not-critical issue,” he said.

Johnson, the committee chair, said he is optimistic lawmakers can find common ground on a reform package that makes the public records process “more citizen friendly” and navigable without a law degree.

“The purpose of FOIA is to make government accountable to all the people,” he said. “You shouldn’t need an attorney to know what your local unit government is doing.”


ECONOMIC AGENCY LEADER DEFENDS JOBLESS AID, WORKPLACE SAFETY RESPONSE

DETROIT NEWS — Michigan’s Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Susan Corbin defended Thursday the state’s handling of record unemployment claims and workplace safety violations during the pandemic in response to questions from lawmakers.

Corbin defended the actions of the agencies but also acknowledged there is room for change and improvement at both. She noted the state posted a job opening Friday for the next director of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, which has been led by Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson since the former director resigned in November 2020.

“They just were absolutely hit with an unprecedented volume of claims,” Corbin told senators during her Thursday appointment hearing.

Corbin, who was appointed acting director of LEO in October 2020, was before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee for consideration of her Aug. 20 appointment as permanent director.

Corbin noted that the jobless aid agency was tasked with implementing new federal COVID-19 programs, combating suspected fraudulent claims and moving employees out of the office into remote work arrangements — all while claims rose at historic rates.

The situation, she said, was similar to “building the plane while we were trying to fly it.”

Estlund Olson was brought in to try and “stabilize” the agency after former Director Steve Gray’s departure, Corbin said. Estlund Olson has worked to flatten the structure of the agency, brought in consultants to expand agency capacity and simplified the language used in communicating with the public, Corbin said. The jobless department also is working change software platform.

Still, the GOP-led Legislature’s criticism of Estlund Olson has been ramping up, with House Republicans last week approving a resolution calling for her resignation.

But Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, asked Corbin what lasting changes could be made at the agency, noting the problems exacerbated by the pandemic had been present for several administrations.

“This is an agency that’s been plagued for years with problems,” McBroom said.

The agency’s search for a new software platform and simpler language in public communication should help sidestep some issues, Corbin said. She also noted that leadership within the agency has been inconstant, with 10 directors over 10 years.

Employees and the public, she said, “deserve somebody who will take strong responsibility and will commit to spending some time with the agency. …That is something that, from my perspective, would be very helpful.”

Senators also questioned Corbin sharply about the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s harsh enforcement and publicization of COVID rules during the pandemic, highlighting the agency’s decision to send out press releases when companies were cited for a violation.

“Your department is risking its own reputation and its own working relationships” developed over the years in local business communities, McBroom said.

Corbin said the additional publicization of the citations was done after an influx in complaints from employees worried about some of the practices in their businesses.

“We started issuing press releases because we were getting so many inquiries,” said Corbin. The agency did try to work with and educate employers throughout the pandemic, she said.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, the Lawton Republican who chairs the Senate Advice and Consent Committee, also criticized the agency’s “heavy hand” during the pandemic and questioned training the department held on how to form a union.

Corbin said the training was an effort to “tackle an issue we got a lot of calls about.”

“Does the administration tilt the playing field in favor of unions?” Nesbitt asked, noting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recent announcement that she would reimpose the prevailing wage on some state work.

Corbin said she didn’t know how to respond to the question. She noted members of the administration have “strong experiences” with unions and her own mother and father were union members.

“This administration perhaps more than the previous administration has strong ties to unions in Michigan,” Corbin said. “We understand the values and appreciate what unions in Michigan have done for workers in this state.”


UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIMS FALL TO LOWEST LEVEL OF PANDEMIC

ASSOCIATED PRESS — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to its lowest level since the pandemic began, a sign the job market is still improving even as hiring has slowed in the past two months.

Unemployment claims dropped 36,000 to 293,000 last week, the second straight drop, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the smallest number of people to apply for benefits since March 2020, when the pandemic intensified. Applications for jobless aid, which generally track the pace of layoffs, have fallen steadily since last spring as many businesses, struggling to fill jobs, have held onto their workers.

Hiring has slowed in the past two months, even as companies and other employers have posted a near-record number of open jobs. Businesses are struggling to find workers as about three million people who lost jobs and stopped looking for work since the pandemic have yet to resume their job searches. Economists hoped more people would find work in September as schools reopened, easing child care constraints, and enhanced unemployment aid ended nationwide. But the pickup didn’t happen, with employers adding just 194,000 jobs last month. In a bright spot, the unemployment rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2%, though some of that decline occurred because many of those out of work stopped searching for jobs, and were no longer counted as unemployed.

At the same time, Americans are quitting their jobs in record numbers, with about 3% of workers doing so in August. Workers have been particularly likely to leave their jobs at restaurants, bars, and hotels, possibly spurred by fear of the delta variant of COVID-19, which was still spreading rapidly in August.

Other workers likely quit to take advantage of higher wages offered by businesses with open positions, or left jobs because child care for children too young to go to school has been harder to find.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | 1 IN 8 MICHIGAN HOSPITAL BEDS NOW FILLED WITH COVID PATIENTS

BRIDGE MI — Michigan health officials reported 110 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, and more than 12 percent of 71,000 recent coronavirus tests came back positive, the highest rate since May.

Over the past two days, the state has averaged 4,335 new cases per day, pushing the seven-day average to 3,797, the highest since it was 3,989 on April 29.

Michigan is averaging 38 new cases per day per 100,000 residents, the 12th highest rate in the country.

Northern Michigan, which has lower vaccination rates, is experiencing a surge: Osceola and Arenac counties are at 100 cases per 100,000 a day,  Clare is at 91, Ogemaw and Montcalm are at 87 and 80 respectively and Antrim and Mecosta are at 73 and 71 cases per day per 100,000.

Case rates are rising in 49 of the state’s 83 counties, though metro Detroit and most of west Michigan are below 40 cases per day per 100,000. Kent County is at 44 cases per day per 100,000.

COVID-19 hospitalizations also are increasing, up 50 from Monday to 2,195 patients. Statewide, 12 percent of hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, up from 9.2 percent on Oct. 1 and 2.6 percent on Sept. 1.

Of the most recent deaths, 58 came after a review of medical and death records: 109 were in October, four were in September, and five deaths previously attributed to COVID-19 have been reclassified.


OAKLAND COUNTY OUTPACES MICHIGAN IN COVID-19 VACCINE PERCENTAGES

THE OAKLAND PRESS — While the percentage of Oakland County residents who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is higher than the state, there’s concern as new cases of COVID-19 continue to grow especially among the unvaccinated.

Of the more than 4,800 new confirmed and probable cases in Oakland County from Sept. 27 to Oct. 10, residents 39 years old or younger accounted for 54.8 percent of the new cases.

About 283,000 eligible Oakland County residents remain unvaccinated, at least 46,000 of whom are ages 12-19 years old.

In Oakland County, 71 percent of residents 12 and older and 88.5 percent of seniors 65 and over have had at least one shot. In Michigan, 63.1 percent of the population 12 and up have received at least the first dose.

With flu season just getting started, the Oakland County Health Division is offering COVID-19 and flu vaccines at the same time at indoor community clinics.

“Getting both the flu and COVID vaccine is vital to reducing the risk of serious illness or death from either virus during this flu season, which is why we are offering both at our indoor community clinics,” Health Division Medical Director Dr. Russell Faust said. “A number of residents who attended our recent clinics were unaware that the CDC updated its guidance enabling people to get both vaccines at the same time.”

Upcoming indoor community clinics will include the Karl Richter Community Center in Holly, United Food & Commercial Workers Local 876 in Madison Heights, Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Welcome Missionary Baptist Church and Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Pontiac, and Southfield Pavilion in Southfield.

Appointments are strongly encouraged, but walk-ins are welcome. Click on OaklandCountyVaccine.com for addresses, times, and to schedule an appointment. Those who do not have access to the Internet may call the Nurse on Call at 800-848-5533 Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. for more information. Individuals who schedule their COVID-19 vaccine appointment at an indoor clinic will be asked to indicate whether they would like to receive the flu vaccine. Residents may also request it at the time they show up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at an Oakland County indoor clinic.

Upcoming drive-through vaccine clinics for COVID-19 will be in Novi, Pontiac, and West Bloomfield. The flu vaccine is unavailable at the drive-through clinics.

An update on progress vaccinating Oakland County residents, according to the state of Michigan COVID-19 vaccine dashboard as of Oct. 12:

Total eligible residents 12 and older: 1,091,389

Number of residents 12 and older who have received first dose: 808,353
Number of residents 12 years and older who have completed vaccination: 752,749
Vaccine coverage for residents 12 and older: 71 percent

Total eligible residents 16 and older: 1,029,737

Number of residents 16 and older who have received first dose: 773,318
Number of residents 16 and older who have completed vaccination: 720,720
Vaccine coverage for residents 16 and older: 75.1 percent

Total eligible senior residents 65 and older: 217,676

Number of senior residents who have received first dose: 192,557
Number of senior residents who have completed vaccination: 182,175
Vaccine coverage for senior residents: 88.5 percent

Total doses distributed within Oakland County: 1,664,985

Total primary doses administered within Oakland County: 1,502,506

Total third and booster doses administered in Region 2 North (Oakland, Macomb, and St. Clair counties): 82,850


DETROIT OFFICIALS, ACTIVISTS SAY PROPOSED POLITICAL MAPS DISENFRANCHISE BLACK VOTERS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Michigan’s new independent redistricting commission, and the draft political maps it has drawn, are headed into a storm next week at TCF Center in Detroit, to say the least.

A day after the commission approved 10 maps with barely a hint of conflict, elected officials, ministers and other interested politicos in Detroit on Tuesday raised virulent concerns that the nation’s largest Black majority city stands on the brink of having its preferred representation taken away in Lansing and in Washington. That, they say, is the effect of maps that would strip the state of all but a handful of state House districts where Blacks outnumber whites and represent a majority of the population.

And they plan to make themselves heard when the commission begins its public hearings next Wednesday in Detroit.

“It’s absolute insanity,” said the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a longtime radio personality, civil rights activist and pastor. “It’s disenfranchisement of the African American community, where we have significantly less representation, at one fell swoop by a supposedly nonpartisan process. There is something wrong with that.”

In drafting the maps, the 13-member randomly selected commission largely followed what it had been instructed to do by staff and experts: unpack overwhelmingly Black districts in Detroit designed a decade ago by Republicans in Lansing and instead spread Black voters across more districts. That gives Democrats a better chance of controlling a number of seats representative of their total vote share.

But it also means that in 17 current congressional, state House and state Senate districts where Blacks are the clear majority of voters, they will no longer retain that numerical edge, causing worries that whites or others may win seats in those areas or that the commission’s plans could run afoul of the federal Voting Rights Act, which is intended to protect a cohesive minority’s political ability to elect candidates of its choice. The commission’s staff, however, says it has worked to ensure that the proposed maps meet the letter of the law.

The maps — four configurations of new congressional districts, three state House maps and three state Senate maps — are only proposals, and the commission is expected to make changes after a round of public hearings beginning next week before starting a final round of drafting.

Butthat’s not doing much to settle worries that opportunities to elect candidates of color could be hampered by whatever plan is settled on by the commission. Created by a statewide referendum in 2018, the Michigan Constitution now gives the commissioners — all novices in mapping political boundaries — final discretion in deciding what the plans will look like.

That said, compliance with the Voting Rights Act is mandatory, and it includes protections for minority populations.

What it does not include, however, is a guarantee of districts in which a minority group is given the majority of the vote. Instead, a cohesive minority group’s political will is supposed to be protected if it would be the victim of racially polarized voting — meaning another racial group tends to vote as a bloc against the minority’s preferred candidates.

Meanwhile, as experts explained to the commission, minority groups can actually see their political fortunes damaged by concentrating too many of their votes in one area, rather than spreading them out and, theoretically, the party they support gaining more power.

For instance, many of the current legislative districts in Detroit that are home to a Black voting population over the age of 18 are well above 50%, including at least four state House districts with a Black voting age population over 70%. Two —  current state House districts 7 and 8 — have Black voting age populations over 90%, a Free Press analysis of census records shows. A report from one of the commission’s experts said House District 3 also was over 90% — the Free Press had it at 89%.

Bruce Adelson, the commission’s voting rights attorney, has stressed that assigning additional minority voters to a district beyond what is needed to protect their opportunity to elect candidates of choice can create other legal problems. Where that line is, is hard to say, however. Some experts say a plurality of around 35% to 45% of a district’s population gives it enough strength to elect its candidates and ward off any legal challenge.

Some commissioners have expressed worry also that the maps could diminish the voting strength of minority voters by splitting them up across too many districts.

“Mr. Adelson, I appreciate all of the advice you give us, but I’ve got to be honest, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this direction that we are going under,” said Commissioner Anthony Eid during a commission meeting in early October. Eid pointed, to an early draft district in Detroit with a 35% Black voting age population and questioned whether a primary election would advance a Black candidate.

And that is a concern: It’s not at all unusual for Detroit political races to attract multiple candidates. If those candidates split the minority in a primary in the city, there is the possibility a suburban candidate, if he or she consolidates the vote there, could win the primary and, in a district with a decided partisan lean toward Democrats, win the seat.

Proposed political plans have districts with smaller percentages of Black voters

Michigan’s independent redistricting commission has proposed plans for state Senate, state House and congressional boundaries that would include smaller shares of Black voters while increasing partisan fairness statewide. Here is a look at the district with the highest share of Blacks of voting age in each type of plan compared to what it is under the current political boundaries.

Those figures are based on data put out by the commission as it drafted the maps, not with additional information released Monday as it voted on them that showed even somewhat lower figures for the Black voting age population in those districts.

Black elected officials and civil rights leaders in Detroit on Tuesday still argued that the resulting draft maps, however, would disenfranchise Black voters in the city. State Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, said there will be too few Black voters to elect Black candidates if any of the proposed maps are approved.

“This was a conscious effort to try and meet what they thought was the criteria in drawing these maps,” he said. “We’re here to say collectively that not only is that not acceptable but that’s not what’s supposed to be done.”

“What we currently have right now… is much better than what these commissioners are doing,” said state Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit.


U.S. WILL OPEN LAND BORDER WITH CANADA, MEXICO TO VACCINATED FOREIGN TRAVELERS IN EARLY NOVEMBER

DETROIT NEWS —  The United States will open its land borders with Canada and Mexico to fully vaccinated foreign travelers in early November, in conjunction with its planned change in rules for welcoming vaccinated international air travelers, federal officials said.

The policy change, expected to be announced Wednesday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will mean reopening the Michigan border with Canada for the first time since March 2020 to those people traveling to the U.S. for non-essential reasons, such as to see friends and family or as tourists.

The revised policy comes after months of pressure from lawmakers, local officials and separated families on both sides of the border left frustrated by the seemingly never-ending border closure. Canada reopened its border to vaccinated U.S. travelers over two months ago.

“Strong vaccination rates in Canada made the continued border shutdown absurd and unjustifiable,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat and co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, in welcoming the news.

“For months now we’ve heard from businesses that are suffering and families distraught over the separation imposed by the continued border shutdown. The sigh of relief coming from Northern Border communities following this announcement is so loud it can practically be heard on either end of the Peace Bridge.”

The change will take effect at a date to be determined in early November, at the same time the Biden administration begins allowing vaccinated foreign air travelers back into the country.

Unlike air travel, there will be no COVID-19 testing requirement for foreign nationals at the land ports of entry, where Customs and Border Protection agents will oversee enforcement of the vaccination requirement, a senior administration official said.

That will include seeking attestations of vaccination status and spot-checking travelers for verification of vaccination status, either by paper documentation or digital means.

A CBP officer will question non-essential travelers about their vaccination status and, based on the officer’s discretion, some travelers will be sent to a second officer to have their documents checked, the administration official said.

The exact paperwork or digital proof of vaccination that will be required is still being worked out in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is expected to issue guidance to that effect in the coming weeks, officials said.

The CDC let airlines know last week that all of the Food and Drug Administration- and World Health Organization-authorized and approved vaccines would be accepted to meet the vaccination requirement for air travel. The agency hasn’t weighed in on land-border travel yet, but federal officials anticipate that the same guidance will apply.

The CDC is also expected to weigh in on whether Canadians who received doses of two different vaccines will be considered fully vaccinated for the purposes of crossing the border.

“I’m pleased that President Biden has put forward a public plan that will safely reopen northern land ports of entry to vaccinated travelers,” said Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“There is no question travel restrictions at our Northern Border have caused significant disruptions and challenges for Michigan’s cross-border communities and binational families.”

In announcing the changes, senior Biden administration officials indicated a desire to have a consistent approach to land and air entry into the U.S.

They also stressed the growing number of vaccinated people — nearly 263 million across the U.S., Canada and Mexico — with vaccination coverage continuing to increase in all three countries.

Starting in January, the vaccine requirement will also apply to both essential and non-essential travelers entering the U.S., meaning truck drivers and others who currently may cross the border for business, trade and other essential purposes must also have proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

The administration officials noted that crossing the border illegally between ports of entry will still be subject to expulsion. Title 42 public health policy has been used to expel thousands of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum in the U.S.

A different policy applies to people who have a lawful right to enter the U.S. and will be passing quickly through the port of entry, officials noted.

The U.S. land border with Canada has been restricted to all but essential travel since March 2020 — restrictions renewed just last month through Oct. 21.

Administration officials said those restrictions will be extended again beyond Oct. 21 through whatever November date is set for the new air and land travel rules for vaccinated foreign travelers to take effect.

Beyond that date, the prohibitions will only apply to unvaccinated foreign travelers traveling to the United States for non-essential reasons.

For some months, Canada has been ahead of the U.S. in vaccinations, with 76% of its population fully vaccinated and 87% of those ages 12 and older. That’s compared with 66% of the U.S. population that’s fully vaccinated and 77% of those 12 and older, according to the CDC.


MICHIGAN COLLEGE COVID OUTBREAKS PLUMMET AS STUDENTS VACCINATE AND MASK UP

BRIDGE MI — Central Michigan University student Maddie Clark said she was hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccination last spring when she first became eligible.

Then this summer, she learned CMU was giving students a choice for the fall semester: get vaccinated, or get a cotton swab up your nose once a week for testing.

When the senior returned to the Mount Pleasant campus in August, she headed straight to Walgreens. “I got my first dose my first day I came back,” said Clark, of Ypsilanti. “Coming back to school, being around a bunch of people, I thought it was time.”

A year ago, CMU and many other Michigan colleges were scenes of large coronavirus outbreaks, leading to public health emergencies and campus-wide quarantines of tens of thousands of students. Michigan State University closed most of its dorm rooms for fall 2021 and virtually all classes at many colleges and universities were held online.

This year, outbreaks have dropped precipitously and college campuses in Michigan are often safer from COVID than their surrounding communities.  Some have strict vaccine mandates, including at the state’s two largest university campuses: Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. Others, like CMU, give students a jab-or-test choice.

Almost all have enacted — with little signs of protest — mask requirements inside campus buildings (other than dorm rooms) that have proven so controversial in the state’s K-12 schools.

State data shows the pandemic safety measures appear to be working.

A year ago, in the first week of October, months before the first vaccines were approved in the U.S., there were 4,902 new or ongoing cases of COVID-19 connected to outbreaks at Michigan colleges and universities. Now, there are just 445 — an 11-fold plummet.

With a mix of incentives and mandates, many Michigan colleges now have high vaccination rates. At U-M, where vaccinations are mandated this school year for students, faculty and staff, 96 percent of students have had their shots.

At MSU, 90 percent of students are vaccinated.

The uncontrolled spread of the virus also is down dramatically. The rate of students who test positive for COVID-19 is just above 1 percent at U-M and MSU, and half that at CMU. All are in counties in which the test positivity rate is five to 10 times higher than on campus.

Statewide, the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests over the past week is 11.2 percent.

Those data points are “a very good sign of what’s happening on campus,” said Linda Vail, Ingham County health officer, whose jurisdiction includes MSU. “We’re in a completely different place than we were a year ago.”

COVID rates up in K-12 schools

While infections among college students nosedived this fall, reported COVID cases in Michigan’s K-12 schools have skyrocketed compared to this time last year, though they still represent a tiny sliver of the state’s 1.4 million public school students.

There were 343 new or ongoing COVID cases tied to outbreaks in pre-K and K-12 schools 12 months ago. As of Monday, there were 3,021 cases tied to outbreaks, according to state health data.

Part of that almost nine-fold increase can be attributed to the fact that far more K-12 students are physically in classrooms this fall. In September of last year, 36 percent to 57 percent of students were in classrooms, compared to nearly all Michigan students in classrooms this fall.

Still, the contrast between the rising numbers in K-12 schools and the declines at universities brings into stark relief the differences in mitigation efforts.

Mask and vaccine requirements are inconsistent for children and adolescents, for a host of reasons.

Masks are mandated for about 60 percent of students in the state’s K-12 schools, with decisions made (and increasingly, reversed) at the local level; And as Bridge Michigan has reported, among the 40 percent of students in districts where masks are optional, few wear them.

In addition, elementary-age children are not yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations and, statewide, just 37 percent of youths aged 12-15 are fully vaccinated, a rate far below college-age students.

In areas of the state where young teens have higher vaccination rates, case rates have been lower, a Bridge Michigan analysis of state vaccine and case data shows.

Conversely, the three regions with the lowest vaccine rates among eligible youth — the Upper Peninsula, south-central Michigan and the Thumb and Lake Huron shoreline — have the highest youth case rates.

The south-central region of Jackson, Lenawee and Hillsdale counties has seen just over 25 percent of eligible 12-15 year olds get vaccinated so far, the lowest of the eight regions of the state.

Vax exemptions the college exception

MSU, U-M, Grand Valley State University and Oakland University have firm vaccination mandates for students, staff and faculty.

All four campuses offer exemptions for those who cite and qualify for health or religious objections to getting vaccinated. For example, at Grand Valley, while 83 percent of students are vaccinated, 10 percent have exemptions and the remainder (about 1-in-14 current students) are out of compliance and could eventually face some form of discipline.

At Oakland, 79 percent of students who take at least one class on campus are vaccinated, 9 percent have exemptions, and 12 percent are not yet compliant.

What discipline could look like for students, staff and faculty at MSU who decline to get vaccinated or request an exemption will likely vary, said spokesperson Emily Guerrant, but could end in termination for employers or expulsion for students.

“Earlier this week, we started some of the termination processes for just a handful (of employees),” Guerrant said. “For students, that process takes longer. If they indicate they are absolutely not going to get it, they will be referred to the dean of students.”

At MSU, about 4,200 students and employees out of a total of 68,000 applied for exemptions, with “a couple hundred” requests rejected, Guerrant said.

Alma College, a private liberal arts school, is among the institutions that offers students a choice of vaccination or regular testing. There, 77 percent of the school’s 1,400 students are vaccinated, while the rest get tested twice a week.

“We’ve tried to make the testing not be a punishment, we want this to be a student choice,” Alan Gatlin, Alma’s chief operating officer, told Bridge Michigan.

One reason Alma students get vaccinated, according to Gatlin, boils down to a difference in quarantine policies set by the Central Michigan District Health Department, which covers Isabella County where CMU is located. Students who’ve had close contact with someone who tests positive don’t have to quarantine if they’ve been vaccinated, while the unvaccinated do.

“That’s a big incentive,” Gatlin said.

“Our students have been great,” Gatlin said. “They all want a real college experience, and most feel like, in the times we’re in, this is a fair trade-off.”

The results of these pandemic trade-offs are a more normal school year, with far fewer infections and quarantines. At U-M, for example, there were 53 new confirmed cases in the most recent week of data, compared to 221 in the same week a year ago when vaccines were not yet available, according to the university’s COVID data web page.

Western Michigan University, where 73 percent of students are at least partially vaccinated, is averaging fewer than three new positive cases per day on a campus with 16,000 undergraduates.

CMU has more than doubled its share of students who are vaccinated since mid-August, from 33 percent to 73 percent.

One of the roughly 3,000 CMU students who have opted for routine testing rather than vaccination is Erika Cheney, a CMU sophomore from Jackson.

“I like being given the option rather than being forced to do something against my will,” said Cheney, after getting her weekly test Monday.

“I am not anti-vax, I don’t want people to get the wrong impression. I just feel there should be more study on the vaccine, and so I’m more comfortable with just getting tested.”


MICHIGAN REPORTS 9,137 NEW COVID-19 CASES, 36 DEATHS OVER 3 DAYS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — The Michigan health department reported 9,137 new COVID-19 cases and 36 deaths over the last three days, averaging 3045.7 cases a day.

Of the 36 deaths,18 were identified during a vital records review, which the department conducts three times a week.

Michigan now has a total of 1,064,557 confirmed cases and 21,349 deaths since last March.

Michigan had a positivity rate of 12.18% Sunday, reporting that 3,451 of 28,333 diagnostic test results were positive.

The state has a fatality rate of 2% among known cases, according to data from the state health department.

Michigan reports 134,293 probable COVID-19 cases and 1,389 probable deaths. The probable cases combined with confirmed cases make up a total of 1,198,850 cases and 22,738 deaths.

The state also reported a total of 945,175 recovered cases on Friday. Recovered cases are defined by the state as the number of people with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis who are alive 30 days post-onset.


MICHIGAN CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING DRAFTS ARE DONE. FEW INCUMBENTS ARE SAFE

BRIDGE MI — Michigan’s redistricting panel agreed on Monday on four congressional maps that will be brought to the second round of public hearings scheduled to start next week.

Bridge Michigan analyzed the drafts and concluded that, combined with the loss of one seat in Congress because of stagnant population, Michigan’s congressional districts likely will become far more competitive regardless of which map is adopted.

Republicans and Democrats now have a 7-7 split, but most current districts are safe seats for both parties, resulting in few competitive races. The new drafts have several districts in which 8,000 or fewer votes separated Democrats and Republicans out of about 775,000 voters.

And perhaps most notably to voters: Few incumbents are safe, as at least eight representatives are now placed in districts with at least one other member.

In some maps, U.S. Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield, are in the same district, as are Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly; and John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

And one draft district centered in Macomb County would have no incumbent whatsoever.

Representatives don’t have to live in districts they represent, but the disregard for incumbency — which had been a hallmark of gerrymandered maps — shows how radically redistricting has changed in Michigan.

Voters approved the 13-member Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission in 2018 after decades in which the party in power in Lansing redrew districts largely in private after the decennial census.

That resulted in districts that a federal judge panel concluded made it easier for Republicans to maintain power, even in years they received fewer votes total than Democrats in Michigan.

The maps approved Monday are the result of two months of drawing, balancing both “communities of interests” — like-minded groups of individuals including minorities — with partisan fairness and federal law.

Detroit, for instance, would keep two congressional districts, even though its population has dropped to 637,000.

While Michigan now has two districts with a majority of Black voters, that would drop to one with all maps, and be centered in Detroit. Other drafts preserve another district composed of a majority of minority voters, including Hispanics and other races.

The maps will likely change before a final vote on Dec. 31. The commission is allowing the public to weigh in on the drafts during public hearings in), Detroit (Oct. 20), Lansing (Oct. 21), Grand Rapids (Oct. 22), Gaylord (Oct. 25), and Flint (Oct. 26).

The commission has decided to rename the maps using native Michigan trees for the sake of clarity. Bridge Michigan will refer to them as such.


LAKE SUPERIOR LIGHTHOUSE TO ALLOW VISITORS AGAIN FOR EDMUND FITZGERALD MEMORIAL

DETROIT FREE PRESS — A Lake Superior lighthouse plans to welcome visitors back for an annual memorial honoring the sailors who died when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank.

Every Nov. 10, the day the ship sank in a gale in 1975, the Split Rock Lighthouse just south of Beaver Bay holds a beacon lighting. Lighthouse officials announce the names of all 29 sailors who died as a bell tolls, Minnesota Public Radio reported Sunday.

The lighthouse didn’t allow visitors to attend last year’s ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns. People had to listen through an online livestream.

Lighthouse officials say this year’s ceremony will be a hybrid, with the lighthouse grounds open to the public and a livestream on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Facebook and YouTube pages for those who can’t attend. The ceremony will begin at 4:30 p.m.

“There’s something about being here on-site and hearing the bell ring, and the names being read off and then seeing the beacon turned on right after that. There’s just something very special about that,” said Hayes Scriven, the lighthouse site manager. “It’s just a way to connect with the past and remember that Lake Superior is a fickle animal and you’ve got to respect the power, and not take it for granted.”


INTERFAITH COMMUNITY LEADERS REACH OUT TO MOSQUE AFTER VANDALISM

THE OAKLAND PRESS — Interfaith communities across southeast Michigan expressed their sympathies following vandalism to a Rochester Hills mosque.

A window in the front doors of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s Mosque, located at 1730 West Auburn Road in Rochester Hills, was shattered after evening prayers around 9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8.

Muhammad Ahmad, director of outreach at Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Michigan, said broken glass was found inside and outside the mosque.

The Oakland County Sheriff’s department is investigating. Deputies said surveillance video showed a male near the mosque around the time of the incident. A similar incident occurred that same evening at a nearby Walgreen’s. It is unknown whether the incidents are related.

“Our community is a very peaceful community,” Ahmad said Monday. “We have a relationship with all of our interfaith leaders, as well as our community leaders. We have not seen an incident like this in the past 20 years, since we’ve been here in this community.”

Ahmad said the evening prayer was the last of five that day. His 8-year-old son was among children and adults present when the window was broken. When the night concluded, everyone left through a side door.

It wasn’t until members showed up around 5:15 a.m. Saturday that the damage was realized.

“It’s kind of a bit rattling that we were still there when the incident happened,” he said.

On Monday, Oct. 11, the mosque’s members extended an open invitation for the suspect to meet with the community and its members. Ahmad said the group wants to talk, and that doors remain always open for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

“We believe in forgiveness,” he said. “We don’t want revenge or to harbor any negative feelings.”

Bryan Barnett, mayor of Rochester Hills, said the incident seemed isolated.

“We have a great relationship with the folks there and want to make sure they feel safe and secure and are an important part of our community,” he said.

Messages of resilience

Messages of support have poured in from neighboring communities.

Lynne Muth, Faith in Justice chair of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, said she read the news with sadness.

“You and your leadership and members work hard to build bridges in southeast Michigan,” Muth wrote to Ahmad. “I want to share my sadness and prayers of hope that love and goodness will conquer hate. May you feel the love and hope from others at this time.”

Patty Rehfus, board president of the Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy, said she was grateful nobody was injured and that her congregation stands in solidarity.

Carol Cooper, of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, said she is praying that the Muslim community will not live in fear and that they feel the prayers and support.

“I hope that whoever did this will not be able to rest until they come forward and confess and that the police may find clues so that justice can be served,” Cooper said.


AG NESSEL JOINS COALITION FILING COMPLAINT AGAINST USPS TO DEMAND REVIEW OF PLAN TO TRANSFORM POSTAL SERVICE

MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE — Attorney General Dana Nessel joined a coalition of 20 Attorneys General, led by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and New York Attorney General Letitia James, in submitting a formal complaint asking the Postal Regulatory Commission to order the U.S. Postal Service to request an advisory opinion on Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s ten-year plan to transform the Postal Service.

“We continue to watch Postmaster General DeJoy make reckless changes to the postal service that only further delay and disrupt operations,” Nessel said. “The Postal Regulatory Commission must reject these efforts by supporting additional scrutiny of the ten-year plan and a proper evaluation of its potential impact to the U.S. Postal Service.”

The attorneys general submitted the complaint and its relevant exhibits to the Postal Regulatory Commission, an independent federal agency that provides transparency and accountability to the Postal Service. The complaint asserts that Postmaster General DeJoy adopted a ten-year plan that will make significant changes to postal services without first obtaining an advisory opinion from the Commission. Federal law requires the Postal Service to go to the Commission whenever it makes a change to postal services that will affect the entire country. The group writes:

“The Plan will transform virtually every aspect of the Postal Service… rework how the Postal Service transports mail and other products; overhaul its processing and logistics network; enact slower service standards for First-Class Mail and Periodicals and First-Class Packages Services; reconfigure the location of places where customers can obtain postal products and services; and adjust rates… To date, the Postal Service has only submitted two requests for an advisory opinion to the Commission on important but  narrow changes that represent only a small portion of the Plan’s scope.”

Congress empowered the Commission to provide expert advice and oversight to the Postal Service-oversight that is sorely needed after Postmaster General DeJoy implemented operational changes in summer 2020 that caused nationwide mail delays. The group explains that avoiding review by the Commission will harm the States and the public and could lead to future problems with mail delivery:

“The Plan reflects multiple unprecedented changes in the Postal Service’s operations and service, at a time when reliance on the mail remains at historic levels, and states across the country are grappling with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant. Implementing the full breadth of these changes without adhering to the process set forth in section 3661(b) deprives users of the mail of their statutory rights, and undermines public accountability. In addition, failing to seek the Commission’s expert review on such a transformational change upsets the statutory balance established by the [Postal Regulatory Act], deprives the Postal Service of the Commission’s expert recommendations, risks significant errors in the Postal Service’s decision-making, and ultimately harms all who rely on the Postal Service for timely and efficient mail.”

The complaint requests that the Commission order the Postal Service to request a review of the full extent of the ten-year plan, affording the States and the public an opportunity to provide comment.

Joining Nessel in this complaint are the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, and Washington.

Earlier this year, Nessel joined a coalition of 21 attorneys general and two cities in calling on the Postal Regulatory Commission to oppose efforts to increase delivery times for First-Class Mail and other essential postal services.


WHITMER VETOES BILL TO EASE RESTRICTIONS ON FEEDING BIRDS

DETROIT NEWS — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed a bill that would have protected people from possible legal action if they fed birds in areas where deer and elk roam.

Whitmer said the bill conflicted with state efforts to keep the animals from congregating and spreading disease.

“Mary Poppins would be disappointed,” said the sponsor, Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, referring to the magical nanny in book and film who sings lovingly about feeding birds.

Feeding birds is not illegal in Michigan. But it’s illegal to put out food that can lure or attract deer. The Department of Natural Resources recommends people in rural areas use tube feeders or suet cages at least six feet off the ground, perhaps surrounded by a wire fence.

Borton’s bill would have explicitly allowed people to place or spread feed within 300 feet of their house. There would have been a cap on the amount of feed.

But Whitmer said Thursday that House Bill 4088 “would cast aside sound disease management principles” and threaten agriculture and hunting.

The DNR and the Michigan Farm Bureau opposed the bill in April.

“Unfortunately, overly broad government rules punish individuals who simply place food in their yards, even to keep animals from starving,” Borton said in response to the veto.

More than a decade before becoming a lawmaker, Borton was accused of not doing enough to keep deer from his feeders in Otsego County. He said the case was dismissed.


MCDONALD’S OFFERS TEACHERS, SCHOOL STAFF FREE BREAKFAST EVERY DAY NEXT WEEK

MLIVE — McDonald’s restaurants will give teachers, administrators and school staff a free breakfast every day next week.

The “Thank You Meal” will be served in a Happy Meal box and is free with a valid work ID.

“Together with our owner/operators, we’re proud to serve the people who make our communities a better place, and this is an important time to say thank you to some of our everyday heroes,” said Joe Erlinger, president, McDonald’s USA.

“We were honored to give away 12 million free Thank You Meals to first responders and healthcare workers last year and now, with educators going above and beyond, we’re excited to recognize them in a way only McDonald’s can.”

During breakfast hours Oct. 11-15, educators can get a meal that includes an Egg McMuffin, a Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit or a Sausage Biscuit, a hash brown and a medium hot or iced coffee or a medium soft drink.


375 KIDS UNDER 12 ARE CATCHING COVID-19 DAILY IN MICHIGAN, AND IT’S SHUTTING DOWN SCHOOLS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Each day in the last week, more than 375 children younger than 12 were infected with the coronavirus in Michigan, a new state analysis shows.

Coronavirus cases in K-12 schools accounted for 56% of all known new outbreaks statewide last week — more than in every other setting combined, according to state health department data.

In all, new and ongoing outbreaks and clusters affected at least 104 schools, causing children to lose instruction time because of illness or quarantine. Each outbreak was estimated to affect as many as 87 students and school staff members.

With coronavirus case rates highest among school-age children in Michigan, an informal survey of local health departments showed that as of Oct. 1, coronavirus outbreaks caused:

  • 3 districts to close entirely;
  • 12 schools to close and one in-school preschool to close;
  • 5 grades to shut down;
  • 34 classrooms to close.

Among the school districts affected was Evart Public Schools in Osceola County. COVID-19 outbreaks closed Evart High School and Middle School from Sept. 22-Oct. 4, along with Evart Elementary School from Sept. 23-Oct. 4.

“We are doing everything possible to keep our students safe, healthy and face to face,” wrote Superintendent Shirley Howard in a letter to parents, explaining that learning would be virtual in that time. “We believe that closing school now will help to break the cycle of our high absenteeism due to positive Covid cases as well as the quarantining of close contacts.” When students returned to schools on Monday, she urged them to come wearing masks.

“We strongly recommend that they wear a mask,” she wrote. “This is not a requirement to return to school. Wearing a mask prevents your child from having to quarantine if they are identified as a close contact to someone who has tested positive for COVID. If your child is not feeling well on Monday, please do not send him/her back to school. I cannot believe how quickly this virus spreads.”

Masks reduced transmission 

The state’s analysis of COVID-19 outbreaks in K-12 schools showed the rise in cases was steeper in the first few weeks of the school year in districts without consistent mask requirements.

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department recommend wearing masks indoors in places where coronavirus transmission is high or substantial, there is no requirement that masks must be worn inside K-12 schools in Michigan.

Masks were required in schools last year, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has repeatedly said this year it should be a local decision to be made at the school district or county health department level.

As of Monday, 222 school districts statewide had mask rules in place — either instituted by their local school boards or county health departments, the report showed. The mandates cover about 748,000 children.

But the share of children who are not covered by mask mandates is growing in Michigan. Now, more than half a million students in 311 school districts statewide have no mask requirements.

Thirty-five Michigan school districts recently dropped their mask rules, coinciding with the approval of a new statewide budget that included language that threatened to strip state funding from local health departments that imposed school mask mandates under the public health code.

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the nearly $70 billion budget last week, she said the budget language, along with provisions banning vaccine passports and mandates, were unconstitutional and unenforceable.

But some local health department leaders were concerned that the budget language would trigger lawsuits over school mask mandates and quarantine rules, pushing them to drop their requirements.

Among them were the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department in the Upper Peninsula, the Allegan County Health Department in western Michigan and the Barry-Eaton District Health Department.

“The decision to rescind the K-6 Mask Requirement was not made lightly and has challenged us ethically, professionally, and personally,” said Allegan County Health Officer Angelique Joynes in a statement issued last week. “However, we cannot risk our essential local public health services funding, which is around $1 million of our total budget and provides the ability for us to continue to offer those services.” Last month, the Michigan Association for Local Public Health called on Whitmer and Elizabeth Hertel, the director of the state health department, to issue a statewide school mask mandate.

“Masking works,” said Norm Hess, executive director of the association. “There are now going to be kids that were protected that won’t be, and I don’t see how at this point we’re going to avoid a rise in cases.”

Cases continue to climb statewide

The state has seen three months of increases in cases and hospitalizations from the virus.

On Wednesday, the seven-day average of new daily cases reached 3,491, its highest point since early May, as Michigan was coming down from its spring surge. Michigan’s seven-day case rate was 288.8 per 100,000 people Thursday, according to the CDC — 15th highest nationally.

Every county in the state had a high rate of coronavirus transmission Thursday by the CDC’s standard, except for one — Ontongagon. That Upper Peninsula county had a substantial transmission rate.

Although the virus generally doesn’t cause severe illness in most children, state health officials have reported a growing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations among kids. On Wednesday, 34 children were hospitalized with the virus, more than double the number of pediatric hospitalizations one month earlier, when there were 16.

COVID-19 also can cause long-term, sometimes debilitating symptoms in some children and adults and also can rarely cause multi-system inflammatory syndrome, which can be life-threatening.

Only the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in kids ages 12 and older under an emergency use authorization. The company asked federal regulators on Thursday to allow the vaccine to be given to 5-11-year-olds as well.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to consider the request later this month, which could mean shots for younger children could be available later this fall.

But in the meantime, younger children aren’t eligible for coronavirus vaccines. And the vaccination rate among school-age children who are eligible is lagging in the state.

About 40% of 12-19-year-olds in Michigan are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, state data show. That compares with an overall statewide average of 52.7%, according to the CDC.


WMU LOSES APPEAL OVER ATHLETES AND VIRUS VACCINE REQUIREMENT

DETROIT NEWS — A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled in favor of athletes at Western Michigan University who sued to be allowed to play sports without getting a COVID-19 vaccination.

The court declined to stop a decision by a federal judge who said the WMU vaccine requirement likely violates the athletes’ constitutional right to follow their Christian religion.

The athletes, who now number at least 16 and are mostly women, sought a vaccine exemption on religious grounds but were ignored or denied, the appeals court said.

“We do not doubt (WMU’s) good faith, nor do we fail to appreciate the burdens COVID-19 has placed on this nation’s universities. … But having announced a system under which student-athletes can seek individualized exemptions, the university must explain why it chose not to grant any to plaintiffs. And it did not fairly do so here,” the court said in a 3-0 opinion.

The court said the athletes are likely to prevail on their constitutional argument if WMU pursues a full-fledged appeal.

WMU argued that its vaccination policy is neutral toward religion. The school said athletes who seek a religious exemption are barred from competing but still are members of a team and can keep their scholarship.

“Yet playing on the team – and not just receiving a scholarship – is their goal, a point the university itself recognized,” the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

In their lawsuit, the athletes, who play soccer, basketball and four other sports, say they are “devoted Christian people” who believe that the Bible and their faith preclude them from getting a COVID-19 shot.

WMU athletes who aren’t vaccinated still can be required to wear a mask at practice or be regularly tested, under a September order from U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney.

Outside the athletic department, COVID-19 vaccinations are encouraged but not required for WMU students and staff. They, too, must be regularly tested if they decline to get a shot.


MICH. GOP LAWMAKERS PASS BILL TO PROVIDE FREE STATE IDS AS PART OF STRICT VOTER ID PUSH

DETROIT FREE PRESS — GOP lawmakers in Michigan’s Senate passed a bill Thursday that would eliminate the fee to obtain a state ID card as part of a broader effort to enact a strict voter ID requirement opposed by Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers spent the morning sparring on the floor. Democrats accused their GOP colleagues of pursuing changes in response to disinformation about 2020 presidential election.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, vehemently denied the characterization, pointing to his own comprehensive report that confirmed the legitimacy of the outcome of Michigan’s 2020 presidential. He criticized Democrats for their opposition to what he sees as needed changes to ensure election integrity.

Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, said that Republicans’ agenda isn’t aimed at improving elections but at making it harder to vote.

“This is a bunch of malarkey,” she said.

In taking up the bill to provide free state IDs — HB 5007 — Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment that would have separated it from SB 303, a sweeping election bill passed by the Senate on Wednesday. That bill would enact a strict ID requirement for in-person voters and a brand new one for absentee voters, as well as prohibit election officials from sending unsolicited absentee ballot applications and accepting private donations. Republicans also rejected a Democratic amendment to appropriate funding for the bill to provide free IDs that passed on a party-line vote, with every Republican backing the measure. It now heads to the House.

Those applying for a state ID card must currently pay a $10 fee. That fee is waived for some residents, including seniors, legally blind people, veterans, those experiencing homelessness and recipients of state aid.

In addition to eliminating the ID fee, HB 5007 would require the Secretary of State’s Office to provide same-day service for those applying for a state ID card for the purpose of voting in an election, as well as those applying for an ID three days before Election Day, on Election Day or six days after an election.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson blasted the bill while stating her support for free IDs. “To be clear, calling something a Free ID (which I’m all for) and then not allocating funding to enable the state to provide a Free ID (which we’d love to be able to do) is some of the most dishonest, cynical, fiscally irresponsible and just plain poor policymaking I’ve seen,” Benson wrote in a tweet. The legislation was passed as part of the sweeping GOP bill that would eliminate the option for voters who don’t have a photo ID to sign an affidavit affirming their identity at their polling location and vote normally. It would also add a brand new ID requirement for those applying for an absentee ballot.

Voters who don’t comply with the new ID requirements would be issued a provisional ballot that wouldn’t count unless a voter confirmed their identity at their local clerk’s office within six days of an election.

Senate Republicans voted on a second election bill — SB 304 — Thursday that is tie-barred to their strict voter ID bill. SB 304 passed on a party-line vote with all GOP senators backing the measure. It now heads back to the House for another vote.

The bill lays out the requirements voters issued provisional ballots must meet in order for their ballot to count. Voters would have to present a photo ID along with a document verifying their address such a utility bill or bank statement. For voters who do not provide an ID, they would have to provide a copy of their birth certificate or Social Security card along with a document verifying their name and address.


CORONAVIRUS TRACKER | SEVEN-DAY AVERAGE JUMPS TO 3,491, HOSPITALIZATIONS INCREASE AGAIN

BRIDGE MI — Hospitalizations for confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases jumped to 1,903 on Wednesday from 1,825 on Monday, while cases increased to  7,674, or 3,837 a per.

That pushed the seven-day average to 3,491 from 3,362 on Monday.

Statewide, 13 counties in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula reported rates that exceed 60 cases per day per 100,000. The state rate is 35 cases per day per 100,000.

Cases are increasing among young people, with those 20 and younger accounting for 27 percent of total cases or 2,646 cases. That’s far more than the 17 percent of all cases they represent since the pandemic began.

The state also reported 92 additional COVID-19 deaths, of which 43 occurred in September and 53 in October. Following a post-mortem review of health and death records, the state reported 47 deaths not previously reported.

Those reviews also led to the removal of six deaths previously considered COVID-19 deaths.

Testing data showed the percent of coronavirus tests coming back positive is rising after having stayed steady for over a month. Of nearly 65,600 tests reported, 11.8 percent were positive.

For the past week, the rate has been 10.6 percent, up from 9.3 percent the previous week.

Fourteen counties now have a weekly positive rate above 20 percent, up from seven counties a week ago.


EDUCATION LEVELS DRIVE MICHIGAN VACCINES. WHAT’S RATE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?

BRIDGE MI — In July, volunteer advocates of the COVID-19 vaccine fanned out across Battle Creek, spending six weeks trying to persuade 1,900 unvaccinated residents to get the shot.

They got 16 takers.

Across the state near Saginaw Bay, after months of outreach, from a local raffle to door-knocking, hostility from residents caused Bay County to discontinue efforts to encourage vaccines in some rural areas. To go door-to-door and deal with some of the invective and abuse, it’s not worth it,” said Joel Strasz, health officer for the Bay County Health Department.

Vaccinations in Michigan and much of the nation have waned significantly since spring, despite carrot-and-stick approaches from state and federal officials, including Michigan’s $5 million vaccine lottery and President Joe Biden’s mandate for companies with 100 or more employees.

In the past month, 137,000 Michigan residents have gotten fully vaccinated, compared to 1.6 million in May. That’s stalled the state’s inoculation rate at 52 percent of those 16 and older, compared to 56 percent nationwide.

If there were a magic bullet, a single marketing pitch that would turn doubters into believers, health officials said they haven’t found it yet. Instead, what they’ve found is there are factors that can predict success but are hard to overcome: education, age and affluence.

“The secret is there is no secret.  Sorry, it’s all demographics,” Strasz said.

Simply put: Older and educated residents have lined up for the vaccines, which have been determined to be extremely effective in the fight against COVID-19.

A Bridge Michigan analysis of vaccine rates in the state’s nearly 3,000  census tracts shows a strong correlation between education levels and vaccination rates.

It’s a trend that holds true throughout the state, from predominantly white parts of the Thumb to predominantly Black areas of cities including Detroit, Flint and Muskegon.

Despite well-known political differences, areas of rural and urban poverty generally have far lower vaccination rates than more affluent, educated areas, regardless of their political leadings.

Take Bay County and Calhoun County, home to Bay City and Battle Creek.

In Bay County, Frankenlust Township has the county’s highest vaccination rate, with 69 percent of those 16 and older fully vaccinated. It’s also the most-educated part of the county too, with nearly 40 percent of adults having college degrees.

Just east of the township, in two census tracts of Bay City along the Saginaw River, fewer than 10 percent of adults have a college degree — and fewer than 45 percent are fully vaccinated.

Much has been made of the political divide on vaccinations, with Republicans telling pollsters they are far less likely to get vaccine than Democrats.

But the Bridge analysis suggests that education is also a strong driver of vaccines.

Frankenlust Township backed former President Donald Trump, while Bay City backed Democratic President Joe Biden.

The same pattern holds in Calhoun County: southwest Battle Creek has both the highest vaccination rate (79 percent) and the greatest percentage of college grads (36 percent) even though it backed Trump.

Areas of the central city have the lowest vaccination rates, some below 40 percent, and the fewest college grads. The neighborhoods went big for Biden.

Overall, 30 percent of Michigan adults have college degrees, ranking 34th among states in education and 27th in vaccination rate.

Nationally, the 10 states with the highest vaccination rates all have above-average rates of college grads, and most are the top 10.

The trends hold true in Michigan:

  • In Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Shores, where Trump bested Biden, over 60 percent have college degrees and over 90 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated.
  • In most of nearby Detroit, where Biden won over 90 percent of the vote, less than half of residents are vaccinated. In many areas , the rate is less than a third, especially in neighborhoods where fewer than 10 percent of adults have a college degree.
  • In the Thumb, a farming area with lower education rates, fewer than half of residents in many communities are vaccinated.
  • In Grand Traverse County, where Traverse City backed Biden but much of the rest of the county backed Trump, the highest vaccination rates are in the areas with more college grads.

‘Fear and misinformation’

Every week, even as new COVID-19 cases rise in Michigan and millions remain unvaccinated, the number of people choosing to get the shots is dwindling.

Months after huge drive-through clinics have been staged at stadiums, pharmacies are offering the vaccines and some providers have taken the vaccines to individual doorsteps.

But the push to get the last holdouts has been grueling.

In Battle Creek, vaccine ambassadors spent six weeks talking with 1,900 people who had not been vaccinated, said Angela Stewart, community initiatives officer for the Battle Creek Community Foundation.

A recent family health night at a local elementary school, promoted over two days, led to five new vaccinations, she said.

Bay County and Battle Creek officials said that, despite local, state and national campaigns, many remain fearful of the vaccine or believe bad information they’ve heard on social media or from friends.

“There still is that fear and misinformation,” Stewart said.

“Economically, it makes no sense at all not to get vaccinated,” he said. “They’re willing to gamble with it and that’s distressing.”

But there are still many demographics that have set aside fear.

Over 72 percent of those 65 and older — by far the most likely to die if they contract COVID-19 — are fully vaccinated in Michigan, state records show.

‘Stay focused’

In Albion in southwestern Michigan, Rod Auton, administrator of the nonprofit Albion Health Care Alliance, said his team of 17 ambassadors is still going door-to-door, trying to make the sale.

It is slow going; a recent event generated fewer than 10 vaccinations, he said.

In Albion, between 32 percent and 48 percent of people are vaccinated, according to census tract data. All areas have a lower percentage of college grads. In 2020, the city supported Biden.

“We know we just have to stay focused and provide good information,” Auton said.

But aware that many of the hesitant are more likely to listen to family and friends or their employers than local health officials, they’ve come up with postcards with two local doctors — one white and one Black — pointing out the value of the vaccines.

They’re sending them across Albion and into neighboring townships, with the postcard of the Black doctor targeted to African-American communities and the white doctor to white communities.

The alliance is hoping the postcards will work, Auton said. But like Strasz, he’s looking for that perfect argument, that key piece of information that will unlock hesitancy. So far, he hasn’t found it.

“We’re still trying to figure out that magic,” Auton said.


VOLUNTEERS NEEDED TO CLEAN UP VETERANS GRAVES IN ROYAL OAK

THE OAKLAND PRESS — The Royal Oak Memorial Society is looking for volunteers as it gets ready to clean more than 2,000 military veteran gravesites next week.

Carol Hennessey, president of the memorial society, said the graves will be cleaned starting at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16 at Oakview Cemetery.

“Everyone is welcome to help us,” she said. “We encourage Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, sports teams, or anyone that wants to lend a hand.”

Volunteers need to bring rakes, clippers, gloves, rags and water to Oakview Cemetery. Tools to clean around headstones are also helpful, such as weed whackers, and brooms or rags to clean off the headstones after removing the grass.

The cemetery is on Rochester Road, just south of 12 Mile Road, on the east side.

Though the Royal Oak Memorial Society started more than a century ago, Hennessey started the gravesite cleaning effort several years after she joined in 1997.

“We were placing flags on the gravesites and I stepped in a hole and twisted my foot,” she said. “There was a grave marker there covered by grass and I didn’t even see it. That’s when I thought we had to start cleaning the veterans gravesites so we could find them.” Things have changed since then.

There were only about 500 veterans buried at Oakview Cemetery when Hennessey first joined the memorial society. She estimates there are now at least 2,400 such sites at the cemetery.

“We are getting more and more veterans who are dying,” Hennessey said.

As time passes, many of the relatives of the veterans buried at Oakview have died, so there is no one tending a great number of the gravesites. There were about five or six people who volunteered when the annual cleanup project began. Now, from 50 to 60 people turn out to volunteer.

The Royal Oak Memorial Society in the spring also does a gravesite cleanup and places small U.S. flags on each one before Memorial Day.

Garbage bags are provided by the memorial society and the cleanup typically lasts for about two hours.

Volunteers foregather just inside the cemetery near the pond. If it rains Saturday, Oct.16, the cleanup will be rescheduled for the following Saturday, Oct. 23.


400 WORKERS OUT, 1,900 EXEMPT AFTER HENRY FORD COVID VACCINE MANDATE

BRIDGE MI — About 400 staff have walked off the job at Henry Ford Health System rather than receive a required COVID vaccine, the Detroit-based hospital system said Tuesday.

Another 1,900 workers, however, received exemptions from the health system’s vaccine requirement.

The workers leaving comprised about 1 percent of the workforce of 33,000 people, said Bob Riney, chief operating officer for the five-hospital chain.

“All things considered, we’re losing a very small segment of our workforce. I quite frankly wish that was zero, but it’s not,” Riney said at an afternoon news conference. “But it’s a very small percentage, and our new-hire process is already offsetting the folks who declined to be vaccinated and resigned.”

Roughly 6 percent of the remaining workforce of 33,000 employees were granted religious or medical exemptions, he said. About 1,900 requests for exemptions have been granted.

Nearly all the exemptions were granted for religious reasons with just a handful for medical reasons, according to Dr. Adnan Munkarah, Henry Ford’s executive vice president and chief clinical officer. About 250 requests for religious exemptions were denied, he said.

Riney said there were a few other workers whose vaccine-related issues remained unresolved as of Tuesday.

“At this moment, we’re still working through some cases and talking to some remaining noncompliant employees about their intentions,” he said.

Henry Ford, which this summer became the first Michigan health system to require employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment, released the data following a deadline it had set for last Friday for workers to get at least a first vaccine dose.

It is among more than a half-dozen large Michigan health systems to impose a vaccine mandate. The numbers Tuesday underscore yet another COVID-19 dilemma for health care providers who, while wishing to boost vaccine requirements among staff, face the possibility of losing workers who refuse vaccines as COVID hospitalizations continue to increase and hospitals are dangerously short-staffed.

On Sept. 9, President Joe Biden announced a sweeping mandate that would require health care workers at nearly every hospital and health system in the country get vaccinated, or receive weekly COVID tests.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now drafting detailed rules implementing the orders. But when they will be posted and enforced is still unknown.

In the meantime, a survey of a dozen Michigan hospital systems finds wide differences in worker vaccine rates, deadlines for vaccination, and in rules dictating who qualifies for an exemption.

At least three health systems — Trinity, Spectrum, and Munson — allow exemptions for employees with previous, documented coronavirus infections, with the rationale that previous infections provide some natural immunity from COVID-19. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people receive vaccinations even if previously infected.)

Munson Healthcare, Henry Ford and Spectrum also provide exemptions for pregnant employees.

Some, like Henry Ford, where staff had until midnight Friday to be vaccinated or get an exemption, say the vast majority of workers are now vaccinated —  a level of protection they say benefits every patient who comes through their doors.

Staff vaccination rates are, perhaps unsurprisingly, far lower in hospitals that haven’t yet required staff to get vaccinated.

As many as 3 in 10 workers — clinicians peering into mouths and noses and staff making meals or cleaning rooms — in some health systems remain unvaccinated against COVID.

Notably, in the Detroit region first ravaged by the pandemic, Detroit Medical Center and McLaren Health Care declined to impose a vaccine mandate before the federal announcement. As of Friday, 70 percent of DMC’s and McLaren’s staff were vaccinated — among the lowest of hospitals surveyed by Bridge Michigan, the Detroit Free Press and Michigan Radio for this report.

“(W)e are working diligently every day to increase that rate and strongly encourage all of our employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19,” DMC spokesperson Jason Barczy said. “We don’t have any comment on the proposed (Biden) vaccine mandate.”

James Curtis, a spokesperson for McLaren, based in Grand Blanc in Genesee County, said it “intends to support and follow the recently announced federal vaccine policy guidelines and looks forward to receiving more information concerning these guidelines — including … mandatory weekly testing required for those exempted for religious and medical reasons.”

Lansing-based Sparrow Health System has a 72-percent vaccination rate, although it recently announced it will require weekly COVID testing for all of its 7,600 “caregivers” who are not fully vaccinated by Oct.18.

It’s a decision that “provides a path forward for patient and caregiver safety … while also showing compassion for those who do not wish, or are unable, to get the vaccine,” spokesperson John Foren said.

The UP Health System — with hospitals in Marquette, Ishpeming and Hancock — also has no coronavirus vaccine requirement in place for workers.

Janell Larson, spokesperson, did not say how many employees have been vaccinated, but wrote in an email that “UP Health System is aware of President Biden’s announcement about new federal COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Right now, we are working to understand the details of this development and the impact it will have for employees and providers at our facility.”

Many hospital systems that set early mandates achieved far higher vaccination rates, although it’s unclear in some cases whether the rates they released on vaccinated workers also include workers granted vaccine exemptions.

Livonia-based Trinity Health, which announced its mandate on July 8, reports that 94 percent of its staff “have documented their vaccination,” though its spokesman Bobby Maldonado declined to define whether that meant those workers are fully vaccinated or if it also included those with vaccine exemptions.

Others that announced mandates in July also said they had rates of 80 percent or higher, although they too would not say how many exemptions have been granted: Beaumont Health in Southfield (86 percent), Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids (96 percent), and Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor (90 percent).

Several hospital representatives said some exemptions and documentation are still being reviewed, and numbers aren’t yet final.

Kalamazoo-based Bronson Healthcare, which announced its policy less than a month ago, said 77 percent of its 8,400 workers have been fully vaccinated, and hundreds more employees have received a first dose. And Traverse City-based Munson announced a mandate Sept. 22; it’s vaccination rate stands at 72 percent.

When is a vaccine mandate an ‘undue hardship?’

Employees hoping to avoid a vaccination face an uphill battle in staying employed in health care, but experts on both sides of the debate say there are things that work in an employee’s favor.

Guidance by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission instructs employers that they must assume an employee’s stated religious belief is sincerely held — whatever the employer’s theological or scientific arguments.

“It’s irrelevant what they think … What is only relevant is what you believe and your belief and sincerely held belief,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Florida-based Liberty Center, a Christian advocacy organization that works with employees to obtain religious exemptions.

Still, employees can avoid extending a religious exemption from vaccines if doing so would cause an “undue hardship” on the employer, said Michael Burns, executive vice president of the Troy-based American Society of Employers, which consults with businesses on human resources issues.

Especially in health care, employers are “on very strong footing” in requiring vaccines since unvaccinated staff may pass infections onto patients and others, he said.

Hospitals and other employees must try to work with staff requesting a religious exemption and — if possible, find reasonable accommodations before issuing an ultimate order to dismiss or fire them. Those could include, for example, routine testing from unvaccinated workers, Burns said.

It’s about “risk management,” he said.

“Risk management in my mind is not rolling the dice” to see if you’ll get sued by a fired employee, he said. “It’s making sure all the proper processes are in place to make that final decision.”

What qualifies as a religious exemption is murky.

Employers generally have to take an employee at their word that they have a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.”

But there’s “no bright line standard” for what those are, said Brian Calley, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

The few small businesses applying a vaccine mandate “are simply not advertising the exemptions. If an employee claims an exemption or asks for one, the employer asks them to sign a form indicating that they qualify for the exemption,” he said.

Riney, the Henry Ford COO, declined to detail what qualified workers for religious exemptions, saying only that its team examined a person’s religious affiliation and “the history of that religious affiliation relative to vaccines” to decide.

The American Civil Liberties Union, known for its work protecting the rights of those in the minority, has backed vaccine mandates, reasoning in part, that they help “further” civil liberties.

“They protect the most vulnerable among us, including people with disabilities and fragile immune systems, children too young to be vaccinated, and communities of color hit hard by the disease,” according to its position on mandates first published in the New York Times Sept. 2.

Obtaining a medical exemption can be tricky as well.

Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection prevention at Henry Ford, said in a late June news conference that medical exemptions would be limited to people who have had severe allergic reactions to the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or to ingredients in the vaccines.

“There’s very few reasons to not get the vaccine,” he said.

Munkarah at Henry Ford said Tuesday that  medical exemptions were granted to people with a true allergy to components of the vaccine, as well as those with “severe immune diseases” and people with long COVID who had symptoms that might be related to the immune response to the virus.

When it comes to religious exemptions, very few religions are opposed to COVID-19 vaccines as a matter of doctrine.

Christian Scientists have traditionally rejected the use of vaccines; most of its members rely on prayer for healing and have sought religious exemptions from vaccine mandates. Still, the church issued a statement on its website, saying that members “are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law, including whether or not to vaccinate. These aren’t decisions imposed by their church.”

Some members of the Dutch Reformed Church also oppose vaccines, believing they interfere with God’s will. But that isn’t an absolute, either. Some members also view the vaccines as gifts from God, according to a review of religious objections to vaccines from Vanderbilt University.

Catholics have had some limited objections, too.

In early March, Michigan’s seven Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Allen Vigneron of the Archdiocese of Detroit, called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “more morally problematic” than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines because it used a fetal stem cell line in the testing of its vaccine. The bishops urged followers to only take the J&J vaccine “if there are no other alternatives.”

In August, Pope Francis appealed to the faithful to get vaccinated, calling vaccination “an act of love.” The Vatican previously extended permission for the faithful to get the J & J vaccine when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines are not available.


UM PRESIDENT MARK SCHLISSEL TO STEP DOWN IN 2023

DETROIT NEWS — University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel will step down as president in June 2023, a year before his contract is set to expire.

The 63-year-old university leader made the announcement Tuesday and said he came to the decision to exit his post early after discussion with the school’s Board of Regents.

“I decided that this timing is appropriate,” he said in a statement. “The new horizon gives the board time to consult with our community, think about the future and thoroughly plan and conduct a search for my successor, while allowing us to continue momentum on important and time-critical efforts that are underway.”

The last two years of Schlissel’s tenure have been marred by sexual abuse scandals and controversies over how the college has responded to the pandemic.

Regent Sarah Hubbard told The Detroit News on Tuesday that “I don’t think that he needed to leave early. I think he decided to leave early. He wanted to exit at the right time that is right for the university.” An agreement signed Sept. 23 gives Schlissel a raise from $900,000 to $927,000 as of Sept. 1 and stipulates that he will be paid his presidential salary for up to two years after June 2023. He’ll serve as university special advisor from July 1, 2023, to June 30, 2024, and get the title of president emeritus beginning in June 2023, among other perks.

Schlissel came to UM in 2014. His second five-year contract was set to expire in 2024. He revised his timeline for departing the university last month, officials said.

“This is the eighth year of my presidency and an important time to strategically consider the future of our university,” Schlissel wrote in an email message to the university community. “We are emerging from an historic global pandemic and adjusting to new and still evolving ways of working, learning and living, both as individuals and as a university.

Regent Ron Weiser praised Schlissel, saying: “As a Republican leader in the state, I have nothing but positive things to say about President Schlissel.”

Regent Jordan Acker added in a release Tuesday that “I appreciate the leadership of President Schlissel throughout his term and know that he is going to continue to work hard to advance our great institution.”

Acker noted the board would “come together to discuss how we will consult our community, think about the future and thoroughly plan a search for the next leader of the university.”

Some faculty members who have been outspoken critics of Schlissel were pleased to learn the UM president is leaving his position.

“I believe the University of Michigan has become a less humane workplace under President Schlissel’s scandal-plagued leadership,” said Silke-Maria Weineck, a UM professor in German studies and Comparative literature. “As his term progressed, he became less and less engaged with the community, less and less concerned with the well-being of the community and increasingly isolated from the very people he was meant to serve.”

Rebekah Modrak, a UM professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design, echoed similar sentiments.

“During his time at the University of Michigan, President Schlissel has perpetuated a climate of fear, top-down governance and has rooted a legal and corporate mindset into all areas of the university so that risk management and public image take precedence over integrity, intellectual honesty, compassion and fair treatment,” Modrak said. “We have 21 more months with him as president, and a long road ahead to remedy the toxic culture he has enabled.”

Schlissel left his post as provost of Brown University to lead UM in July 2014, becoming UM’s 14th president. He succeeded former UM President Mary Sue Coleman, who served for 12 years.

Early in his UM career, he was lauded for the Go Blue Guarantee, which rolled out in 2018 with the aim of providing access to the prestigious Ann Arbor campus to students from low-income families and adding economic diversity to the student body. The program provides free tuition to students from families with incomes of $65,000 and assets of $50,000 or less.

“He championed the Go Blue Guarantee that makes our university more affordable for Michigan families, and his commitment to carbon neutrality makes our university a leader in combating climate change,” said Regent Mark Bernstein of Schlissel’s leadership in a statement issued by the university on Tuesday. “Just one of these successes would justify recognition as one of the most successful presidents in our history, but there are many more accomplishments to celebrate.”

But the program came under fire in December 2018 by One University, a coalition of UM students, faculty and community members. They argued that UM students attending the Dearborn and Flint campuses take on more debt and come from families earning a much lower median income than students attending the UM campus in Ann Arbor. Two and a half years later, the Regents approved expanding the program to UM students attending the campuses in Dearborn and Flint.

What Schlissel gets

For his service as president emeritus, Schlissel will get an office on central campus, parking and $36,000 annually to be used at his discretion, according to the agreement.

Other perks include contributions of $300,000 each year to his retirement plan on June 30, 2022, June 30, 2023, and June 30, 2024; use of the presidential house on campus until he is no longer president; and a $5,000 monthly housing allowance during his year as a university special advisor.

Schlissel will also be entitled to up to 18 months administrative leave, with his presidential salary, if he serves as president through June 30, 2023. After that date or his administrative leave, he will be a tenured faculty member, get laboratory space, $2 million in start-up funding and receive no less than 50% of his presidential pay, or $463,500 annually.

Schlissel’s agreement with the board also calls for him to receive a vehicle for business and personal use, a driver for security and transportation, travel accommodations and business and entertainment expenses.

It also includes a retirement package “that includes participation in the university’s retirement plan, which currently provides that the university will match the president’s 5 percent contribution with a 10 percent university contribution on salary of up to $290,000.”

For his part, Schlissel said he was “very proud of all the university has accomplished thus far during my term as president and remain excited about what we are currently planning for the years ahead.”

“Thanks to you, UM is addressing major societal challenges such as poverty, firearm injury prevention, inequality, human health and the climate crisis with interdisciplinary strength,” he wrote Tuesday. “We’ve enhanced affordability on all of our campuses through the Go Blue Guarantee, expanded the reach of our world-class health care, and set a record for private support of a public university.”

Schlissel will outline his plans for the coming year at his annual Leadership Address on Thursday.


HOW SCAMMERS ARE TRAPPING THOSE WHO ARE HUNTING FOR JOBS

DETROIT FREE PRESS — Job seekers, beware. Complaints have been climbing during the pandemic when it comes to phony job offers, missing paychecks and scams that involve paying upfront for equipment and supplies that are supposedly needed to do that new job.

About 32% of those complaining to the Better Business Bureau noted that they did the work but were never paid.

The BBB continues to warn those looking for work to verify employment offers to avoid getting caught up in illegal jobs where you might end up reshipping stolen merchandise, becoming a victim of identity theft and losing big money out of your pocket to fake check scams.

The BBB estimates that 14 million people are exposed to employment scams every year, with $2 billion in direct losses annually. The overall median loss was $1,000.

As more people wanted to work from home, the door opened to even more job scams, according to a BBB report titled “Job Scams.”

The report highlighted how scammers target those who want to work:

Demanding money on gift cards

A South Dakota women who ended up putting $500 on two gift cards — and losing that money — to cover a down payment for a phone that was to be reimbursed for her work in so-called data entry job that paid $20 an hour.

Impersonating real HR people

An Illinois woman noted that scammers actually used the real name of a head of a human resources at a health care company to convince her the job opportunity was real. She was asked, as part of the job, to send $400 via a Zelle payment app to pay for a necessary iPhone. The cost was to be reimbursed to her. Later scammers wanted her to buy a laptop and special monitor, which she did not do. She never got her money back.

Promising cash for reshipping goods

Some consumers looking for jobs are offered “distribution jobs” that involve reshipping goods purchased with stolen credit cards. “Many of the innocent people employed to do this work never get paid for their efforts, and may have their identities stolen or face law enforcement scrutiny,” according to the BBB report.

A Dallas man, according to the report, ended up giving his bank account information so that he could be paid. He reshipped about 40 packages, including cordless drills, jewelry, phones and laptop computers to a variety of addresses. After a month, he was never paid the $3,800 he would have been owed for his work.

Advertising for a nanny or caregiver

The nanny scam can involve requiring those who are “hired” to buy a wheelchair or baby equipment for the job. The person is sent a fake check, deposits the check to cover the purchase, and then wires money to a third party to buy the required equipment. And you’re out the cash.

Many times, people might look the other way on some of these offers because they are desperate and want to work.

According to the BBB’s latest report, 54% of victims were unemployed; 25% had full-time jobs; 50% were looking for full-time jobs; 28% flexible jobs; and 10% part time. The data is based on a survey of those who reported employment scams to BBB Scam Tracker between 2017 and March 2020.

Anyone who has been looking for a job lately can undoubtedly tell you about some pretty strange opportunities, including quick online interviews via Google Hangouts where you quickly get a job and then are asked for bank account information on the spot.

Students have even reported getting email that look like it’s from their college’s placement office.

You might feel like you’re doing your best to find work, posting a resume online, searching for work on Indeed.com or LinkedIn. But the con artists can advertise phony job openings online, too.

As many people lose unemployment benefits or see reduced benefits ahead, there’s more pressure to frantically find a job.

“People are scrambling a little bit,” said Melanie Duquesnel, president and CEO of Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

Many times, she said, women with children would like to keep working from home, if possible, to avoid the high cost of day care. So a job opening that seems to offer a work-from-home option could prove attractive.

The BBB report indicated that women accounted for 66.7% of complaints relating to job scams but suggested that it is possible that women were more likely to reach out and file a complaint. BBB said it is aware of no evidence that scammers are targeting women.

Unfortunately, she said, job applicants need to do far more background searches on some offers that simply sound too ideal.

It’s not enough to go online and see if there is someone with that same name working in HR at a given company. Scammers could have found that name and simply tried to impersonate the professional.

Duquesnel said she would recommend calling the company itself and asking for the HR department, not the name of a given person. Then, mention that you’ve been contacted to see if there really is such an opening.

Many times, people will be asked to interview via Zoom or online chat services. But it’s key to do more due diligence.

She noted that a woman recently applying for a job at the BBB in metro Detroit was offered the opening via a Zoom interview. But the woman said she’d like to come in and see the building before accepting the offer.

While Duquesnel said she first found that a bit unusual, she realized that many people understand that job scams exist.

“For all she knows, she was going to be scammed,” Duquesnel said.


PRESIDENT BIDEN TO PITCH INFRASTRUCTURE BILL, ‘BUILD BACK BETTER’ PLAN DURING HOWELL TRIP

DETROIT FREE PRESS — President Joe Biden will head to the heart of historically conservative Livingston County this week in an effort to churn up support for a bipartisan infrastructure plan and other legislative priorities currently stalled in Congress.

The trip Tuesday afternoon to Howell is part of a broader national strategy to promote a $1 trillion infrastructure bill and a bigger “Build Back Better” plan. It’s a sweeping agenda aimed at spending potentially trillions of dollars over the next decade to expand child care tax credits, boost Medicare and Medicaid benefits, cut prescription costs and much more while increasing taxes on the wealthiest citizens.

“He wants to go out there and talk about the components and the pieces of these bills that will make people’s lives better, even as we’re having very important conversations about the legislative logistics here,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during her briefing on Monday.

Biden’s broader spending plan has so far faced opposition from the left and the right: Republicans aren’t needed necessarily to pass it, but are attempting to tie in fraught debt limit deals. Some progressives believe Democratic leaders may be too willing to restrict Biden’s broader spending proposal. And some centrists are worried about the plan’s overall costs.

Last week, progressives successfully delayed a vote on the infrastructure measure, which would bring billions in funding to Michigan, insisting that a deal be struck first on the larger plan among House Democrats and with enough support in the Senate to get it passed. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, both Democrats, have so far balked at the proposed $3.5-trillion price tag of that wider legislation. Both are needed to get any such measure passed.

Michigan’s Democratic delegation is also split. U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters are reliable Democratic votes, as are many of the seven Democratic members of the House. But U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, as well as Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, have said they won’t back the infrastructure bill unless the larger “Build Back Better” effort is successful.

“Let me be clear: bringing the so-called bipartisan infrastructure plan to a vote without the #BuildBackBetter Act at the same time is a betrayal. We will hold the line and vote it down,” Tlaib tweeted Sept. 28.

“This is not the time for half measures or to go back on our promises.”

Biden is set to visit’ Howell, located in the district of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin. The Holly Democrat represents a politically split region and at times has an independent streak. In late August, she voted in support of considering the broader proposal, but did not commit her support. 

“If it’s transformative and important for my constituents … then I’ll consider it. I’m not going to give my vote away without a bill (to read first),” Slotkin told the Free Press in August.

Slotkin does support the infrastructure deal. In a news release after the vote, she said, “It’s critical to see the Speaker (of the House Nancy Pelosi) commit to holding the final vote on this bill no later than September 27.”

Last Friday, after the House missed that Sept. 27 deadline to vote and another on Sept. 30, Biden visited House Democrats, urging them to stick together on both the infrastructure bill and the “Build Back Better” agenda. But he also warned progressives that Sinema and Manchin are unlikely to accept any proposal that costs much more than $2 trillion.

Tuesday’s event in Howell is part of that continuing promise to get something passed, while also painting Republicans as obstructionists. Senate Republicans have already blocked two attempts to raise or suspend the debt ceiling; Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin has said that if the debt ceiling isn’t increased by Oct. 18, the government may no longer be able to pay its bills — which could throw global markets in turmoil.

Howell is the seat of typically conservative Livingston County. While Slotkin represents the area, the area’s state legislators are among the most conservative in the state. Some advocated for overturning the 2020 election results and are pushing legislation to ban teaching critical race theory in schools.

The Livingston County Republican Party and other conservative protests are planning a protest in Howell at roughly the same time as the president’s visit.

A recent national poll from the Pew Research Center found about half of those surveyed support versions of the infrastructure and broader spending plan. But a majority also disapproved of Biden’s job as president, as well as the performances of both Democratic and Republican congressional leaders.

A September poll from the Detroit Regional Chamber also found declining support for Biden in Michigan: 53% disapprove of the job Biden is doing, with 39% approving.

Biden has made multiple trips to Michigan since becoming president, including visits to a Pfizer facility in Portage, a Ford plant in Dearborn and a cherry farm in Traverse City.


J&J SEEKS US CLEARANCE FOR COVID-19 VACCINE BOOSTER DOSES

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Johnson & Johnson asked the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday to allow extra shots of its COVID-19 vaccine as the U.S. government moves toward expanding its booster campaign to millions more vaccinated Americans.

J&J said it filed a request with the FDA to authorize boosters for people who previously received the company’s one-shot vaccine. While company said it submitted data on several different booster intervals, ranging from two to six months, it did not formally recommend one to regulators.

Last month, the FDA authorized booster shots of Pfizer’s vaccine for older Americans and other groups with heightened vulnerability to COVID-19. It’s part of a sweeping effort by the Biden administration to shore up protection amid the delta variant and potential waning vaccine immunity.

Government advisers backed the extra Pfizer shots, but they also worried about creating confusion for tens of millions of other Americans who received the Moderna and J&J shots. U.S. officials don’t recommend mixing and matching different vaccine brands.

The FDA is convening its outside panel of advisers next week to review booster data from both J&J and Moderna. It’s the first step in a review process that also includes sign-off from the leadership of both the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If both agencies give the go-ahead, Americans could begin getting J&J and Moderna boosters later this month.

J&J previously released data suggesting its vaccine remains highly effective against COVID-19 at least five months after vaccination, demonstrating 81% effectiveness against hospitalizations in the U.S.

But company research shows a booster dose at either two or six months revved up immunity even further. FDA’s advisers will review that data next Friday and vote on whether to recommend boosters.

The timing of the J&J filing was unusual given that the FDA had already scheduled its meeting on the company’s data. Companies normally submit their requests well in advance of meeting announcements. A J&J executive said the company has been working with FDA on the review.

“Both J&J and FDA have a sense of urgency because it’s COVID and we want good data out there converted into action as soon as possible,” said Dr. Mathai Mammen, head of research for J&J’s Janssen unit.

The vaccine from the New Brunswick, New Jersey, company was considered an important tool in fighting the pandemic because it requires only one shot. But its rollout was hurt by a series of troubles, including manufacturing problems at a Baltimore factory that forced J&J to import millions of doses from overseas.

Additionally, regulators have added warnings of several rare side effects to the shot, including a blood clot disorder and a neurological reaction called Guillain-Barré syndrome. In both cases, regulators decided the benefits of the shot still outweighed those uncommon risks.

Rival drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna have provided the vast majority of U.S. COVID-19 vaccines. More than 170 million Americans have been fully vaccinated with the companies’ two-dose shots while less than 15 million Americans got the J&J shot.


COVID OUTBREAKS IN MICHIGAN SCHOOLS ALREADY 8 TIMES HIGHER THAN LAST YEAR

BRIDGE MI — One month into the new school year, there are more than eight times more COVID cases connected to outbreaks among students and staff in Michigan schools than at the same point last year.

And that’s a conservative estimate, given that the state recently narrowed the definition of what constitutes an outbreak. Experts attribute the rise to more students in classrooms this fall, a lack of mask mandates across many districts and counties, and the more transmissible delta variant of COVID-19.

According to data released Monday, as of Sept. 30, there are 2,491 confirmed coronavirus cases connected to new and ongoing outbreaks in Michigan K-12 schools and pre-K centers. By comparison, there were 296 new and ongoing cases connected to school outbreaks as of Oct. 1, 2020. Certainly, those infections represent a tiny share of Michigan students. Those 2,491 kids who’ve tested positive represent 0.17 percent of all students, or about one in every 577 public school students.

Still, the jump in school outbreak cases mirrors a troubling rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations among Michigan residents under the age of 20.

And school outbreaks, which typically involve fewer than 10 students and staff, can affect many others who are asked to quarantine because of close contact with someone who tested positive. One example: An Ann Arbor elementary school retreated to fully remote learning this week when eight COVID cases led to 50 additional students who were quarantined.

In a more remote, four-county area in the eastern Upper Peninsula, the total number of COVID cases jumped from 221 in August to 710 in September, driven in part by school outbreaks, said Kerry Ott, spokesperson for the LMAS Health Department, which covers Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft counties.

That’s higher than a two-month period last year, when the counties had 685 total cases between Sept. 25 and Nov. 25, making this September among the worst months of the entire pandemic, Ott said.

At least three schools in the four-county region have turned to virtual learning. Each had been “mask optional,” even as some other schools have required masks, she said.

With the more transmissible delta variant that spread quickly this summer, “we’re not surprised” at the increase, she said.

Cases have jumped this year for several reasons, experts say.

Virtually all of the state’s K-12 students are back in school with a room full of classmates this fall, compared to between 36 percent and 57 percent of students who were learning in-person at least part of the time in September 2020. More students in close proximity to each other means more spread, said Katharine Strunk, director of Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, which tracked in-person, hybrid and remote learning in the 2020-21 school year.

And those who were in class last year all were wearing masks. This year, about 60 percent of students are mandated to wear face coverings; in the rest of the state’s schools, where masks are encouraged but optional, only a small minority are wearing masks, according to school leaders interviewed by Bridge Michigan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published a study showing that school districts without mask mandates were about 3.5 percent more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks.

Last week, mask mandates in place in some districts were dumped for thousands of Michigan students in the wake of anti-mandate language placed in a state budget bill.

No one should be surprised by the rising infections in schools, said Dr. Mark Hamed, an ER doctor in Michigan’s Thumb region, as well as a medical director for several of its counties.

“This time last year, we had mask mandates — that’s the game changer here,” he said.

Meanwhile, s