The Biden administration and Michigan’s Democratic governor are locked in an increasingly tense standoff over the state’s worst-in-the-nation coronavirus outbreak, with a top federal health official on Monday urging the governor to lock down her state.
As the governor, Gretchen Whitmer, publicly called again for a surge of vaccine supply, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a White House news conference that securing extra doses was not the most immediate or practical solution to the outbreak. She said that Michigan — whose metro areas include 16 of the 17 worst outbreaks in the nation — needed to enact shutdown measures to stamp out the crush of infections.
“The answer is not necessarily to give vaccine,” said the director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky. “The answer to that is to really close things down, to go back to our basics, to go back to where we were last spring, last summer, and to shut things down.”
Michigan’s outbreak — driven by a highly infectious virus variant, loosened restrictions, travel, youth sporting events and uneven compliance with the remaining rules — is by far the worst in the country. The state is averaging seven times as many cases each day as it was in late February, and hospitalizations have roughly doubled in the past two weeks. Nonetheless, Ms. Whitmer has stopped well short of the far-reaching shutdowns that made her a political lightning rod last summer, with armed protesters storming the Statehouse to demand an end to coronavirus restrictions.
The Biden administration, however, has held fast to distributing vaccines by state population, not by triage, shying away from anything that could look like inequitable distribution or political favoritism at a time when vaccine supply remains tight in many places.
“It’s important to understand how we’ve approached vaccine distribution from the beginning: It’s done with equity in mind. It’s done with the adult population in mind,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Monday. “We don’t pick by our friends. We don’t pick through a political prism.”
Michigan’s renewed fight with the virus was a warning for other states seeing new increases in cases and could have far-reaching consequences. Reports of new cases have increased by 45 percent in Illinois over the past two weeks, with especially high infection rates around Peoria. And as new, more contagious variants spread, caseloads are rising in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and several other states.
In an interview on Sunday with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” the Federal Reserve chair, Jerome H. Powell, said the American economy had “brightened substantially” as more people have been vaccinated and businesses have reopened. But he cautioned that “there really are risks out there,” specifically coronavirus flare-ups, if Americans return to normal life too quickly.
“The principal risk to our economy right now really is that the disease would spread again more quickly,” Mr. Powell said.
In recent days, Ms. Whitmer, an ally of President Biden’s, has diverged repeatedly from the president, asking him in a private call last week for extra vaccines, and, after being turned down, continuing to press her case in public that vaccination is the answer.
Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Ms. Whitmer, said the state was suffering not from a failure of policymaking, but from the new variants that are more contagious and from Michiganders who are not complying with the governor’s orders. “Which is why it’s important for us to ramp up vaccinations as quickly as possible,” he said.
Ms. Whitmer was joined in the call for more vaccines by Representatives Fred Upton, a Republican, and Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, who sent a letter last week to Mr. Biden pleading for extra doses for their state.
Ms. Whitmer, who called last week for voluntary pauses to indoor dining, youth sports and in-person high school, said on Monday that she planned to extend existing restrictions on in-person officework for six more months. She has also appealed to Michigan residents to take more “personal responsibility,” language that echoed Republican governors and contrasted sharply with her own response to earlier surges.