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Health

Health Dept. Director Urges Caution But Says 'Hope Is On The Horizon' When It Comes To Pandemic

As the state grapples with a predicted surge of COVID-19 cases around the holidays, health officials are focused on trying to slow the spread of the virus.

Michiganders are in the middle of a three-week epidemic order from the State Department of Health and Human Services, limiting indoor gatherings

That order included a ban on indoor dining, in-school instruction for high school and college students, and the closure of movie theaters.

WKAR’s Sophia Saliby spoke with MDHHS Director Robert Gordon about the order and the latest in the state’s coronavirus response.

Interview Highlights

On How Thanksgiving Gatherings May Affect Case Numbers

It takes a long time to know whether an event triggers an increase in cases. It can take up to two weeks for cases to manifest, and then after that there's the time for a person to get tested or to get sick. So, it takes a while. It's one of the great public health challenges that we're facing right now. But nonetheless, we're looking at the data every single day and seeing where we are.

On What He Says To Small Businesses That Have Had To Close Their Doors Because Of Health Orders

I feel for restaurant owners and small businesses, they have done nothing wrong, and yet they are bearing a burden. But the reality, unfortunately, is that indoor settings where people gather, where they take off their masks for significant amounts of time, are settings where COVID spreads. And that's why multiple states have done what we have done.

On What He Says To People Not Following Public Health Guidelines

It is not going to be like this forever. We will be getting vaccine in Michigan in the month of December and getting it into the arms of our frontline health workers and then after that to nursing home residents and others. So, when we get to the spring, we will be in a better place and we will not be going back to this. But given where we are and the decisions we're making now, they are so important. Thousands, literally thousands of lives, depend on the decisions that we are making now.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: This is All Things Considered on WKAR, I'm Sophia Saliby.

As the state grapples with a predicted surge of COVID-19 cases around the holidays, health officials are focused on trying to slow the spread of the virus. Michiganders are in the middle of a three-week epidemic order from the State Department of Health and Human Services, limiting indoor gatherings.

That order included a ban on indoor dining, in-school instruction for high school and college students, and the closure of movie theaters.

Robert Gordon is the director of the MDHHS. He joins me now. Thank you for being here.

Robert Gordon: Thanks for having me.

Saliby: We are still waiting to see how case numbers were affected by the Thanksgiving holiday last week. When will we know if holiday gatherings led to the spread of the virus, and how will that impact the state's plans for future public health orders around the Christmas holiday?

Gordon: It takes a long time to know whether an event triggers an increase in cases. It can take up to two weeks for cases to manifest, and then after that there's the time for a person to get tested or to get sick. So, it takes a while. It's one of the great public health challenges that we're facing right now. But nonetheless, we're looking at the data every single day and seeing where we are.

Saliby: This epidemic order has drawn criticism from some industries. The Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association is suing the state because it believes local restaurants could be hurt by the loss of business, and that there's not much virus spread within eateries. What do you say to local businesses that have had to close their doors because of this order?

Gordon: I feel for restaurant owners and small businesses, they have done nothing wrong, and yet they are bearing a burden. But the reality, unfortunately, is that indoor settings where people gather, where they take off their masks for significant amounts of time, are settings where COVID spreads. And that's why multiple states have done what we have done. That's why public health experts around the country are supportive of when you have cases as high as we have them, doing a pause on indoor dining and going to bars.

Saliby: Republican leaders in the state legislature have also spoken against the way these rules were announced, saying the governor and your department did not listen to their input. How do you respond to that, and are you collaborating with them in future public health orders?

Gordon: I have had many conversations with legislators. I've appeared before multiple legislative committees [including] a fourth hearing now with the Joint Select Committee. We are in regular conversation with the legislature. The legislature has a different view of these matters fundamentally. I think the legislature, long ago [the] legislature, gave the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services the power to take action to control epidemics and save lives. And we are using that lawful authority to save lives, protect our hospitals [and] protect our first responders.

Saliby: At this point, do you see an opening for cooperation after kind of all of these issues with the Supreme Court and the governor? All these kinds of lines drawn in the sand about this?

Gordon: I think we are cooperating on a lot of issues. We're in regular, very positive conversations about nursing homes, about vaccines [and] about budget issues. So, I think there are fundamental disagreements, but there are also places where we are working together. And of course, we want to work together at every opportunity we can.

Saliby: The messaging has been the same from the state throughout this pandemic: wear a mask, wash your hands, stay socially distant, don't gather inside with too many people. How do you convince Michiganders to follow these rules at this point in the pandemic, who haven't already been doing these things?

Gordon: You know, I like to point out hope is on the horizon. It is not going to be like this forever. We will be getting vaccine in Michigan in the month of December and getting it into the arms of our frontline health workers and then after that to nursing home residents and others. So, when we get to the spring, we will be in a better place and we will not be going back to this.

But given where we are and the decisions we're making now, they are so important. Thousands, literally thousands of lives, depend on the decisions that we are making now. So, I hope, hard as it is, and I do not understate that at all. I hope people will take their part in saving lives as seriously as they can.

Saliby: When the pandemic started, there was a large emphasis on contact tracing being a key to limiting spread. Now as health departments across the state report being overwhelmed by case numbers, how do we get back to a point where contact tracing works or is it still a viable strategy?

Gordon: It still helps a lot. We're not able to keep up right now. But every time we do, every time we encourage someone who is infected or possibly infected to stay inside and to avoid gatherings, that is preventing infections and that is ultimately contributing to saving lives. So, it still does matter. It's not at a point where it is effective and bringing down and controlling the virus, I hope to get back there.

This is a good time for me to mention something simple that everyone can do is load onto their phones, the MI COVID Alert app, it's free and protected. It's anonymous. It protects your privacy. And it's an easy way to get alerted if you've been exposed to COVID. You get it from your app store, iPhone or Android. So that's a simple kind of virtual contact tracing that we are doing right now.

Saliby: We will see this order end next week. Is the department considering extending these rules through the end of the month to discourage people from gathering?

Gordon: There's a lot of data to look at. It's still coming in. So, we of course will make, will review the data and we're in lots of conversations. And of course, there'll be an announcement with ample time before the order expires.

Saliby: Robert Gordon is the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Thank you for joining me.

Gordon: Thanks for having me.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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