Michigan's top doc: Eating in restaurants is 'simply not a safe thing to do right now'


Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, left, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer address Michigan's COVID-19 outbreak. - STATE OF MICHIGAN
  • State of Michigan
  • Michigan Department of Health and Human Services chief medical executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, left, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer address Michigan's COVID-19 outbreak.

Michigan officials are still declining to shut down the state again despite the nation's worst COVID-19 surge happening here, with Governor Gretchen Whitmer instead urging residents take personal responsibility to avoid giving the virus opportunities to spread.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the chief medical executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, did not mince words during a press conference on Wednesday.

"Just because something is open and legal, it is not mean that you should be doing it," she said.

Khaldun highlighted dining indoors at restaurants as particularly risky behavior.

"Any time you're going to be around someone outside of your household, large gatherings are riskier — particularly if it is indoors and people are not distanced apart appropriately," she said. "Sitting in an indoor space, like a restaurant where there's less ventilation and people are talking with their mask off, is simply not a safe thing to do right now."

The state allowed restaurants to reopen at the beginning of February, and COVID-19 cases has been soaring ever since.

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Khaldun said right now, Michigan is reporting 574 COVID-19 cases per million people, "five times where we were in mid-February, and data indicates we have broad community spread," she said, meaning that the virus is basically everywhere in Michigan now. She added that the percent of tests that are coming back positive is around 18%, "five times where we were in the middle of February."

Khaldun also said that DHHS is tracking about 1,152 outbreaks in counties across the state, including new outbreaks in K12 schools, manufacturing and construction sites, long-term care childcare, retail, restaurants, and bars.

Since January, the department has identified 291 clusters associated with youth sports teams, and 52 new outbreaks in restaurant and retail settings.

"Because of this sharp rise in cases overall, there are likely many more than we do not yet know about, which makes the risk of COVID even greater," she said. "Hospitalizations are also still increasing with many facilities, continuing to report that they are at or near capacity."

Khaldun, who also works as an emergency medicine physician in Detroit, said she has seen firsthand the human toll of the latest surge.

"I worked in the emergency department this past weekend, and I'll tell you, it was exhausting," she said. "We are seeing more and more people who are being diagnosed with COVID-19. Many of them are younger than what we were seeing with the previous surges. We're trying to take care of both patients with COVID-19 and those who are coming in for other medical issues, and it is really putting a strain on our staff and our resources and our bed space, all of which are spread way too thin. Patients are again lining our hallways like they were last spring. This situation is very serious."

During the press conference, Whitmer took heat from reporters regarding two top aides who defied a Michigan health department statement that advised residents not to travel for spring break, especially if they are not fully vaccinated.

"Travel increases your chance of spreading and getting COVID-19. We recommend that you do not travel at this time," reads the advisory posted April 5. "Delay travel and stay home to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Do NOT travel if you were exposed to COVID-19, you are sick or you test positive for COVID-19."

But it has been revealed that department's own director, Elizabeth Hertel, recently traveled to Alabama for a vacation, and Whitmer's chief operating officer, Trish Foster, also recently traveled to Florida. After posting photos to her Facebook page, the story was picked up by right-wing website Breitbart.

Whitmer brushed off the accusations as "partisan hit jobs on my team."

"There have never been travel restrictions in Michigan," she said. "There just haven't been."

She added, "What directors do on their personal time is their business, so long as they are safe, which is what we're asking everyone in this state do to: get vaccinated, mask up."

It flew in the face of the advice Khaldun had said only minutes before: "Just because something is open and legal, it is not mean that you should be doing it."

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