What’s the matter with Michigan?

April 20, 2021, 9:43 PM UTC

Good afternoon readers. If you want to add a note of distress to your day (and who wouldn’t), take a look at the U.S. map at the New York Times’ COVID-19 tracking page. One thing will unquestionably and immediately leap out at you:


While most U.S. counties are tinted strangely comforting yellows and light oranges indicating 50 or fewer new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, Michigan glows a furious dark umber, indicating case rates of closer to 100 per 100,000. Michigan has experienced a sevenfold increase in cases since late February. Experts who consulted with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer have said the state is “losing the race to the virus,” even as most of the U.S. appears to be poised to beat it back before most other wealthy Western nations.

So what happened?

As with most things COVID-related, answers are complicated and not entirely clear. There has been some focus on Michigan’s vaccine rollout, but the state is now keeping pace with the rest of the U.S., with 26% of residents fully vaccinated. According to a Vogue interview with University of Michigan immunologist James R. Baker, those vaccinations were tightly focused on residents over 65, where he says there’s no surge. That would be good news, though the state’s death rate is also up a catastrophic 84% in the past two weeks, which you might not expect if older folks most at risk for death were well-protected.

Baker also cites Michigan’s lifting of statewide COVID control measures in February. The reopening included indoor dining, a well-known and major vector for the spread of the virus. Restrictions were lifted before vaccinations were widely available, but when Michiganders were suffering what Baker describes as “significant lockdown fatigue.”

That’s likely the understatement of the millenium: lockdown winter here in the urban northeast was rough, but I can’t imagine what it was like in the windswept upper Midwest. Some local reports suggest restaurants were quickly packed, including with patrons specifically thumbing their noses at COVID-related restrictions. That almost certainly would have helped prime the pump for the current surge.

But Michigan’s main headwind may be, tragically, politics. Even as her state buried 60 people per day, Governor Whitmer on April 9 issued a mere recommendation that people avoid indoor dining for two weeks. According to the New York Times, Whitmer likely chose not to mandate new restrictions because she’s up for reelection in a deep purple state where she needs to court anti-lockdown Republicans. (Whitmer’s direct emergency powers were stripped by the Michigan Supreme Court in October, but the state’s director of health, appointed by Whitmer in March, retains the power to issue emergency health orders.)

There’s one other element here that may not be relevant, but is at least intriguing. Michigan is right across the border from Ontario, Canada, which is in the midst of its own terrible COVID-19 surge, more clearly a product of slow vaccinations and the U.K. variant. Now, that shouldn’t really matter much: The U.S. border with Canada has now been closed to non-essential travel for a staggering 14 months, and most of Michigan’s border with Canada is formed by… the Great Lakes.

I don’t think COVID-19 has learned how to sail yet, but major highways do run directly from Toronto to Detroit, so it would be interesting to know just how much “essential” traffic is crossing that land border – and what unlisted cargo it might be carrying.

Clarification 4.21: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer no longer has the direct power to order lockdowns, but could still do so through powers held by her appointed Health Department director.

David Z. Morris
david. morris@fortune.com


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