Gov. Whitmer provides COVID-19 update Monday, discusses food assistance

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LANSING, Mich. (WLNS)— Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer held a news conference Monday afternoon, to provide an update on the state’s response to COVID-19, and spoke on the state’s successes in ensuring state residents can feed their families during the once-in-a-century pandemic.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Medical Executive (MDHHS) Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel and Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan joined the governor.

“Our philosophy is that no one should have to worry about putting food on the table for their families – especially during a pandemic,” Whitmer said. “Michiganders need access to nutritious food to keep them healthy so they can succeed in the economy and realize their dreams, and so their children can excel in school and achieve their full potential. I will continue to fight for policies that will improve food security and look forward to working with President Joe Biden and Senator Debbie Stabenow to remove barriers to accessing food assistance.”

The governor announced that as of fiscal year 2019, one in eight Michigan residents received food assistance. According to Whitmer, her Michigan COVID Recovery Plan provides more support for families through food assistance so more Michiganders can afford to put food on the table for themselves and their families. It’s a plan the governor says she wants state lawmakers to work with her to pass.

MDHHS’s Economic Stability Administration provides food assistance to low-income households using federal dollars from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The department partners with Community Action Agencies across the state and the Food Bank Council of Michigan to combat food insecurity. MDHHS’s Aging & Adult Services Agency works with local Area Agencies on Aging to address the food needs of Michigan’s aging adults.

“Every day MDHHS staff in local offices from Southeast Michigan to the Upper Peninsula work to provide residents with access to food through SNAP benefits,” said MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel. “It’s one of the most important things our department does. Our staff stepped up without missing a beat during difficult circumstances and met the increased need for food assistance that was created by the pandemic – even while our employees adjusted to working remotely to keep everyone safe.”

According to the Whitmer Administration, in May, more than 1.5 million Michiganders received more than $263 million in benefits from the Food Assistance Program. That was up from fewer than 1.2 million people who received more than $137 million in February – prior to the first COVID-19 cases being identified in Michigan. As the state’s economy has reopened, the number of people receiving food assistance has dropped to under 1.3 million.

“The COVID19 pandemic brought economic challenges to many Michigan households. Swift government action provided by the Governor’s administration brought emergency relief from the toxic stress of food insecurity,” said Phil Knight, executive director of the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

“At the same time, many who faced food security pre-COVID-19 have become more vulnerable; specifically, older adults, those quarantined or at greater health risk, individuals with disabilities, and those without transportation and/or residing in rural or underserved communities,” he said. “High food insecurity rates also correlate with pronounced racial disparities, in a manner similar to health disparities and COVID-19 health outcomes. By forming commissions and task forces to address these needs, collaborative efforts between state government and community-based organizations, like the Food Bank Council, Governor Whitmer has allowed partnerships to form that will last long after the pandemic is past. There is still much to do to meet the need but the political and personal will is present to address the challenges made plain by the pandemic.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun’s Report

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Doctor Joneigh Khaldun also spoke during today’s press conference, where she gave an update on trends within the state, and the new variant of COVID-19 spreading in the southeastern part of the state.

According to Khaldun, there are now 13 cases of the B117 variant found in both Washtenaw and Wayne Counties. That variant is now to be more contagious and in new reports out of the U.K. more deadly.

“There are likely more cases we have not yet identified and possibly spread of this variant happening right now,” said Khaldun during Monday’s news conference. This variant is more easily spread from person to person. This means that for any given case, it will likely infect more people, and lead to more spread, which means possibly more hospitalizations and death”

Recent Restriction Announcement

Last Friday, the governor announced the state’s next epidemic order, which will take effect Monday, February 1, officially allowing indoor dining at restaurants with certain requirements; concessions at casinos, movie theaters, and stadiums; personal services requiring mask removal; and non-residential gatherings of up to 10 people from two households. 

The new order will last three weeks, until Sunday, Feb. 21.   

Restaurants and bars will be allowed to reopen at 25% capacity with up to 100 people. Tables must be six feet apart with no more than six people per table. Outdoor tents with four sides are permitted under these same rules. Bars and restaurants must close by 10 p.m. Additionally, contact information must be collected from diners for contact tracing purposes.

The epidemic order continues to temporarily pause indoor contact sports and other venues and activities where participants have close physical contact and are not consistently masked, like water parks. However, as of Jan. 22, stadiums can allow up to 500 people at venues that seat over 10,000 people, and stadiums that seat less than 10,000 are allowed to be at 20% capacity, up to 250 people.

Also on Friday, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon announced he was resigning his post.

He made that announcement public on twitter.

In response, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced she has appointed Elizabeth Hertel, as the new Director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS).

Hertel currently serves as the Senior Chief Deputy Director for Administration for MDHHS, where she oversees External Relations and Communications, Finance and Administration, Legislative Services, Legal Affairs, Policy & Planning, Strategic Integration, Organizational Services, Workforce Engagement, and Community and Faith Engagement. 

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