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Michigan health director talks limits to his authority in COVID-19 oversight hearing – MLive.com

Posted: December 4, 2020 at 12:56 pm


LANSING, MI - State Rep. Matt Hall has been at the center of three major Michigan issues over the last 24 hours.

Early Wednesday, Dec. 2, the Republican from Marshall led a COVID-19 oversight committee hearing on the Unemployment Insurance Agency and its vulnerability to fraud. Hours later, he chaired the House Oversight Committees contentious hearing with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who urged Republican lawmakers to ignore certified election results and take back their power.

Hall and his Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic regrouped for a calmer Thursday morning hearing, questioning Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon on his public health orders, including the three-week partial shutdown set to end on Dec. 8.

Related: Whitmer doesnt rule out extension of partial shutdown, discourages people from defying orders

Its too early to tell from case data if the shutdown could be extended past the original deadline, Gordon said. His department tailored the order to limit gatherings on indoor businesses experiencing outbreaks, he said, and will continue to do so in the future.

Read more: Michigan lists 222 new coronavirus outbreaks, 969 ongoing clusters in Nov. 30 report

Each additional day of data is revealing, he said. That is particularly so, because data around Thanksgiving will be critical as well as noisy.

Hall and other oversight Republicans credited the more nuanced approach to closing indoor businesses. Restaurants and entertainment venues such as bowling alleys and movie theaters were closed, while salons and gyms remained open. Hall asked Gordon what criteria was used to make these distinctions.

Among settings where it is difficult to do contact tracing, (which doesnt include) nursing homes, K-12 schools, colleges, there actually are quite a significant number of outbreaks at bars and restaurants, Gordon said. They are No. 1 out of those settings (for outbreaks).

Gordon continued by saying outbreak data isnt the only determining factor for determining closures. Businesses where patrons take off their masks for long periods of time (to eat and drink) were considered more high risk than businesses without that same need for mask removal.

Hall led Gordon down a line of questioning that clarified the breadth of Gordons legal authority to issue public health orders. MCL Section 333.2253 (1) states that Gordon may issue emergency orders to prohibit the gathering of people for any purpose and may request procedures to be followed to ensure continuation of essential public health services.

Do you interpret the categorial closing of entertainment venues to be an order to limit gatherings within the statutory language of MCL Section 333.2253, Hall asked Gordon.

Im not going to get into parsing the statute, Gordon said. I am an attorney, but that is not the role in which I function here. I will say there is a broad statute... that gives the director authority to limit gatherings and implement other procedures to stop epidemics.

Read more: Michigans public health orders are legal under state code, but there will be constitutional challenges

Later, Hall asked if Gordons emergency orders have statutory limits compared to Gov. Gretchen Whitmers executive orders. Gordon said of course there are.

It is obviously a narrower authority, Gordon said, saying he cant address certain policy areas that Whitmer once did, such as unemployment. I will say it would be beyond tragic if this authority were to be wiped away, as many, many lives would be lost.

House Oversight Committee chair Matt Hall, of Marshall, addresses the crowd before a committee hearing with President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani at the House Office Building in Lansing, on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. (Mike Mulholland | MLive.com)Mike Mulholland | MLive.com

Hall told MLive afterwards that he appreciated the understanding that Gordon and MDHHS has narrower authority under the public health code. The goal moving forward is understanding through legislation and the courts how long Gordon can issue orders, he said.

I think what we need to understand is how it is limited, Hall said. We need to understand the limits of this power that hes using and how he uses it... Does he think he can do it forever and what does it apply to?

Questions from other committee members clarified Gordons positions on reopening schools, mandated vaccines and mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, outlined how poorer families with children who are unable to attend school in person are struggling when they dont have the means to secure child care. That justifies reopening in-person education in K-12 schools, he argued. The partial shutdown allows districts to make their own choices for K-8 education, but shuts down high schools.

Senator, this doesnt happen often, but I agree with you, Gordon said. I think we should be doing everything we can to get children back in school. I hope that we will quickly get to a place at a state level where we can safely get kids back in school... As long as it stays a local decision, that decision is going to be informed by stopping the spread of the virus.

Regarding vaccines, Gordon said there wont be a statewide mandate for residents to receive one, and that the National Guard will help administer them for communities that dont have the refrigeration means to store the versions of the vaccine that require sub-zero temperature storage.

Gordon also answered a question from Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, seeking to assuage skepticism of the vaccine in Black communities such as Detroit.

My community remains particularly cautious and skeptical of the efficacy of a vaccine, Hollier said, referencing such controversies as the Tuskegee trials, which caused decades of medical problems for Black men being studied for syphilis treatment.

We are profoundly focused that we reach folks where they are, Gordon said, saying his department is focused on communicating and understanding minority perspectives on public health. Going forward, these are going to be safe and effective vaccines. The science has been done effectively, and we want people to know that. We want people to feel comfortable that if they get this vaccine, they will be safe.

Rep. Jack OMalley, R-Lake Ann, asked about mental health consequences, including if MDHHS has current statistics on suicide rates during the pandemic. Gordon said the department hasnt specifically tracked that number, though part of the delay is due to data lag.

The best way to improve mental health in the state, Gordon said, is removing the fear of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I think the mental health challenge has gotten worse, because the virus has gotten worse, Gordon said. If we can get the virus under control, how much better will all of us feel? How much of a relief will it be not to worry about the safety of ourselves, our children, our elderly parents?

Read more from MLive:

In unusual hearing, Rudy Giuliani asks Michigan lawmakers to take back your power

Monday, Nov. 30, coronavirus data by county: Positivity rates back up; 33 counties now above 15%

Michigans dine-in restaurant ban is unconstitutional, eateries argue in federal court hearing

Healthy and active, 28-year-old Michigan physician hospitalized with coronavirus

How your diet could help you avoid or fight off coronavirus and the flu

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Michigan health director talks limits to his authority in COVID-19 oversight hearing - MLive.com

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