Michigan epidemiologists in power fight: 'Health emergency' only ends with vaccine

By: 
The Detroit News
Published on:
August 20, 2020

A group of Michigan public health experts have advised the state Court of Appeals to uphold Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's unilateral powers to combat COVID-19 and says the "health emergency" presented by the virus will continue until there's a vaccine. 

The group of doctors and epidemiologists filed a brief in June in the ongoing legal fight between the GOP-controlled Michigan Legislature and Whitmer over whether her actions violated the separation of powers in government.

The Michigan Supreme Court has ordered the Court of Appeals to rule by Friday.

"Based on our epidemiological expertise, the governor’s emergency measures have had a successful and positive impact on the safety and health of Michiganders," the health experts wrote in their brief under the name "Michigan Epidemiologists."

"Lifting those measures all at once for the entire state, or removing her ability to quickly adopt, revise, refine, and lift certain measures if needed in the future, will likely result in increased cases of infection and death," the group added.

The GOP-controlled Michigan House and Senate said they would sue Whitmer on May 6. Republican lawmakers have alleged Whitmer's unilateral actions are unconstitutional and "seize" power that should belong to them.

Whitmer's supporters counter it was the Legislature that gave her the power to declare states of emergency through two laws: one from 1945 and one from 1976. The declarations allow the governor to take unilateral actions in response to the pandemic, like requiring masks be worn or shuttering businesses.

The health experts argued in their brief that COVID-19 requires government actions that are "proactive, responsive and implemented as quick as possible." Limiting a governor's ability to respond after a spike occurs "could cost lives." Swift actions are the "cornerstone" of responding to the virus without a treatment or a vaccine, the brief says.

"COVID-19 will continue to present a health emergency to the state of Michigan until a vaccine is developed and delivered to the vast majority of people of all ages," the experts added in their brief.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has voiced optimism that a vaccine would be available by next year. But others say it could take years to decades longer based on the past development of other vaccines.

Among those signing onto the health experts' brief were professors at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who helped reveal the Flint water crisis; and others.

In May, Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens upheld Whitmer's use of a 1945 law, the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which allows the governor to continue an emergency declaration without the Legislature having a say. But Stephens said Whitmer exceeded her authority by trying to extend the emergency under the Emergency Management Act of 1976, which requires legislative approval after 28 days.

Read this article in The Detroit News. Read more background on Kaplan Hecker's work on the brief here.

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