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Vaccinations Help Michigan Lower COVID Cases, Mayor Of Grand Rapids Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

Michigan started lifting pandemic restrictions yesterday. Limits on outdoor gatherings ended, and indoor venues can now operate at 50% capacity. The state's plan is to lift all COVID restrictions next month.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Wow. Just a month ago, Michigan had the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in this country. So how does the change look in Grand Rapids? It's a city of around 200,000, a couple hours west of Detroit. Business owners there include Jamie Carnes of Special Occasions, which is an event rental company.

JAMIE CARNES: In the month of May, we have responded to all of the client requests. And we just finished at over 200% of what we would normally do in sale volume.

KING: So good news for them. Hannah Berry, who owns the Lions & Rabbits Center for the Arts, says she just wants everyone to feel safe.

HANNAH BERRY: Just because we feel safe to go outside doesn't mean that everybody does. And being able to make sure that we're respecting everybody's boundaries - and I think that respect for boundaries is very different than what it used to be.

INSKEEP: People in Grand Rapids are finally able to plan long-postponed funerals. Matt Hollebeek runs a funeral home.

MATT HOLLEBEEK: We can kind of finally start to mourn the loss of a loved one. We haven't been able to do that in a kind of a reasonable manner since last March.

KING: On the line with us now is the mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich., Rosalynn Bliss. Good morning, Mayor Bliss.

ROSALYNN BLISS: Good morning.

KING: Grand Rapids was one of the cities in Michigan that got hit really hard with coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Where do things stand now?

BLISS: Yeah, you're absolutely right. We did. And things have really turned a corner. So our positivity rate is well below 4% now. And, you know, our hospitalizations are low. Our mortality rate is low. So we are coming out of a pretty significant surge that we had - what? - 45, 60 days ago.

KING: I would imagine that cities across the country would be interested in learning how you did it. It was just a month ago, a little over a month ago, that we were talking about how how badly things were going in Michigan. And as you said, now you're emerging. What do you attribute that to?

BLISS: You know, the - to me, the - it's purely based on our ability to get people vaccinated. So as soon as we were able to start to vaccinate people - you know, initially it was individuals over the age of 60 and people who had health concerns. And then, you know, as the governor started to open up who was eligible for vaccinations, our community came together. We have, really, three incredible health systems, and our county health department. They stood up a massive vaccine clinic, and we were able to wrap (ph) up and start to distribute well over 10,000 vaccines a day.

KING: In Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, 50% of the population 12 years and older are fully vaccinated. That's according to the CDC. Fifty percent is better than a lot of cities for sure. It's still only half. Is now really the right time to reopen the city, do you think?

BLISS: Yeah. You know, when you look at all the data and the numbers, I do agree that it's time to open. If you look at individuals who have had at least one vaccine shot, which we know also provides protection, that gets closer to 60%. And, you know, we're starting to see people who have been fully vaccinated who feel comfortable and safe going out. I know a lot of our businesses, all of our front-line workers, health care workers, teachers, individuals that work in hospitality - they've had access to the vaccine as well. So I do believe that people who are fully vaccinated are ready to get back out. And, you know, as, you know, one of the individuals that you interviewed, Hannah Berry, said, we have to make sure that we're providing a safe space for everyone, including those who haven't been vaccinated. And even at City Hall, we're preparing to have our meetings back face to face. And we'll be making - you know, we'll be making plans for safety for individuals who haven't been vaccinated yet.

KING: What will that look like, though? I'm glad you pointed out Hannah Berry saying, you know, I just want everyone to feel safe. I think that's probably true of a lot of people.

BLISS: Yeah.

KING: How do you do that when only 50% of the population is getting the vaccine? And I would imagine there are some people who will refuse to get the vaccine 'cause that's going on all over the country.

BLISS: Yeah. You know, we are firm that if you haven't been vaccinated, we're asking you to continue to wear a mask, similar to what our governor has done. I know our - you know, at City Hall as well as in a lot of businesses, they're still going to be doing temperature checks and screening of individuals who may be running a fever. We'll still be requiring COVID tests for anyone who has any symptoms. So a lot of those precautions we'll continue to follow and have in place as we hopefully get to that herd immunity and see our cases continue to drop.

KING: What are the biggest challenges or concerns for you as we move forward? I know a lot of people - public health officials have a very careful eye on variants at this point. What might stand in your way?

BLISS: Yeah, I'm concerned about the variants. I'm concerned about a fall surge. You know, many of us have paid close attention to some of the concerns that we're hearing out of John Hopkins and Harvard about a potential fall surge. And I'm concerned about a lot of our business owners that have been, you know, pretty much shuttered and closed over the last year and how they're going to start to open back up safely. So all those concerns I've had over the last year, I continue to have, although they're coupled with a lot of optimism as we continue to have vaccine rates go up.

KING: Rosalynn Bliss is the mayor of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Mayor Bliss, thanks so much for your time. We appreciate it.

BLISS: Yeah. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.