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Michigan's COVID-19 Plan Is Now Less Stick, More Carrot

NOEL KING, HOST:

Michigan is seeing a surge in new COVID-19 infections. And the CDC's director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said yesterday that vaccination alone is not enough to stop it. The only way to stop the surge, she said, is to shut that state down. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been reluctant to do that. Instead, she's been pleading for more vaccines and trying to convince everyone to get their shots. Here's Rick Pluta from Michigan Public Radio.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Less stick, more carrot - that appears to be Governor Whitmer's approach now. Last Wednesday, the governor visited Ford Field in Detroit, which currently serves as a mass vaccination site. Whitmer slipped her left arm out of her coat and took her first Pfizer shot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETCHEN WHITMER: I'm done. That's it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How'd it feel?

WHITMER: Good. I feel good. I feel relieved, to be honest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right.

PLUTA: The event was timed to start reaching people who are reluctant to get vaccinated while Michigan faces a new surge in infections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHITMER: The problem is, you know, fatigue, mobility and variants. And we've got all of those things working against us here in Michigan right now.

PLUTA: The shift in messaging follows political opposition and lawsuits challenging the governor's continued use of shutdown orders and restrictions.

KEN RESNICOW: People who are reactant, restrictions can make it worse.

PLUTA: That's Ken Resnicow, a Ph.D. and an expert in public health messaging at the University of Michigan. He says some in the African American community are vaccine hesitant. Then there's a core group that's in the hard no camp. That group, he says, is largely made up of white evangelical men who are ready to defy government health orders.

RESNICOW: And if you say you must, you should, you have to - they almost biologically want to go in the opposite direction. We have to be very careful as to respect their independence. That is the No. 1 issue is that this is an attempt to control me and, therefore, a threat to my independence, which these people value very highly.

PLUTA: Exhibit A might be Michigan's Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey. Last month, the state's top Republican and Whitmer nemesis said it's time to let people make more individual choices on how to respond to the threat of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE SHIRKEY: And they're just waiting to be informed, inspired, encouraged and then trusted. And right now, we're still under an environment where this governor does not trust citizens of Michigan to do the right thing.

PLUTA: But, Ken Resnicow says, white evangelical conservatives like Shirkey can be reached. He says the messaging has to be focused on their choice to protect their family and their community.

RESNICOW: You have to be very careful to say that's really up to you. This is an important choice that you can make.

PLUTA: Resnicow is part of a group of public health experts and professional storytellers in the entertainment industry. The members call themselves the Protector Coalition. He says the group is working up narratives and storylines to use in ads and TV shows to help create a culture shift across the political spectrum, one that embraces masks, distancing and vaccination, which is why, in Michigan, as Governor Whitmer ponders her next move amid the new COVID wave, her first choice is not reimposing restrictions but following a new script.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta.

(SOUNDBITE OF INVOKE'S "LITTLE NORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.