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Nation & World

Michigan Gov. Whitmer Comments On Electoral College, Vaccine Rollout

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Our next guest is at the center of two major stories this morning. The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is on its way to sites across this country, and it's coming from a warehouse in Kalamazoo, Mich. Michigan is also one of the states where Republicans staged protests and baseless lawsuits aiming to call off democracy and keep Donald Trump president after his defeat. Today, members of the Electoral College meet in every state and affirm that Joe Biden won.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer is on the line. Governor, welcome back to the program.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Good morning. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: I want to begin with the Electoral College. Some state legislative leaders have been saying that state offices are closed today because of credible threats. What are you hearing from law enforcement?

WHITMER: Well, we know that today is an important day. And we've always been mindful that it's going to be necessary to make sure everyone is safe. The Legislature won't be in session today, and so the Capitol Commission, because of intel that they had, decided to close the Capitol for the purposes of our Electoral College vote today. So I can't go into a great deal of detail around the security issue. But needless to say, we are going to pursue this. We will see it through, and we will cast our votes for Joe Biden.

INSKEEP: I'm recalling occasions earlier in the year when protesters brought weapons, apparently legally, into the Capitol. Is that the sort of thing you would need to avoid, or is it something worse?

WHITMER: I suppose it's possible. As I said, Steve, I can't go into too much detail. I will just say that in our Capitol currently, bringing guns is permitted. And so I am glad that the Capitol Commission took these steps to just close the Capitol today. Legislature's not in town, so this makes a lot of sense.

INSKEEP: Our correspondent Tamara Keith reminds us that the Electoral College meets in every state, generally in the state Capitol. So can you just walk us through today? What do the electors do?

WHITMER: So we will convene in the Michigan Senate. The lieutenant governor will be our chair. He will bring us to order. We will go through the methodical way of casting these Electoral College votes, and then we will send them to Washington, D.C. And it will be official today. And it's a very exciting moment after a very tumultuous year.

INSKEEP: Sixteen, if I'm not mistaken, electoral votes out of Michigan for Joe Biden unless there is some faithless elector or some surprise, which occasionally does happen. Now, let's move on, Governor, to this other news of the vaccine. I want to play a little bit of U.S. Army General Gustave Perna. He is chief operating officer of the federal Operation Warp Speed, which was supposed to deliver a vaccine quickly. And this is what he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUSTAVE PERNA: Boxes are being packed and loaded with vaccine, with emphasis on quality control. We expect 145 sites across all the states to receive vaccine on Monday, another 425 sites on Tuesday.

INSKEEP: And that's happening in your state, in Kalamazoo. What's that been like?

WHITMER: I got to tell you, I was watching the coverage this weekend, along with Americans everywhere, and it brought tears to my eyes. This is a incredibly hopeful moment. We saw these Pfizer employees who live in Portage, Mich., cheering for one another as the vaccines were rolling out and will be distributed across the country. And I think this is a moment of incredible hope, as we close a year that's been incredibly challenging.

INSKEEP: And how is this being distributed across your state?

WHITMER: So we have prioritized, according to the CDC guidelines, first, of course, will be health care workers and people who live in nursing homes. And then as we - the vaccine becomes more plentiful and available, we will then go through our tiered system that we rolled out on Friday.

INSKEEP: And how soon might there be dramatic numbers, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, who are vaccinated in Michigan?

WHITMER: Well, it depends on how quickly the FDA approves additional vaccines and how quickly they get ramped up and distributed. We were anticipating about a half-a-million vaccines, and then we were informed by the federal government that it was going to be more like 80,000. And so we as states are trying to be nimble and build up the apparatus to administer these vaccines. But we don't control how many end up getting here and what the cadence is. So we've got to be nimble. But we're hopeful, in a couple of months, we will really start to see increased availability for the general public.

INSKEEP: Did you say, Governor, that you expected half-a-million and it's turning out to be a lot less, at least initially?

WHITMER: We did. And part of the thing with this vaccine is that it takes two shots for one person. And so when you anticipate 500,000 vaccines, that's 250,000 people. When that turns out to be 80,000, it's actually 40,000 people. It's very different. And so we have to build up for - in the event we get as much as we anticipate. But we have to manage expectations when the federal government changes the number for a reason that we've not quite understood yet.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about another number - the number of people who are willing to take the vaccine. As you know very well, large numbers of people have told surveys that they are skeptical, that they don't want to take the vaccine. There are always some people who don't want to take a vaccine. The numbers have been improving. Confidence has been going up. But still, a lot of people are skeptical. And yesterday, the FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, was addressing this on ABC's "This Week." He said it's a major problem. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THIS WEEK")

STEPHEN HAHN: The way we see light at the end of the tunnel, the way we get through this, is to achieve herd immunity. And that means we need to vaccinate a significant number of people in this country, including those who are hesitant. And we need to address their fears and concerns.

INSKEEP: How can you address their fears and concerns, Governor?

WHITMER: Well, I think it's important to have a strategic outreach campaign, and that means having a diverse group of people at the table to help us reach different communities. Michigan boasts a very diverse population. People came here from around the world for jobs in the auto industry. And that means we've got to have an inclusive strategy to bring people into the conversation and educate them about how safe and effective this vaccine is.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned diversity. We've had an African American doctor recently on the program who is reminding us that African Americans have a special history of being abused by the medical community and special reasons to believe that conspiracy theories may not always have been conspiracies, false conspiracies. Do you have to make special efforts to make sure every group is vaccinated as much as possible?

WHITMER: We absolutely do. And those concerns are - have been, I think, exacerbated in a year where political rhetoric has invaded the conversation around public health to all of our detriment. And so we've got to take that into consideration as we allocate our time and energy toward this effort.

INSKEEP: Governor, one more thing. We're crossing 300,000 dead from the pandemic, even as the vaccine goes out. How strict will restrictions have to be this winter to save some lives?

WHITMER: Well, we are in the height of it right now. And while the vaccine is - gives us hope, and every month of 2021, I'm convinced, is going to get better than the last, we have a real challenge right now. The numbers that our country is putting up in terms of cases and fatalities and hospitalizations is the worst it's ever been, and that's why we've got to double down on mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and not gathering for this holiday.

INSKEEP: Do you still see the kind of resistance that you saw in the spring?

WHITMER: I think that it's gotten a little bit better. But there's certainly challenges ahead, and that's why we've got to all do our part.

INSKEEP: Gretchen Whitmer is governor of Michigan. Governor, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

WHITMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.