Almost 500K Michiganders would die of COVID-19 without action, per state model

Trump ignores health experts, wants nation ‘opened up’ by Easter

Workers load new respirators into a van at Columbus Covid2 Hospital on March 16, 2020 in Rome, Italy. In issuing a stay at home order, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the state was on track to becoming Italy without action. | Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Updated, 8:55 a.m., 3/25/20

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday announced a stay at home executive order for all of Michigan through April 13, something endorsed by public health experts and bipartisan leaders.

There were some startling numbers behind the policy. After consulting with health experts, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) determined that almost 500,000 people in the state could die of COVID-19 without taking decisive action to stop its spread.

So what’s behind the numbers? 

“Flatten the curve” is the medical guidance on repeat during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a method of using social distancing to try and lower the total number of individuals who will become infected with COVID-19, the disease from a new coronavirus, during a certain time period. 

A tool from COVID Act Now lays out why that’s increasingly important, especially in Michigan. The state experienced a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases over the weekend.

Michigan reported 24 deaths and 1,791 cases of COVID-19 in its latest update Tuesday afternoon, although the number of actual cases is likely much higher due to a shortage of testing.

Michigan now has the fifth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States, a major concern for health care providers. The state has just under 10 million residents and 25,400 hospital beds. If steps aren’t taken to flatten the curve, the state could see more sick people than it has hospital beds to accommodate them. Hospitals like the Beaumont health system in metro Detroit already are nearing capacity.

Social distancing and self-isolation “buy time to create surge capacity in hospitals” and develop therapeutic drugs that could lower hospitalization and fatality rates, according to COVID Act Now.

But if no pointed action were taken to slow COVID-19, 70% of Michigan’s population could contract the virus, according to COVID Act Now’s model, which was developed by data scientists, engineers and designers in coordination with public health officials and epidemiologists. The data is preliminary and could evolve as the pandemic continues. 

COVID Act Now

Whitmer referenced the 70% figure at her Monday press conference and warned that Michigan was on track to become like Italy, where COVID-19 spread quickly. Italy has almost 64,000 cases and more than 6,000 deaths.

Michigan hospitals would be overloaded by April 4, under the model, and the state could see more than 200,000 deaths by that date, the model shows. 

In a no-action scenario, Michigan could see 460,000 deaths by the time the pandemic came to an end — a jarring number that’s roughly 5%* of the population.

Whitmer signs ‘stay at home’ order, warns businesses not to ‘play fast and loose’ with public health

DHHS calculated that number based on preliminary work from the University of Michigan, the COVID Act Now website and by making projections about Michigan using the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team’s research. As of Tuesday, Michigan residents are under the stay at home order in an attempt to slow how many people are exposed and infected over the next three weeks. 

“I want you to know, I didn’t make this decision lightly. I’ve consulted with medical experts from across the country and right here at home,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer was briefed by epidemiologists from multiple research universities over the weekend, as the Advance first reported. Seeing people continuing to gather in public in large groups led her to consider more pronounced state action, and her talk with the epidemiologists triggered her decision to invoke a stay at home order, she said.

COVID Act Now

Whitmer added that she wanted to avoid a scenario where 7 million of the state’s 10 million residents become ill. In that specific scenario, about 1 million people would require hospitalization.

COVID Act Now developed additional possible scenarios, which are on its website. One of the models shows the impact COVID-19 would have if Michigan residents sheltered in place for three months, instead of taking no action at all. 

If Michigan residents sheltered in place for that duration, only 8% of the state population would contract the virus. This model projects 9,000 deaths — which is still hard to comprehend, but is a much less deadly result than the no-action model. 

Trump wants country open by Easter

COVID Act Now only does state-by-state models. 

However, models from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that if no action is taken at the national level, between 160 million and 210 million Americans could contract the disease over the span of a year. In these models, the number of deaths ranged from 200,000 to 1.7 million. 

Although many states, including Ohio, Louisiana, New York and California, are under stay at home orders, President Donald Trump has not issued a national order. A number of doctors, nurses and medical groups have urged him to take that action: the American Medical Society, American Nurses Association, Committee to Protect Medicare and the American Hospital Association.

Trump attacks Whitmer on Twitter after she asks feds for more support

In a press conference Tuesday, Trump suggested a different policy that’s strongly opposed by health experts. The president said he wants the country “opened up and raring to go” — i.e. reopening businesses and holding events — by Easter, which is Sunday, April 12. That’s one day before Whitmer’s order expires.

“I thought it was a beautiful time. A beautiful timeline,” Trump said.

Trump is concerned about the economic impact of COVID-19, as the stock market plunged for weeks and hasn’t recovered and unemployment has soared. However, doctors and health experts across the country warn the nation will see a “massive spike” in COVID-19 cases if Americans return to crowded workplaces or events too early, CNN reports.

Bipartisan leaders also warned against taking such action.

“No American is going to say, ‘Accelerate the economy at the cost of human life,’” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

And Wyoming U.S. Rep. Lynn Cheney, the No. 3 Republican in the House, wrote on Twitter: “There will be no normally functioning economy if our hospitals are overwhelmed and thousands of Americans of all ages, including our doctors and nurses, lay dying because we have failed to do what’s necessary to stop the virus.”

Doctors group calls for national ‘shelter in place’ order, asks Michigan business groups for support

The impact for Michigan

Time will show how Whitmer’s stay at home order affects the spread of COVID-19. Modeling has yet to be done to show how drastically the order will affect case numbers, said DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin.

“This order will help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our state,” Sutfin wrote in an email. “Our frontline staff and clinicians in hospitals are working tirelessly, around the clock, taking care of patients with COVID-19, while also keeping up with the usual demands of a busy hospital.”

The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths are expected to continue to rise, despite the new stay at home order, because health experts note that “flattening the curve” takes time.

Whitmer on Tuesday also called on Michigan residents and businesses to donate medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), like gloves and masks, to hospitals. In addition to fears about hospitals becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, there’s also a concern Michigan hospitals will run out of PPE, disinfectants and equipment that aides respiratory health, like ventilators.

Whitmer: Federal govt. must ‘get their act together’ on COVID-19

“We have to make sure hospitals can continue to do this important work, and that they are not overwhelmed with patients who are severely sickened from this disease,” Sutfin wrote. 

Whitmer and other governors have been critical of the lack of coordinated response from the Trump administration to fight COVID-19, especially in getting life-saving medical equipment like masks and ventilators to states. Governors have clamored for Trump to use the Defense Production Act to direct industries to produce tests and PPE.

“It’s a wild, wild West out there, and indeed [we’re] overpaying for PPE because of that competition,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said on CNN this weekend.

However, Trump has lashed out at governors, including Cuomo, Pritzker and Whitmer. On Tuesday, Trump laid out his expectations for states who want federal help, in sharp contrast to his predecessors.

“It’s a two-way street,” Trump said on Fox News. “They have to treat us well, also. They can’t say, ‘Oh, gee, we should get this, we should get that.’”

The United States now has 54,810 coronavirus cases — the third-most in the world, behind China and Italy. As of Wednesday morning, 781 Americans have died.

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In the meantime, Sutfin noted that “several Michigan businesses” had stepped up in the last two weeks to start making PPE. 

On Tuesday, Ford — partnering with General Electric Healthcare, 3M and the United Auto Workers (UAW) — said it would manufacture ventilators, respirators and face shields to alleviate some of the need for equipment. Distilleries in Holland and Traverse City said they will make and donate hand sanitizer to health care facilities in their respective areas. 

* Correction: The story has been updated with the correct percentage under the model.

C.J. Moore
C.J. Moore covers the environment and the Capitol. She previously worked at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland as a public affairs staff science writer. She also previously covered crop sustainability and coal pollution issues for Great Lakes Echo. In addition, she served as editor in chief at The State News and covered its academics and research beat. She studies environment journalism and film at Michigan State University.
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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.