State medical chief: ‘We are still in the upslope,’ COVID-19 cases expected to rise for weeks

1st member of Legislature tests positive

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun give a COVID-19 update at the state Capitol, March 26, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer photo

State medical officials have announced a plan for medical centers outside of Southeast Michigan, which has been the area hardest hit by the COVID-19 outbreak, to serve as relief hospitals. 

A statewide coronavirus hotline is open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

Under the state’s new “load balancing plan,” a number of hospitals will be offering up 10% of their usual bed capacity to accept patients from other hospitals that are currently overwhelmed, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health.

“We already have hospitals for stepping up to be a relief hospital and are starting this process,” Khaldun said. “As we continue to monitor the outbreak and hospital capacity across the state, we will remain flexible, so that every community has the health care resources that it needs to address the spread.”

There are now 2,856 positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, as of 2 p.m. Thursday, although state officials believe the actual number of cases is much higher. There were 2,295 cases as of Wednesday afternoon.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter, April 22, 2019 | Ken Coleman

One of them is state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), the first member of the Legislature to announce he has contracted COVID-19. The House was in session for roughly 12 hours on March 17 while hammering out a supplemental spending bill to address the virus. Neither the House nor Senate have been in session since then.

“I am concerned for Rep. Carter and I’m praying for a speedy recovery, and for safety for his friends and family,” said state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering). 

“I’m also taking this opportunity to remind all members and staff in the House to follow the CDC guidelines. Anyone who was within six feet of Rep. Carter during the incubation period should monitor themselves for symptoms. Anyone who does show symptoms should seek testing with their local health care provider and maintain strict social distancing. Following these procedures will help us all get through this time safely and get back to normal as soon as possible.”

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The state is reporting the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 is at 60 — up from 43 reported on Wednesday. 

Khaldun said as the disease spreads, the state may need to resort to alternative sites, outside of the usual hospitals, to care for those who may have COVID-19. She said state and health officials are developing and implementing plans for these sites, but at the time does not have details on where these will be.

As the Advance previously reported, several colleges, including Oakland University and Grand Valley State University, are ready to offer up spaces for patients.

“We know that the most important thing is that we’ve got bed capacity,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. “As we work to ramp up and work with our hospitals to prepare for a surge, we are looking for additional space that is adjacent or close to a hospital.”

Whitmer said she is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to implement these additional health care spaces, but has been told it could take up to four weeks to set one up. 

“We are trying to get it done in a lot less than that,” Whitmer said. “The urgency is real and the situation is getting more serious by the day. We anticipate to see additional cases today and sadly, people losing their battle to COVID-19. And so we are really putting as much pressure as we can on the Army Corps to make sure that we are moving as swiftly as we possibly can and working with our partners.”

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Whitmer looks to feds again for help 

Whitmer sent a letter to the president Thursday morning requesting a major disaster declaration, which included additional funding to the state in the case that Michigan needs to set up these field hospitals or other health care facilities. 

Also included in the request is assistance to help the state provide meals to families, provide rental assistance and temporary housing and provide counseling and therapy for Michigan residents whose mental health is affected by COVID-19.

“While the people and businesses of the great State of Michigan have shown incredible resilience and cooperation throughout this difficult time, we cannot weather this storm alone,” Whitmer said in a press release. “I am hopeful that the president will grant my request for a major disaster declaration in full and within a matter of days so we can provide more services to Michiganders who need them.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update at the state Capitol, March 26, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer photo

Some of the programs the governor requested to assist Michiganders during this time include Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Disaster Crisis Counseling, Disaster Case Management, Individuals and Households Program, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Disaster Survivor Assistance, Disaster Legal Services, and Voluntary Agency Coordination. 

Additionally, the governor requested Hazard Mitigation assistance to help provide relief during planning for recovery in the long-term, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the state’s vulnerability to future pandemics. 

“It’s really important that we get these requests to Washington right. The benefit of watching and seeing how other states have done it is we know what they have been able to procure and what they haven’t been able to,” Whitmer said. 

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As the Advance first reported Thursday morning, all 16 members of Michigan’s congressional delegation wrote a joint letter to Vice President Mike Pence, who heads the President Donald Trump administration’s response to COVID-19, asking for more medical and testing materials.

“Your assistance and engagement are urgently needed to assist the State of Michigan and its health care providers in order to address this challenge,” the letter reads. “…We urge you to immediately approve Michigan’s pending requests for [Personal Protection Equipment] and testing materials to the extent feasible and continue to work with us and the State of Michigan to meet the ongoing supply challenges we face.” 

Last week, Trump told a group of governors on a phone call to get medical equipment without the help of the federal government. Whitmer and other governors have been critical of Trump’s stance but have vowed to move forward.

“With a pandemic that is hitting every single one of our states, our ability to meet the need is severely compromised, and when the National Stockpile is not able to meet our needs and we are told to go find it on our own, we have to become a procurement agency unlike anything that’s ever been created,” whitmer said. “We as Americans shouldn’t be bidding against one another. we should be able to harness the federal power to ensure that everyone’s got what they need. That’s not happening. And so we are in this position.”

Whitmer said the more medical equipment that can be produced in-state, the better it will be for Michigan hospitals and doctors. 

“I do still believe that we, as a nation, were not as prepared as we should have been. I think the cuts to the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the attack on health care, in general, and the evisceration of the pandemic offices across the country have put us in a position where we are behind the eight ball.”

When will Michigan hit its COVID-19 peak?

Whitmer and Khaldun say that Michigan is improving in its ability to provide tests, but is still behind.

As of Wednesday, Khaldun says that between state labs, private labs and hospitals labs have run at least 9,100 tests.

“We’re still in the upslope when it comes to the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan,” Khaldun said. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is partnered with the University of Michigan and other private partners to understand when Michigan may hit its peak of COVID-19 cases.

“Right now, we are probably a few weeks out from meeting that apex,” Khaldun said. “But it all depends on what everyone does. If we do appropriate social distancing and people listen to the governor’s executive orders, we will be able to flatten that curve.”

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What about schools?

Teachers, school administrators and families are still waiting to hear whether or not students will be returning to school this spring. 

Under Whitmer’s executive order, private, public and boarding school students are set to return to school the week of April 13, but there are questions out there on the reality of that happening so soon. Michigan is under a “stay at home” order until that date, as well. 

Whitmer says she “cannot unilaterally address the issue around the education of our kids,” so she has been consulting with the Legislature, the Michigan Department of Education, superintendents and teachers.

“We know that the capacity for schools to meet the needs of our children is different based on the district, based on resources. We’ve got to have an equitable solution that meets the needs of our children,” Whitmer said. “So it does take a little bit longer than I know any parent would like, or any teacher and any administrator, but we’ve got to get it right.”

Whitmer said conversations on the topic are ongoing, but she hopes to have answers in “the next week or so.”

“At this juncture, we are in week two into what we know is at the very least a four-week hiatus from school, and as we see things play out we are making decisions based on what’s in the best interest in the health of our kids.”

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Some businesses confused by ‘stay at home’ 

On Monday, Whitmer announced the stay at home executive order, which temporarily closed a number of businesses that are not essential to “sustain or protect lives.”

For businesses that are unsure whether or not they are essential, Whitmer says it’s clear: “I would encourage any business that is not sure if they’re life sustaining to probably assume that they’re not.”

Under the executive order, non-essential businesses that remain open are at risk of fines and losing their business licenses.

“The more porous the policy, the longer we are going to be doing this, the more people are going to die and the more likely our health care system cannot meet the needs of our people,” Whitmer said.