Whitmer: COVID-19 hit Michigan hard due to poverty, airport hub

Detroit Metropolitan Airport | Susan J. Demas

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared on the newly renamed “Daily Social Distancing Show” Wednesday evening, where host Trevor Noah asked why Michigan was getting slammed by COVID-19.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Michigan had 9,334 positive cases and 337 deaths, making it the state with the fourth-most cases in the nation, per Johns Hopkins University tracking. Only New York, New Jersey and California have more cases. The state’s largest city of Detroit has been hit particularly hard, with 2,472 cases and 83 deaths.

Whitmer said “a lot of things” are contributing to the high number of cases in Michigan.

“Detroit is an international destination … with our big airport [Detroit Metro Airport], got a lot of people traveling in and out,” she said. “We’ve got serious poverty issues, as well. Forty percent of our residents live below the ALICE standard and we know that poverty is a preexisting condition, right? If you don’t have access to health care, if you have higher rates of diabetes or coronary disease, these are all things that exacerbate an illness.”

“ALICE” households are those that are “Asset limited, income restrained [and] employed.” A Michigan Association of United Ways report issued last year found that 43% of Michiganders in 2017 were either below the federal poverty line or the ALICE threshold, meaning almost half of the state’s households were unable to meet their basic needs.

Whitmer added that COVID-19 is “without a cure, without a vaccine, highly contagious and deadly. And we’re finding that it’s just growing exponentially, despite all the aggressive action that we’ve taken on the front end.” She said “that’s why we need as much help as possible” with personal protection equipment (PPE) like N95 masks and gowns for medical professionals.

On March 24, Whitmer instituted a “stay at home” order, closing non-essential businesses and allowing people to go out for necessary activities like getting groceries or gas or seeking medical care. According to CNN, 87% of Americans are now under similar orders.

On Wednesday, she formally declared a state of disaster in Michigan and asked the Legislature to OK an extension on the state of emergency for 70 days. That would allow Whitmer to further extend orders, like the “stay at home” measure she instituted on March 24.

However, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) already said he believes that’s too long. Business groups, who lobbied heavily against the stay at home order, have been vocal about the need to “reopen the economy” quickly.

Whitmer declares state of disaster over COVID-19, Senate GOP leader opposes 70-day extension

Noah asked if she was concerned there would be a “tipping point” where people no longer see the benefit of staying home, especially as there are many people living “paycheck-to-paycheck” in Michigan.

“Of course I am,” Whitmer responded. “Each of these orders that we issue as governors weigh heavily on us. When I close bars, I know that means there will be people who get laid off. I know it means there will be businesses that struggle to ever reopen again. I know there are 1.5 million kids in my state are not in school and they need an education. And half of them get their meals at school because of free and reduced lunch.

“Every decision we make weighs heavily and has ramifications,” she continued. “And I do worry that people will get impatient or start to feeling cabin fever being at home so much.”

Whitmer noted that with a deadly novel virus that has no cure or vaccine, “We know that the best thing we can do is to not see one another. … This virus can’t transfer from one person to the next if we’re not together. And so staying at home is doing your part. And it is a sacrifice and we recognize that.”

She said that’s why leaders need to make it easier for people to pay their bills and put food on their tables and it’s “best for the health of the economy in the long-run.”

Whitmer also appeared on CNN and MSNBC Wednesday night. Whitmer said on MSNBC the state has never had enough testing, but the state is “ramping up.” She repeated what Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health, said at a press conference last week: “We are on the upslope and will be for awhile.”

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

The governor also renewed her criticism about the lack of federal response, especially in getting PPE — something echoed by a bipartisan group of governors, including GOP Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington.

“We’re working 24/7 to do this, but at the end of the day it shouldn’t be states having a Wild West fight over this,” Whitmer said on CNN of competing with other states for medical equipment.

MSNBC host Chris Hayes compared Michigan’s fight against COVID-19 to a David-and-Goliath scenario.

“We’re trying to do all of this contracting outside of the federal government,” she said, “and we’re getting undercut through competition with other states or even the federal government.

“… These are tough times,” Whitmer told Hayes. “We’re going to get through them. But these challenges are made much worse because there hasn’t been consistent national strategy and we’ve got now a patchwork of policies. It’s like fighting a fight with one hand behind our back.”

Avatar
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.