‘Damn, I’ll be dead by then’: Detroit COVID-19 survivors talk about waiting for tests and the virus’ toll 

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The Motor City has been identified as a hotspot for COVID-19 and statewide data has shown that coronavirus has disproportionately affected Blacks. The Michigan Advance talked with four African-American Detroiters who described their bouts with the virus in lengthy and candid phone interviews over the last week.

In an essay published this week about Detroit during the COVID-19 crisis, this reporter wrote about several Detroiters who contracted the virus and who wanted to share their stories. They included health care advocates Paula Green-Smith and her husband and business partner Phil Hamilton; state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit) and the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship. 

Each suffered similar symptoms commonly associated with the virus, but were tested at different sites in different cities and experienced varying wait times for their test results. It took less than 24 hours for Green-Smith and Hamilton. For Sheffield, the wait was almost 10 days. 

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Green-Smith and Hamilton were tested at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital in Oakland County that administers its own examination and analyzes the results on site rather than sending tests out to private laboratories for evaluation, unlike some other sites. Wait times also can be affected by when the test is done, scarcity of tests at a site and how many clinicians are available to evaluate the data. 

“Luckily, we went to Beaumont,” Green-Smith said. “They had their own test.” 

Carter believes he was infected with COVID-19 during a retirement party for a law enforcement official in March.

The lawmaker said during his spell with COVID-19 his temperature, at one point, was 102 degrees. “I had chills, man. My teeth were rattling like I was shaking a dice and playing Monopoly.” My wife was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It was so bad that I had to go to the guest room.” 

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

Two days later, Carter said that he had lost sense of taste. The following day, he went for testing at a drive-through site managed by Wayne State University physicians. The retired Wayne County Sheriff deputy said jokingly to his wife upon learning about the length of time for his test results: “Damn, I’ll be dead by then.”

Five days later, he learned by email that he had COVID-19.

It’s affected him both personally and professionally. Upon hearing about his former colleague and friend, Isaac Robinson, the state House member from Detroit who died on March 29 after having COVID-19 symptoms, Carter said, “My heart sunk.”

Carter said that he is now on the “road to full recovery” and wants to use his voice in Lansing and Detroit to help deal with the virus. 

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COVID-19 has hit Black Michiganders hard and everyone is looking for answers. The state reports that 33% of Michigan’s confirmed cases are African American and 39% of the deaths as alarming. Blacks compose only 14% of the state’s population. In 31% of cases, the race of the person is unknown and that’s the case in 17% of deaths.

In Michigan, 27,001 confirmed cases have been reported and 1,768 deaths as of Tuesday. In Detroit, 7,004 confirmed cases have been reported and 427 deaths. Detroit Mayor Duggan said Friday that 43% of the 7,000 people who have been tested at the city’s State Fairgrounds site have COVID19. About 45% of those people are Detroit residents and the city is 80% African American.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week created a task force last week on racial disparities. Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is African American, chairs the body. It has already met twice.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who is African American, talked last week about health disparities between whites and people of color.

“It’s alarming, but it’s not surprising that people of color have a greater burden of chronic health conditions,” he said. “African Americans and Native Americans develop high blood pressure at much younger ages. It’s less likely to be under control and does greater harm to their organs.”

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Health officials have suggested that these disparities make people of color more likely to contract COVID-19. Poverty and lack of health insurance have been flagged by some officials as possible reasons for higher rates for Blacks. 

As the Advance previously reported, there are longstanding environmental justice issues in Detroit, with concerns about air pollution that can lead to asthma and other health conditions. And people of color often face medical racism in that their concerns aren’t taken as seriously, something Whitmer wanted to address in the maternal and infant health policies in her budget plan for next fiscal year.  

Green-Smith and Hamilton contracted the virus in mid-March. The University District couple have been self-quarantined since March 18. 

Paula Green-Smith and Phil Hamilton

They experienced different symptoms. Green-Smith, who described herself as a healthy person, had a high temperature and severe body aches, but no coughing or sneezing. Hamilton, who has asthma, experienced body aches, as well, and at one point lost some of his taste senses.

About one week after testing positive, however, their symptoms changed. Hamilton had a dry cough. Green-Smith had headaches. During their bouts with the virus, even going to the bathroom was a struggle because their bodies were so weak. At times, they lay in bed crying and holding hands. 

“This is the worst ordeal that I’ve ever been through,” Green-Smith said. “Honestly, we don’t believe that we would have made it without each other.”

Their conditions are improving, but they don’t know whether they still have COVID-19.

“We can’t get tested,” Green-Smith said. “They need to use the scare number of tests on people who have the symptoms. They don’t have enough tests available.”

The couple applaud government recognition of the environmental health care disparities among the races that have rendered COVID-19 more prevalent in the Black community, but they want less talk and more action.

“They need to get more funding into the programs that are making a difference,” said Green-Smith, who founded Urban Health Resource, which addresses diseases like diabetes. African-American adults are 60% more likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

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The couple urges people to stay home as much as possible during the state-issued stay home order.

“Until they can get a handle on this, we need to shelter in place,” Green-Smith said.

“Stay at home and stay safe,” Hamilton added.

Horace Sheffield III photo

Sheffield, a Detroit resident, believes that he contracted the virus during a business trip to New York City. He experienced severe chills and massive sweating before his return flight and was tested at a Big Apple hospital. No other city in America has been more impacted by COVID-19 than New York.    

“I felt like somebody hit me with a brick,” Sheffield recalled. 

The New Destiny Christian Fellowship pastor was tested on March 16 and later learned that he had coronavirus. He went to a drive-up testing site. It took 10 days to get the results, he said. Sheffield, who is 65, has diabetes and also suffers from hypertension. He’s lost 20 pounds and has been self-quarantined ever since. 

However, he took a walk outdoors on Easter. “I felt a lot better,” Sheffield said. “The problem is, I get out of breath. [COVID-19] has sapped me of all of my strength.”

He is highly critical of fellow African Americans who don’t believe that they can’t get the coronavirus and of some churches who continue to hold public services during the crisis. His Detroit church has been broadcasting its services online and on Facebook without parishioners in the pews. 

Through it all, Sheffield has continued to help his members in need through phone calls and emails. “I’m trying to arrange funerals, which has been increasingly difficult. It’s hard to get signatures on death certificates,” he said.

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The longtime Detroit resident also notes there are not enough tests available — and that’s a problem.

“From a public health standpoint, I think that we have done a woeful job,” Sheffield said. “The genesis is all of this is our president [Donald Trump]. He was made aware of this a long time ago.”

He is also critical of testing protocols such as requiring a doctor’s prescription and argued that the requirement helped to exacerbate the spread of the virus.

“A lot of Black people don’t have a primary care physician to get a [prescription] in the first place,” Sheffield said. “Even with insurance, they don’t have one.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.