One month since Michigan's first case, a glimmer of hope in COVID-19 fight emerges

It's been a month since Michigan health officials confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 in the state, with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Health Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun announcing late March 10 one case out of Oakland County and another out of Wayne County. The announcement came the same night as Michigan's Primary election.

Since then, the state's coronavirus total has skyrocketed to more than 21,500 positive cases and over 1,000 reported deaths - placing Michigan third among hardest-hit areas in the country. Only New York and New Jersey have recorded higher totals.

Since early March, Whitmer has enacted dozens of executive orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, by restricting the use of public space, closing all nonessential businesses and ending the school year early. In southeast Michigan where a vast majority of cases have been confirmed, Detroit and Wayne County have become the epicenter of the state's outbreak, recording almost half of known cases.

While the pandemic has drained the city's budget and contracted the economy, public officials have some reason to hope. Since the state reported its highest daily total of cases on April 3, announcing 1,953 new patients, levels of new COVID-19 patients have plateaued and even declined. On Thursday, Michigan reported 1,158 new cases. 

Coronavirus cases have been spotted in almost every county in the state, reaching as far west as Gogebic in the Upper Peninsula. This flattening of the curve - slowing the pace of new cases of COVID-19 - was noted by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who said they were beginning to see a leveling off of new cases.

"The reason this is flattening out is because of you," Duggan said during a press conference Thursday.

However, it's a false sense of security when numbers began to fall in other countries that led to a loosening of restrictions and a subsequent rise in more cases, Duggan said. 

"Every country that lets up when it starts to slow, it spikes immediately," he added.

To keep up the pressure on reducing the spread, Whitmer deployed an extension on her stay-at-home order on Thursday, placing new restrictions on how stores operate and outlawing citizens from visiting other residences until the end of April. Her order came days after the state legislature extended her emergency powers that allow for the enforcement of executive orders.

Warning last week that Michigan's COVID-19 outbreak hadn't peaked, Khaldun said the state was still in its early stages of the spread and current models suggested residents were likely several weeks away from the worst of the outbreak. More recent estimates project Michigan's apex of daily totals may be closer to mid-April.

Despite making up only 14% of the state's population, black residents represent a third of all COVID-19 cases and 40% of all deaths. The disparity had been growing for some time as Detroit's outbreak worsened, where African Americans make up a majority of the city's population. Yesterday, Whitmer said she tapped Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist to lead a task force on the unequal infection rate among Michigan's black residents.

Even with a slowing new cases, the pace of deaths linked to COVID-19 have not stopped. On Thursday, the state reported 117 more people passed away, the second-highest daily total the state has measured. With increasing pressure on hospital systems to care for patients with the infection, many are nearing capacity for life-saving equipment like ventilators and available beds. Henry Ford Hospital had even begun planning for new life and death protocols for staff to follow as supplies dried up.

The death toll has been particularly hard in Detroit, reporting Friday, April 10 of 54 new deaths - the city's largest one-day increase in COVID-19 related fatalities.

To accommodate for the perceived overflow health care officials anticipated, Detroit opened its first makeshift hospital at the TCF convention center in downtown Detroit to care for patients diagnosed with the infection but weren't experiencing severe symptoms. Twenty-five patients will be admitted to the 1,000-bed facility on Friday. 

"We are going to have to put ultimately, in the coming weeks, 200 to 250 patients in the TCF center just based on the crowding in the hospital," Duggan said. "The single best report card on how well we are doing on social distancing is how many of those beds we end up using."

A similar trend of coronavirus cases has been noted in New York, which reports that hospitalizations have flattened but a mounting death toll continues to climb. 

Social distancing and a shuttering of nonessential businesses may have slowed the outbreak in Michigan, but it's also decimated the local economy. An updated report out of the University of Michigan forecasts more than 22% of the state's workforce will apply for unemployment benefits before returning to work. Yesterday, U.S. Labor Department numbers offered a grim outlook on the country's near-future employment prospects, reporting more than 6 million people had been laid off in the previous week. One out of 10 workers in the country are now out of a job.

The unemployment numbers over the last two weeks outpaced "even the toughest week in the Great Recession" Whitmer said earlier this week. Due to the spiking number of new filings, the state's website buckled under after too much traffic.

Some of the damage is expected to be offset by federal stimulus packages passed by Congress in recent weeks that have targeted small businesses with loans, bailouts for the travel industry, and direct cash payments to people.

But even with the relief, it's unlikely residents in Michigan or the rest of the world will get to revisit a normal life. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci told reporters this week the world might not return to the "normal" known before the outbreak.

"When we get back to normal, we will go back to the point where we can function as a society,” he said.  He continued, “If you want to get back to pre-coronavirus, that might not ever happen in the sense that the threat is there.”