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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: COVID’s deadliest days in Michigan loom ahead

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun called her departure “bittersweet,” but said her new job will allow her to “continue doing my life’s work of advancing bold programs and policies that promote the health of all communities.” (Bridge file photo)

With Michigan COVID-related deaths approaching 8,000, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state’s top medical official painted a grim picture Thursday of the state’s very near future.

“We are potentially looking at some of the deadliest, most grim days of this pandemic ahead of us if we don't collectively change our behaviors,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy director for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said of the current surge.

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Joining Khaldun at the afternoon press briefing, Whitmer noted that the country is now registering more than 1,000 deaths each day.

“Try to imagine ten 737 airplanes crashing to the ground every single day,” the governor said. “That's what we're facing — a 9-11 every three days.

Unlike the spring explosion of cases that would be followed by warmer weather, the onslaught of new cases in recent weeks is building as winter approaches, pushing people indoors and close together.

As of Thursday, Michigan had logged 236,225 cases and is currently tracking 747 active outbreaks — 25 percent more than a week ago, Khaldun noted. 

Already, 7,811 people are confirmed to have died so far in Michigan, according to state data.

One-in-five intensive care patients across the state are COVID patients. 

Hospitals say they are “filling up very quickly,” with “medical wards and ICUs..filling up exponentially,” Khaldun said. “Some are already almost at capacity, risking the ability to take care of not just COVID patients but non-COVID patients as well.”

The surge is also overwhelming the state’s ability to conduct contract tracing and testing — the basic tools to track and try to control the virus.

“That system is simply not keeping up,” she said.

Whitmer and Khaldun issued the warnings just hours after hospital leaders across Michigan did much the same, pleading with Michiganders to wear masks and cancel normal Thanksgiving plans.

“Thanksgiving is going to look different this year, it just has to,” Whitmer said, urging families to celebrate only with members of their households and connect with others over Zoom or with pictures.

“The more people we have in our homes, talking and eating, drinking, hugging, yelling at the Lions, the higher the risk of catching or spreading this virus,” she said.

Khaldun echoed her words, noting that her own family has cancelled “all holiday gatherings.”

“The winter holidays simply cannot be the same this year. This is not the time to travel for the holidays,” she said.

More than 45,000 diagnostic tests are being performed across the state every day, she noted, and 1 in 10 of those tests is returning positive for COVID — an “alarming” rate, and one that “means this virus is out of control,” said Khaldun.

She and Whitmer offered refrains that have been repeated by public health authorities since early in the pandemic: Wear masks. Wash hands. Social distance.

Such efforts not only protect individuals, they reduce pressure on overwhelmed health care systems and workers.

“None of us needs a judge or an executive order to make smart decisions for ourselves in our families,” Whitmer said.

Pressed on whether another state government-ordered lockdown might be ahead, Whitmer skirted the question and instead called on the public to “do their part,” redirecting the question onto what she said was the main message for the day.

“Ultimately, the most important thing that the public needs to know is that this remains a very real and present threat to every single one of us. We need people to individually do their part so, collectively, we get through this winter, we don't overwhelm our hospital systems, and we don't lose more lives,” she said.

Whitmer and Khaldun encouraged residents to download the MI COVID Alert app, a voluntary, free smartphone app that notifies users if they might have been in close contact with people infected with COVID-19.

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