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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says COVID-19 antibody test could help reopen economy

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

LANSING — Michigan is preparing to publish COVID-19 recovery data and wants to identify residents who have developed antibodies and may now be immune to the virus, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday.

As the state’s death toll rises and Whitmer is expected to extend her stay-at-home order beyond April 14, recovery data could inform decisions on when and how to reopen parts of the Michigan economy. 

“We want to know who possibly has antibodies, who can be safely out in the public or back to work,” Whitmer told reporters in a coronavirus response briefing. “I think it’s also going to be important that we continue to develop an antibody test that is available in a robust way.”

But Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, both warned an antibody test may not prove how long someone is immune to the virus, especially if it evolves. 

“We don’t know if the virus is going to mutate,” Khaldun said, “so even if you have the antibody, how effective is antibody fighting the disease, and will you be immune next year if the coronavirus is around? All that still has to be studied.”

The comments come as Michigan braces for what both Whitmer and President Trump have warned could be one of the worst weeks for the outbreak. As of Sunday, Michigan had at least 15,718 confirmed cases and 617 deaths, but state officials have warned they expect daily numbers to continue to rise for more weeks. 

A few hours after Whitmer’s update, Detroit officials announced that cases in the city jumped 475 from Sunday to 5,032 and deaths increased 29 to 196. Trump and other federal officials have called Detroit a national hotspot for the virus.

“We are not close to the apex yet,” said Whitmer, adding she plans to revise and extend her current stay-at-home limiting travel for non-essential workers. 

“We haven't hit that yet, and until we do, I think it's absolutely essential that we're continuing to be aggressive. So I would anticipate an additional order probably in the next week.” 

Whitmer has warned Michigan may have had more cases than reported because of early testing shortages. She and Khaldun said an antibody test could help determine if people already had COVID-19 but were not tested at the time.

“We are working on that front as well,” Whitmer said. “We want to build that kind of database so we know who among us has got those antibodies.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week approved the nation’s first test for coronavirus antibodies, which can tell doctors whether a patient has been exposed and if they’ve developed some immunity. 

Such tests have reportedly already been used in other countries such as China and Singapore. England purchased 3.5 million antibody tests and plans to ship them to residents for personal use.

Groups such as the National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project, which includes a Michigan State University medical expert, are studying whether plasma from recovered patients could treat others or prevent the spread. 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped reveal Flint’s water contamination crisis, tested positive for COVID-19 and plans to donate her plasma to the group.

Michigan’s interest in antibody testing comes as the state faces criticism over what data it has and is making available to health providers and a public that is clamoring for information about the pandemic. 

On Sunday, Beaumont Health CEO John Fox blasted the state for failing to enforce an emergency order requiring hospitals to share data on bed and ventilator capacity, patient numbers, supplies, staffing shortages and dedicated COVID-19 treatment areas.

He cited a lack of “accurate, real-time data” as contributing to delays in finding other hospitals to send newly arriving patients.

Unlike several states, Michigan does not release data on patients who are on ventilators or in intensive care, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Khaldun said Monday that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is working with the Michigan Hospital Association to “make sure our hospital CEOs know and have the ability to report properly.”  

She defended the state’s data sharing to date, telling reporters Michigan is one of the only states reporting on patient race (the data show the virus is disproportionately impacting African Americans) and is working to be as “comprehensive and transparent as we possibly can.”

Khaldun said the state this week plans to begin posting data on the number of Michigan residents who have so far recovered from COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, Michigan hospitals in Metro Detroit are running “dangerously low” on personal protective equipment for medical providers, Whitmer said Monday. 

As far as N-95 masks, Beaumont Health Systems has less than three days until its supply runs out, Henry Ford Health System has less than four days and the Detroit Medical Center has less than 10 days, according to the governor.

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