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Charting Michigan’s coronavirus path, hoping for South Korea and not Italy


Michigan, like much of the United States and the world, has witnessed a startling climb in the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus, prompting widespread restrictions on schools, businesses and people.

But as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer mulls a “shelter-in-place” edict to slow the pace of infections, residents and public officials can look around the globe and hope the state’s future is more like South Korea than Italy or Spain.

Massive testing and isolation are credited in South Korea for slowing the rate of infection — flattening the so-called curve — in ways that Italians have been tragically unable to achieve. 

While infections in South Korea have stabilized, they are still rising rapidly in Italy, where over 47,000 people have been infected and more than 4,000 have died. 

“You can look and see what [different countries] are or not doing and see if you can offset the rapid increase,” said Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at the Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Whitmer closed schools and many businesses early this week, when the state had just over 50 positive tests. Gulick said state health care officials were rightfully afraid that the number of positive cases would quickly multiply and, potentially, swamp hospitals.

“We’ll run out of everything,” he said if cases rise uncontrolled. “We can’t afford that.”

Michigan passed 400 confirmed cases of the coronavirus on Friday, just 10 days after the state’s first two infections were announced. The state’s total stood at 549 cases by Friday afternoon.  

Where this virus takes Michigan from here is of course unknowable. But we might look to the experience of other nations as a guide. 


Bridge modeled what Michigan can expect in the weeks ahead based on how a country such as South Korea has fared. South Korea has been praised for taking aggressive steps to reduce community spread. Bridge also modeled some of the nations hit heavily by the coronavirus — Italy, Spain and France.  

Even in the best-case scenario, no country has avoided sharp increases once the virus arrived. Michigan will be challenged to provide enough tests, hospital beds, medical and safety equipment to handle the outbreak. At the same time, it’s important to note that most people diagnosed do not become seriously ill or require hospitalization.


South Korean officials have tested more than 270,000 people, at a rate of 5,200 tests for every 1 million residents.

People there have their temperatures checked constantly and, if high, they undergo testing. That’s allowed the government to isolate thousands of cases. The United States, by contrast, has conducted 74 tests for every 1 million people. It’s just been in the last few days that testing has become more widespread.


The Italian experience has been horrific. Confined initially to northern Italy, the virus has spread but is still hammering northern provinces the hardest, with reports of overflowing hospitals, backlogs at crematoriums and despair throughout the country.

After earlier restrictions on northern Italy, like closing bars and restaurants after 6 p.m., Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte put the entire country on lockdown on March 8. But by then, the country already had 7,400 cases identified, with positive cases rising a week later to more than 24,000. As of Friday, confirmed cases exceeded 47,000, with more than 4,000 deaths — including 627 deaths in just 24 hours.





France and Spain didn’t start seeing massive rises until two weeks after Italy. But in the days since, both countries have seen a remarkable increase. 

Last Sunday, Spain ordered the country’s 46.7 million to stay home except for work or buy essential supplies or medicine

But by then, Spain had 8,000 confirmed cases. Five days later, Spain saw a single-day jump of over 3,400 and now has over 21,000 cases and 1,092 deaths. 

Also last Sunday, France ordered residents to stay home and closed cafes, restaurants, cinemas and most shops. France was likely spurred by a huge spike in cases, which last Sunday jumped to 5,423, including 127 deaths. 

By Friday, confirmed cases had jumped above 12,000 in France with 450 deaths. 

The experiences abroad, Gulick said, highlight the need to take action now. What may be inconvenient, he said, is essential to slow the path of the illness if Michigan wants to mitigate what could become an even deeper tragedy. 

“We’ve got to do something real quick,” he said. “We have days, not weeks.”

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