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Coronavirus spreading faster in Detroit than nearly anywhere in United States

Update: As coronavirus bears down, Detroit enters a grim new phase

DETROIT — The coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the poorest big city in the nation, prompting concerns about whether a municipality still recovering from bankruptcy can provide services to its most vulnerable residents.

Michigan’s surging infection rates are propelled by a startling number of cases in Detroit, which has a per capita infection rate that is among the nation’s highest, exceeded only by New York and its surrounding counties and New Orleans.

Detroit’s challenges are particularly acute because 1 in 3 residents are impoverished and have high rates of diabetes and other ailments that increase the severity of the virus.

As of Wednesday, 12 of the state’s 43 deaths were Detroit residents, while the pandemic has quarantined nearly 300 city police officers and firefighters and led to a one-day stoppage of a public transit system.

The city is the “epicenter” of Michigan infection because of its vulnerable populations, and it’s “scary” how fast it is spreading, said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease expert at Detroit Medical Center. 

Nearly a third of Michigan’s cases, 705 of 2,295 as of Wednesday, are from Detroit, even though the city has less than 10 percent of the state’s population.


“It’s been real scary,” said Tammara Howard, a resident of the city’s east side who is CEO and founder of a nonprofit known as What About Us, Inc.

The group is a hub for neighborhood gatherings, and Howard said many still underestimate the seriousness of the virus, despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s order that residents stay at home until at least April 13.

“They knock on the door, and you don't want to be rude, but the virus is out there,” said Howard, who has high blood pressure and diabetes. 

On Wednesday, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the city is ramping up testing and hopes to provide them to 400 people a day, six days a week for the next six weeks.

“We haven’t hit the peak,” said Duggan, who added that “four people connected to me have died in the past 48 hours.”


We haven’t hit the peak. Four people connected to me have died in the past 48 hours."

—Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan

“The idea that you would just go on with life and survival of the fittest, that is not what this country is about,” he said.

‘Rapid acceleration’

Detroit’s coronavirus rate, 83 cases per 100,000 residents as of earlier this week, is nearly five times the statewide rate and more than double the next highest rate, Oakland County. Nationwide, Wayne County, including Detroit, has the 13th highest per capita rate. Oakland County is 25th.

“We’re on the rapid acceleration of the growth curve,” Dr. Betty Chu, associate chief clinical officer at Henry Ford Health System, said on Wednesday. 

Dr. Marcus Zervos, a specialist in infectious diseases at Henry Ford, is working with Detroit health officials and said Michigan “has done a better job of testing than other states.”

“It’s good that we have higher numbers,” Zervos said. “It’s important. If we know who’s positive, we can implement control measures.”

Chopra, the Detroit Medical Center doctor, sad Detroiters are vulnerable because so many have underlying health conditions. Cases that in other areas are mild may instead hospitalize Detroiters or worse, she said.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the city’s former health director, said city and state officials have “done their best given the circumstances.” 

The city is full of people who are poor and marginalized. It’s the densest part of Michigan, and Detroiters in general are less healthy.”

--Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former city health director

“The city is full of people who are poor and marginalized. It’s the densest part of Michigan, and Detroiters in general are less healthy,” said El-Sayed, who ran against Whitmer for governor in 2018.

When Duggan appointed him to run the health department in 2015, it had five staffers. Today, there are 110, but about a third of them focus on animal control, according to the city’s budget.

Overall, Michigan ranks near the bottom of the nation, 43rd, on public health funding, according to America’s Health Rankings, an annual report by United Health Foundation, a Minnesota-based nonprofit.“This is what happens when you create a system built on austerity,” El-Sayed said. 

“Folks are working really hard now. But they’re working from their back foot. Catching up amid a pandemic is not how you want to do it.”

Help is ‘not enough’

Amid the crisis, Detroit is ramping up efforts to provide essentials. Three of Detroit’s 11 recreation centers, which are otherwise closed until at least April 13, are repurposed to provide breakfast and lunch for children on weekdays.

“That’s helping to alleviate some of the stress of being able to have the children inside your homes fed,” said Jeremy Thomas, communications and marketing manager for the city’s parks and recreation division.

Posted hours are 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., but Farwell Recreation Center on the east side usually runs out of its 1,200 meals by 11 a.m., said staffer Terence Mercer.

“It’s not enough,” said a staffer outside the Adams Butzel Recreation Center on the west side who wasn’t able to share his name. Food at Butzel was gone by noon on a Tuesday, but “people are still coming.”

In one case, a woman said she had a household with 20 children, which was “hard to believe,” Mercer said. But when staffers drove the food over to her place, the house indeed looked full of kids.

More recreation centers will be deployed for food assistance next week, the city said, picking up from the Detroit public school system as it pares down its food delivery system from 58 to 17 locations. 


Duggan said the initial model had provided 18,000 meals to children per week, and the new one will triple capacity. Two dozen charter schools are also providing 10,000 meals a week to children.

City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield said the city also may try to transform other recreation centers so homeless people can stay in them, relieving overcrowding at shelters during the stay-home order.

Detroit also is working to restore some 3,000 homes that have been without water for several months due to an aggressive collections campaign. 

The restoration effort began the same week as the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in Michigan, and the importance of hand washing to slow the spread of the virus became paramount.

Within 12 days, 679 households had water turned back on, but city contractors are reaching out to another 5,000 homes that may be occupied and lack running water.

But the outbreak started weeks ago, said Elin Betanzo, an Oakland County drinking water expert who helped uncover the Flint water crisis.

“Today is the time to wash your hands, not two weeks from now. That’s not an appropriate level of urgency.”

‘We have to pay bills’

Detroit, which emerged from the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy in 2014, has spent $11 million in the past month on testing, sanitizer and cleaning equipment, said David Masseron, the city’s chief financial officer.

The city is also losing $600,000 a day in taxes from the closure of its three casinos during the outbreak, as well as income tax, Masseron said.

Nearly a quarter of residents work in the service industry, which has had a “nearly complete stoppage” because of orders from Whitmer shuttering restaurants and other businesses, Masseron said.

“I don’t think there’s any city in America … that has a model of economic shutdown,” said Masseron.

Sheffield said “our first priority is of course to make sure we get through the crisis and everybody’s safe.”

As with many other health crises, the coronavirus is hitting the poorest the hardest. Detroit’s unemployment rate in January was 8.8 percent, nearly double the state average, and those ranks are skyrocketing.

Curtrina Hatcher, 26, lost her job two weeks ago at an industrial metal business and is now trying to navigate a patchwork of emergency assistance that is becoming more strained every day.

“I don’t get sick pay because I’m not hired in,” she said. “You know, at a plant you have people who are hired, but I work for a staffing agency.” 

More than 108,000 people last week filed for unemployment in Michigan — up 2,000 percent from typical weeks — but Hatcher said the website crashed when she applied.

It's frustrating, she said. “We still have to pay bills.” 

Poverty in Detroit — with median income of $2 9,000 at nearly half that of the state — means that more people work in the “gig economy” and “put themselves at higher risk” of infection because they can’t afford to stop working, said Roshanak Mehdipanah, University of Michigan health professor whose research focuses on urban areas.

They’re folks like Joshua McCarthur, who owns a production company that makes commercials and whose business has dried up. Instead, he’s delivering groceries to make extra money during the crisis.

“I am alarmed [by the coronavirus] but I’m not out there playing games,” he said.


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