Michigan’s top doc: No signs yet of ‘community spread’ of coronavirus


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, second from left, discuss the coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

LANSING — Michigan is bracing for more coronavirus cases hasn’t found evidence yet that the virus has spread from two infected residents, the state’s top doctor told lawmakers Thursday.

“Based on the testing we’ve done thus far, I do not see evidence of there being broad community spread,” Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun told  the Michigan House Health Policy Committee. 

“We ran a whole set of samples yesterday, and they were all negative.”

But Khaldun warned lawmakers “there are likely cases in the state of Michigan right now that I do now know about” and urged anyone with symptoms to reach out to a local medical provider.

“We’ve known that it was coming,” she said, “but the idea is if you slow it enough, you can prepare your public health systems, we can prepare the community, and we can make sure our health care system, our hospitals, are not inundated with very sick patients.”

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services late Tuesday confirmed the state’s first presumed confirmations of coronavirus in an Oakland County woman and Wayne County man, both middle-aged. 

By Thursday night, the cases involved a total of 12 residents of Ingham, Kent, Montcalm, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

“There is no backlog of any samples sitting in my lab,” Khaldun said. “If we receive them by a certain time, we run them that day.”

As of last week, the state had the capacity to test approximately 300 people.  But a state health spokeswoman, Lynn Sutfin, told Bridge Magazine the state “received additional kits and can test around 1,300 people at this time.”

Khaldun has previously expressed concern about the number of testing kits provided to the state by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“I’ve asked my team to not wait until you get low on testing kits, but to order, order, order, because I expect more to come in,” she told lawmakers.

Michigan had tested 77 "persons under investigation" through Tuesday. That number jumped to 120 by the end of Wednesday. Of those, 91 tested negative and the results of 28 others were pending.

Khaldun noted at least two private testing labs, LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics, have “come online” in recent days. The state data do not reflect any testing those companies may have completed, she told lawmakers.

“We have asked those private labs and those medical providers to coordinate closely with the local health departments so that we all know what’s going on and we can do the appropriate public health investigation quickly if there is a positive test,” Khaldun said.

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Khaldun was asked if the state is testing enough residents. 

“I’ve asked my team to not wait until you get low on testing kits, but to order, order, order, because I expect more to come in.”
-- Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun

She encouraged anyone who thinks that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus or exposed to someone with the virus to reach out to their medical provider. 

“That provider has discretion to determine whether or not that person needs to be tested based on their clinical symptoms, and based on what other tests they’ve run,” Khaldun said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday outlined a series of “community mitigation strategies” to  prevent coronavirus spread. Among other things, she recommended that organizations cancel large gatherings with 100 or more people and urged businesses to adopt flexible leave time policies.

Other countries and states with confirmed cases have been more aggressive. 

China, where the virus was first identified and has killed 3,162 people, “essentially shut down the entire country,” Khaldun noted. 

MIchigan has not reached that point, but “there’s a dial to all of this,” Khaldun said. “It can all be dialed up.”

State Rep. Jim Lower, R-Greenville, questioned the state’s response, noting that more than 80,000 Americans died from the common flu last year. 

Khaldun explained that unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus.

While most people who contract the virus may only experience “mild symptoms,” she noted that vulnerable residents, including the elderly and those with diabetes, “are at risk of dying.”

“That’s what we’re seeing right now in other countries, so it’s something we should take seriously,” she said. 

Michigan universities on Wednesday cancelled all in-person classes. Nationally, the NBA has suspended its season after a player tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NCAA is planning to play March tournament games without an audience. 

Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Lower said he thinks the epidemic is serious but is concerned there “may be a certain amount of hysteria around it” and that the state government’s response is “maybe encouraging that in some ways.”’

“I don’t want to see everybody just freaking out and then going in and jamming the hospitals,” Lower said. 

Rep. Angela Witwer, a former clinical health care professional and Delta Township Democrat, applauded the Whitmer administration’s response but pressed the state to ensure hospitals have enough beds to treat coronavirus patients in the event of continuing spread. 

“That is something that is certainly on our minds,” Khaldun said. “ We have asked our hospitals to think about their surge capacity, their staffing capacity, if it comes in.”

In recommendations released Wednesday, Whitmer and health officials urged the elderly and other medically vulnerable residents to avoid travel and consider staying home. 

It’s important to  “make sure that they don’t get sick so we don’t overwhelm the hospital system,” Khaldun said. “We’re not there yet, but it’s something we’ve been talking about.”

The Michigan Senate on Thursday gave final approval to a spending bill that will authorize up to $75 million in spending to prepare for and respond to the coronavirus.

The plan would allow the Whitmer administration to use $50 million in federal funding and spend $10 million in state revenue on monitoring,  laboratory testing, contact tracing, infection control and continuation of critical state government functions.  Another $15 million in state money would be put into a new Coronavirus Response Fund for future needs.

As Bridge Magazine reported Tuesday, the plan also includes $37 million in “enhancement grants” for pet projects requested by individual lawmakers that have not been vetted in public hearings, a development state Sen. Jon Bumstead spoke out against prior to the vote. 

“It is absolutely responsible for Michigan to be spending money to combat the coronavirus here in our state,” said Bumstead, R-Newaygo. “However, the taxpayers of this state should not be forced to give the North American Auto Show $1 million so we can combat coronavirus.”

Whitmer derided similar “pork” spending last year before she took office but is expected to sign the new spending plan, which her administration helped negotiate and includes funding for a job retraining program the governor has long pushed for. 

State Sens. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, and Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, on Wednesday introduced separate legislation that aims to combat "price gouging" during the coronavirus epidemic by prohibiting businesses from raising prices on essential or emergency goods by more than 10 percent.

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Barry Visel
Thu, 03/12/2020 - 3:00pm

“may be a certain amount of hysteria around it” ...Ya think? From the info I’m seeing, it’s mostly elderly WITH UNDERLYING HEALTH ISSUES that are in danger of dying. That’s not good, but for the rest of us getting sick appears to mean a few days of not feeling good, but more importantly, an opportunity for our immune system to develop defense against a return of this virus. This is like last Fall when mosquitos were transmitting EEE, and local governments thought they had to spray chemicals to kill them (and who knows what else), when there were simple precautions people could take to avoid mosquitos. I’m sure someone will respond to tell me what I’m missing, but this seems like a grossly overreacting panic.

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 8:56pm

And miss the endless opportunities for Monday morning quarterbacking and finger pointing?

Concerned Citizen
Thu, 03/12/2020 - 8:56pm

To a certain degree you are probably right - but why not err on the side of caution? It is spreading exponentially in other parts of the world and even if you as a healthy person aren't effected - what about the people you come in contact with? Yes - the percentage of people being effected is small and the percentage of deaths is even smaller - but this is just getting started in the US. If we all pretend its not happening it will spread and not all of us will survive. Are you ok with that?