White House worried about rapid spike in Detroit coronavirus cases

Waiting for a bus makes sheltering in place more difficult, as riders line up for buses in downtown Detroit on Thursday. (Bridge photo by Louis Aguilar)

Related: Trump grants some disaster aid to Michigan; state also gets N95 masks

DETROIT — Michigan’s coronavirus outbreak is spreading so fast in Detroit that it's worrying federal officials, and the Rev. Horace Sheffield III fears he may know one of the reasons.

“Quite frankly, I think too many were not taking enough precautions,’’ and “still gathering” in public and ignoring pleas to stay home as recently as last week, Sheffield, 65, told Bridge on Thursday. 

The pastor and civil-rights activist tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday and is self-quarantining at home. One of at least 851 city residents to test positive for the coronavirus — about a third of the total in all of Michigan — Sheffield is the latest in a series of prominent Detroiters to get the illness.

Thursday alone, Sheffield, state Rep. Tyrone Carter and the family of Hilton Napoleon, police chief of the Detroit enclave of Highland Park, went public with positive tests. Earlier this week, community leader Marlowe Stoudamire and Wayne County Sheriff Commander Donafay Collins died of the virus, while nearly 400 Detroit police officers and 21 firefighters are quarantined because of it.

On Thursday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus response, said officials are worried about the rapid spread of the virus in Detroit’s Wayne County and Cook County, Ill., home to Chicago.

She called both “hot spots,” according to The Hill, an online news site.

"The hot spots are in urban areas or communities that serve that urban area, and I think that’s something very important to remember as we move forward," she said.

Detroit is the epicenter of Michigan’s coronavirus outbreak in part because of a prevalence of testing, Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday, adding “there is no doubt that thousands and thousands in the state have the virus. 

“We’re just not testing them,” Duggan said at a press conference.

In all, Detroit accounted for 25 percent of Michigan’s coronavirus related deaths — 15 of 60 as of Thursday — despite comprising less than 10 percent of the state’s population.

“It is all really hitting Detroit much harder,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said Thursday.

Khaldun, a former health director in Detroit, said the severity of coronavirus is exacerbated in Detroit because of “generations of concentrated poverty” and underlying health problems such as diabetes and hypertension.

The coronavirus can take as much as two weeks to develop after exposure, prompting fears that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Monday order that residents must stay at home could be too late to slow the pandemic.

I only wish there was much more severe penalty. I wish they would give us the ability to shut the businesses down. -- Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon

With more than one-third of Detroit residents in poverty, some community leaders say social distancing is more difficult for low-income residents who must rely on public transportation or continue working.

“Man, I needed medicine for my arthritis and so, I have to be out here,” said Foster Johnston, 67, as he waited for a bus downtown. 

“They’re cleaning the inside of the buses a lot now but, still, you have to sit next to people and I know that’s not what they are advising,” he said.

A few miles away, Tasha Valents waited for a bus to get to her job at a senior nursing facility.  

“I don’t have a choice,” she said.  “I wish I could do more social distancing, but, I wear this mask and these all the time now,” she said, referring to a pair of gloves.

In recent weeks, some churches have generated controversy for continuing to host services amid the pandemic, while a video of people clustered in a city park and drinking went viral this week, according to the website Deadline Detroit.

“The only way it will be prevented is if people stay away from each other,” Duggan said at a press conference Thursday.

Duggan said he compared trendlines of other coronavirus hotbeds to Detroit, southeast Michigan and the state and believes Michigan is mirroring infection rates in New York, where more than 37,700 have tested positive and 385 have died.

“It  is really concerning,” Duggan said.  “The people of the state are in serious risk.”

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said Whitmer “did absolutely the right thing” with the stay-at-home order.

“I only wish there was much more severe penalty,” for businesses ignoring the temporary shut-down order, he said.

This week, sheriff deputies are getting a steady report of calls about non-essential businesses staying open, Napoleon said. They investigate, advise them to close and report the businesses to the attorney general’s office, he said.

“I wish they would give us the ability to shut the businesses down,” he said. 

His older brother, Hilton Napoleon, 66, has been hospitalized for two weeks and is in intensive care with COVID-19. The Wayne County Sheriff's Office has 20 employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, Napoleon said.

“Anyone with a lot of contact with the public is vulnerable,” Napoleon said. “I believe this virus is much more prevalent than maybe some people [realize],” he said. 

“I think the numbers may be staggering,” he said.

Carter, a Democrat from southwest Detroit, is in his late 50s and is the first member of the state Legislature to test positive for the coronavirus. He told Bridge he experienced a fever, dry cough and loss of appetite a week ago and tested positive on Thursday.

“It was a shock to the system but I’m doing better,” Carter said. “Last week, not so much. But if I were to give a recovery [estimate] I’d say about 90 percent.”


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Fri, 03/27/2020 - 12:24pm

Math stuff that Gov. Newbie and her crowd do not understand --

They ordered, more rapid reporting of data.

Thus -- a "data bump" is highly predictable. Really. Take a few math classes, and learn.

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 1:47pm

Yep! numbers do not lie but liars use numbers!!! And OUR new closet republican governor is a very good liar>>
Now she telling Michigan doctors how to treat the sick!!!!

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 12:25am

There is no republican or democrat anymore. They are all the same party, acting two different parts to appear divided when in fact they are all colluding to destroy this country and take everything that The People built right out from underneath them. I'm never voting again. What's the point.

Sat, 04/04/2020 - 1:23pm

I refer to them as Demopublicans and Republicrats connotating that they are the same party with only minor differences in ideologies. The results are that they all thirst for control at levels far beyond what the DSM-IV or -V define as a sociopath or psychopathic narcissist. It’s power at all cost. Trust not one of them.

Bernie Bro
Sat, 03/28/2020 - 5:41am

Urko, do you think the president is a socialist?

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 1:45pm

Did not trump have one of his rallies a few weeks ago in Detroit!!!! and did not the Detroit police bust a bunch of rich PIGs having a party at Rough park!!!!

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 2:02pm

The one thing that was failed to be mentioned in the article is that these people also have/had other underlying health issues.
COVID-19 enters in- makes it worse!!

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 2:51pm

Seriously, if you know of a business ignoring the governors orders report them to the police. It’s not rocket science.

Trump doesn’t give a crap about anything in MI so don’t tell us hat the White House Carr’s about MI.

Paul starks
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 3:27pm

Call the national guards

Paul starks
Fri, 03/27/2020 - 3:28pm

Call the national guards

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 4:10pm

Is Crazy Trump worried enough to do something about it? Masks that now cost less than a dollar are being sold for five dollars because Greedy Trump's homies are price gouging. Crazy Trump wants to attack the pandemic county by county. So if you live in Alcona, Mio, Oscoda, Ogemaw, Arenac counties don't worry that people in Iosco have COVID 19. Just keep living your normal life. LOL Sue Allor, Jim Stamas do you still agree with incompetent and reckless Trump? We won WW2 with strong leaders like FDR who used the Defense Production Act, but milktoast Trumpy doesn't want to offend his corporate donors.

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 8:41pm

Great time bud, to bash the president, that's really going to solve our problems right now, grow up a bit

Sun, 03/29/2020 - 9:17am

For those who are basing the Governor yet defending the president I only ask your broaden your reading. Many many valid journalistic sites exists. No one need depend on any tv stations news. The Governor was wise when she took action, those that are condemning it appear very biased.
After the disease was in Washington state and the World Health Organization reported a high global risk, Trump said there were no worries of a pandemic.
The day the stock market plummeted, Trump said the virus was very much under control in the U.S., and the stock market was looking pretty good to him.
A few days after declaring a national emergency, Trump said he had “always known” this was a pandemic. (That’s Pants on Fire.

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 4:22pm

So she blames it on being broke. Gimme a break Gov. (1/2) Whit-mer.

Fri, 03/27/2020 - 8:40pm

What about the poor construction workers who are being made to work so the governor can say she fixed the " Damn " roads. Not right, if you let office persons stay home then allow field personel the same opportunity!!

Sat, 03/28/2020 - 12:23am

Blah blah blah rapid spike blah blah

You guys have any real news to report on?

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 12:28am

Duggan repeatedly states that generational proverty is a serious concern in regards to social distancing and the spreading of the virus. He says Detroit has a serious problem with the virus with 15 out of 60 deaths from Detroit. How many more people live in Detroit as opposed to communities north of Lansing. Then he says he believes Michigan is mirroring infection rates in New York, where more than 37,700 have tested positive and 385 have died. Detroit's 15 vs NYC's 385. How does that compare? In actuality, NYC death rate is half of the numbers for the entire country. Duggan speaks as if he really doesn't know what's going on. He Could say that not having all residents having access to water to wash hands with soap is a Real issue and access to water would actually HELP fight against the spread of the virus. Leadership Leads, not look for excuses. Find someone with medical knowledge and the Detroit population should speak to Detroit. Real Leadership.