How the deadly coronavirus ravaged Michigan in 2 weeks

Gina Kaufman Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press

In Michigan, it started as a trickle.

Two positive coronavirus cases: A man and a woman. Residents of Wayne and Oakland counties, respectively. Both middle-aged. Both recent travelers. Both were hospitalized.

State of emergency, the governor declared.

Toilet paper, disinfectant wipes and food flew off the shelves. Shoppers flooded grocery stores to stock up. School was suspended. Detroit announced a program to help residents restore water that had been cut off for nonpayment. Sports events were canceled and entire seasons postponed. Restaurants closed. Commencements canceled. Auto plants shut down.

Testing ramped up across the state and the number of confirmed cases climbed — along with potential exposure sites:

Schools, a theater, factories, places of worship, a credit union, the airport, a senior living facility, restaurants, bars and even a pancake breakfast, to name a few.

Life, upended. And it has been less than two weeks.

As more and more Michigan residents are diagnosed presumptive positive for COVID-19, residents across the state are grappling with the broad reach of the disease, which has infected more than 266,000 worldwide and led to more than 11,100 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, as reported on its website Saturday. As of Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the United States had more than 15,000 confirmed or presumptive positive cases and 201 deaths.

Cases in Michigan have included a physician from Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw; staff members at schools in Detroit, Farmington Hills and Dearborn; two state corrections employees in Jackson and Detroit; auto industry workers in Sterling Heights and Dearborn; residents at a West Bloomfield senior living facility; a moviegoer at the AMC Fairlane 21 in Dearborn; a person who frequents a synagogue in Oak Park; an employee at the Michigan First Credit Union branch on Wyoming in Detroit, a ramp worker at the airport.

Medical professionals attend to patients in the drive up Coronavirus one-day testing at Beaumont hospital in Troy, Mich. on Friday, March 20, 2020.

The virus also has started hitting first responders. Five Detroit police officers and a civilian contract employee were diagnosed and more than 150 were in quarantine, the department confirmed Friday.

A Southgate man in his 50s with underlying health conditions was the first in the state to succumb to the virus. He died Wednesday.

Two cases. That's how many Michigan had confirmed by the evening of March 10.

Now hundreds have been identified and, as of Saturday, were spread across 27 counties, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The majority of cases are in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. 

Together, those three counties, including the City of Detroit, accounted for nearly 700 cases as of Saturday evening, according to the latest state tally available then. Those numbers included six deaths.

The state's total as of Saturday evening neared 800.

What we know

Officials cite medical privacy laws in limiting the release of details that might identify a virus sufferer. This sometimes includes travel details and even hometowns. But some details have emerged, providing insight into individual cases, as more are identified and community spread remains a critical concern.

Ottawa County, in far western Michigan, was able to determine that its first case, a middle-aged woman with no travel history, had about 50 close contacts. Health officials have said they believe she contracted the virus from spread in the community.

One of the first reported cases in Michigan was a middle-aged woman from Oakland County who had traveled internationally and, according to the county's medical director, did everything right.

The woman went home after her trip, where she was apparently in contact onlywith her immediate family members, who did not develop symptoms. When she felt "crummy" the next day, she stayed home. When symptoms developed, she sought medical treatment.

“The country she traveled from did not have any reported cases at the time. My suspicion is — from most international travel, they’re going through these huge hubs — my suspicion is that’s where she picked it up,” said Dr. Russell Faust, medical director of the Oakland County Health Division.

While descriptions of initial cases focused on travel, Faust said most local coronavirus cases now involve people who have not left southeast Michigan, meaning the disease is spreading in the community.

“We all need to face that and take precautions,” he said.

The span of cases already illustrates the sweep of the pandemic.

In Wayne County, a woman with no travel history or known contact with another confirmed coronavirus case tested positive. Her diagnosis meant there had been potential exposures at the AMC Fairlane 21 theaters in Dearborn, where she visited from about 6-10 p.m. March 10.

Faust described a broad range of reactions for those who contracted the virus. Some have already recovered and are ready to return to work; others are intubated and in intensive care.

The county investigates cases, in part, to find others who may have been exposed, but a time will come, officials have said, when the number of cases outstrips the resources to keep up.

It’s not clear when that will be.

In Otsego County in northern lower Michigan, Aaron Pegg of Gaylord said he fell ill a few days after returning home from a mission trip with his church to Ethiopia and was told he tested positive for COVID-19 last Monday. After his diagnosis, Pegg said he turned to his faith as he self-solated from his family.

"For me," he said, "I already was just in a real habit of waking up and feeding my soul, I guess you could say, with prayer. Some people would call it meditation, for me, reading the Bible."

Big impact on schools

Educators — and parents — also have been affected, both by weeks-long school closures and ongoing reports of new diagnoses.

A teacher at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills tested presumptive positive, sending students and staff into self-quarantine through March 23.

A staffer at Whitmore-Bolles Elementary in Dearborn also tested positive, but public health officials said the teacher was not contagious while at school. A student at Salem Elementary in Salem Township also tested positive and the family went into self-quarantine. A staff member at Detroit's Osborn High School also was diagnosed.

Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a letter the staff member had been released from the hospital and was quarantined at home. Vitti requested allof Osborn'steachers, staff and students to self-quarantine for 14 days.

"This will unfortunately not be our only case," Vitti's letter said. "It is likely that other individuals at schools or at the district level have or will develop COVID-19."

Wayne State University also announced two employees had tested positive and Michigan State University said there were two confirmed cases connected to the university. 

Universities across Michigan moved classes online. Michigan State, Wayne State, Michigan Tech and the University of Michigan canceled spring graduation ceremonies in light of the public health crisis.


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Demario Hill, 17, watches his brother Raynard Hill, 14 months, as their mother Donyetta Hill (not in the photo) prepares snacks for them at home in Detroit, Friday, March 13, 2020.

As cases continue to climb, students are home for weeks, with school closures across Michigan.

Because many children rely so heavily on the meals they get at school for their nutritional needs, districts across the state have stepped up by preparing meals for students who need them.

It’s a wide range of efforts, from large systems, such as the Detroit Public Schools Community District, which prepped almost 100,000 meals Wednesday, to smaller districts, such as Riverview Community School District, which distributed 2,200 meals during the first three days of the week.

School means more than academics and meals, though.Students who play sports have seen their schedules suddenly freed up, with spring sports delayed, at theleast, and sports playoffs up in the air.

First responders already taking hits

Under strain across Michigan and nationwide are those on the front lines — hospitals are preparing for the surge of patients and first responders are taking steps to protect themselves and the public.

On Friday, the Detroit Police Department announced five officers and a civilian contract employee tested positive for COVID-19. Detroit Police Chief James Craig said at a news conference Friday that the department's 9th Precinct was "hit pretty hard," but the full impact of the exposure was not yet known.

Craig confirmed more than 150 officers are quarantined. 

He had previously announced officers were encouraged to relax their approach to arrests for some misdemeanor offenses, excluding high misdemeanors like fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and domestic violence. Craig has also said the department advised officers to practice social distancing when possible and sanitize police vehicles frequently.

"We are in a big fight right now," Craig said Friday.


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Meanwhile, trial courts in Michigan were ordered to limit activity to essential functions and, according to a Friday news release from the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, nearly 100 inmates have been identified for release from the Wayne County Jail.

The Michigan Department of Corrections halted visitation at all of the state's 30 prisons earlier this month. The agency later announced its phone service vendor will provide two, five-minute phone callsat no cost to prisoners each week, and the email servicewill also allow prisoners to send two emails per week at no cost.


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The corrections department also announced Tuesday that two employees — a probation agent at the Jackson County Probation Office with a recent history of international travel and an employee at the Detroit Detention Center with no travel history — had tested positive.

The department spokesman has said the agency had been screening employees before they could enter the prisons.

In the halls of the hospitals

Hospital systems across Michigan have restricted visitor access to minimize the number of people in the facilities and reduce the risk of infections.

After the state's first death at a Beaumont hospital in Wayne County, Beaumont's medical director of infection, prevention and epidemiology said the patient was one of "dozens" being treated across the hospital system. Beaumont officials did not specify which hospital in which the man died. 

Other deaths occurred at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, McLaren Oakland Hospital in Pontiac, Ascension Macomb Oakland Hospital and Henry Ford Hospital in West Bloomfield. As well, a Detroit woman in her 90s died Friday, according to the Detroit Health Department. No other details of her death were immediately available Saturday.

The Bay County Health Department announced March 13 that a county resident, who is a physician at Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw, had been diagnosed as presumptive positive. In a news release, the health department said, along with Covenant HealthCare and other area county health departments, they had been working to notify patients, staff and others who came in contact with the physician.

In Center Line in Macomb County,an employee at Binson's Hospital Supplies, Inc. tested positive, too.  

Automakers shut it down

Amid the outbreak, the auto industry is in turmoil — something likely to send ripples across Michigan’s economy.

FordMotor Co., General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, among others, all announced plans to shutter plants temporarily as concerns about the virus mounted among health authorities and, in particular, among workers on the line.

The FCA Jefferson North Assembly plant in Detroit on Wednesday, March 18, 2020 sent workers home after the 2:30 shift because of the Coronavirus and is shutting down the assembly line.

Employees at the FCA Sterling Heights Assembly plant, GM Technical Center in Warren and Volkswagen Group in Auburn Hills tested positive, as did a Ford worker in Dearborn, though a company spokesman said the employee did not expose others at work. 

Things appeared to boil over Wednesday morning at Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, as work stopped for an hour and a half.

"Everybody is on the floor, standing around. Some are yelling at each other. Everybody is afraid. 'Why are we here,' they're asking. Everybody is kind of freaking out,” James Hudson, an FCA pipe fitter told a Free Press reporter.

Concerns about the virus also led to work stoppages at other plants, including FCA’s Warren Truck and Windsor Assembly.

Plant shutdowns happen every year, but they’re typically scheduled events, such as during the summer. This is something else entirely, and the companies resisted, stressing cleaning and employee distancing as ways to continue production. But with confirmed cases appearing at more automaker facilities as virus numbers ticked up across the country andwithpressure from the UAW, these unplanned shutdowns, though dramatic in their symbolism, are not much of a surprise.

Plus, each of the Detroit Three had shut down plants overseas in response to the virus’ spread.

Many workers here were particularly angry at work-from-home arrangements for people at headquarters while assembly line workers would have to be physically in the plants.

Shutdowns, however, don’t just affect people who work for the automakers themselves. Millions of jobs are tied up in the industry, from automakers to suppliers and other affiliated businesses. The auto industry has been buoyed by solid sales of big profit-making pickups in recent years but it’s suddenly contemplating not just a slowing market but a rocky road ahead, at least in the short term.

Automakers could also have a new role to play in the coming weeks as Ford, GM and FCA discuss the possibility of helping produce medical equipment or parts for things like ventilators for the fight against the virus.

Seniors isolated, visitations stopped

Meanwhile, across Michigan and the country, senior living facilities have limited or stopped visitation to prevent the spread of the virus.

All Seasons West Bloomfield, an independent senior living community, announced that two residents fell ill with coronavirus. An Oakland County spokesman said Friday that both cases have been confirmed. 

In Rochester Hills, a resident at Pomeroy Living Rochester Skilled Rehabilitation tested positive for COVID-19 and was in isolation, according toastatement posted on Facebook onWednesday.

Related: Families worry as they are cut off from loved ones at Michigan nursing homes

Johanna Mannone was allowed to only briefly see her husband of 52 years, Mike, at WellBridge of Rochester Hills during a recent visit.

Johanna Mannone, 79 of Rochester Hills talks with her husband Michael Mannone in the front room of WellBridge of Rochester Hills, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Rochester Hills on Friday, March 13, 2020.

She wore a gown, gloves and a mask.

"It's gonna get better," Mannone told him.

"When?" he asked.

"Hopefully soon," she said. "Hopefully soon, honey. Don't worry."

Staff Writers Christina Hall, Phoebe Wall Howard, John Wisely, Bill Laitner, Jamie L. LaReau, Susan Selasky, Tresa Baldas, M.L. Elrick, Elisha Anderson, Paul Egan, David Jesse, Angie Jackson, Darcie Moran, Kristen Jordan Shamus, Omar Abdel-Baqui, Niraj Warikoo, Kathleen Gray and staff photographer Eric Seals contributed to this report.

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