COVID-19 has become a global pandemic, and after the first cases in the United States were confirmed in January 2020, the effort to confront the virus is about to become more challenging in Michigan as the Delta variant spreads across the nation and its trajectory hits closer to home.
There is a total of 925,377 confirmed cases, and 20,076 COVID related deaths (as of press time), according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. For Tuesday, August 17, and Wednesday, August 18, there were 2,690 confirmed cases and 46 deaths.
“I pulled over to the curb after I heard the mayor,” said Dorthy Johnson, 69. Johnson was driving when she heard news on the radio of a third vaccine dose being made available to Detroiters with immune challenges.
“That’s how much it meant to me. I have a small family and I have friends who have lost many family members to COVID. I’ve been blessed. My family survived and I want to be able to interact with them, church family and other friends.”
Johnson scheduled an appointment with the City of Detroit and, the following day, was in the drive-through of TCF Center, the city’s downtown convention building. Parked and inside her vehicle as nurses prepared to distribute the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, she sat confident knowing she was protecting her health and others.
“I think it’s important that we take this as seriously as we have other diseases and viruses that have affected us and we’ve overcome them. So, I think it’s incumbent for everyone to give this serious thought, especially in the African American community.”
Leading the effort to get residents in Detroit vaccinated is Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair. Fair says under the mayoral administration of Mike Duggan, Detroit has been a national leader in organization and planning in mass COVID testing at the former State Fair grounds and mass vaccinations at TCF Center.
“We’re looking at the maps right now. We’re looking at our data every single day to drive our decision making. A lot of the Delta variant is in the southern states. And it’s moving rapidly to the state of Michigan. And so, we’re very, very concerned when we look at the city, only 40 percent of Detroiters have taken the vaccine. And we have a long way to go before we get community immunity. And we know that the Delta variant, it spreads, it is contagious.”
Despite the city having one of the most successful vaccine rollouts in the country, its accessibility hasn’t prompted most residents to roll up their sleeves.
“Most get caught up, particularly Black people as it relates to the Tuskegee experiment, misinformation and so many other things,” said Edgar Robinson, 72, of Detroit.
Robinson stood at the bus stop of the Rosa Park Transit Center on his way home from handling business affairs. He has taken two vaccine doses and has no problem with being out in the world in his daily encounters with passengers or dealing with any mask mandates; he just wishes more people are informed and interested in their health.
“Personally, if it’s going to help me, then I’m going to do what I have to do whether I like it or not. My mom and dad years ago would tell me about smallpox but in all my years, I have never seen anything like this before. So, although it’s unconformable at times, I’m going to wear my mask.”
The rise of COVID and the Delta variant in other parts of the country is concerning as hospitals in southern states are experiencing an increase in cases, deaths and hospitalizations, primarily from people unvaccinated. The reports of what is happening in other states are a worrisome trend for Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the State of Michigan.
“A lot of what we are seeing is because we have the more easily transmitted Delta variant, and that’s about 99 percent of the samples that we are running genetic sequencing on now have been Delta variant over the past month. So right now, based on the CDC recommendations, we would want everyone who’s in an indoor public space, whether they’re vaccinated or not, to be wearing masks.”
Dr. Khaldun says the State of Michigan has created great infrastructure and partnerships for a ready supply of vaccines and its distributions at pharmacies and doctor offices across the state. Over 64 percent of people over the age of 16 have gotten at least one dose across the state. She expects for the FDA and CDC to recommend a third vaccine dose to the general population in September. For now, Dr. Khaldun and Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office haven’t signaled a need to return to state mask mandates or shutdowns. Instead, state health and public officials are relying heavily on the availability of vaccines and mitigation recommendations to help slow the virus spread.
The cause for concern in the case and hospitalization increases comes just as students begin to return to in-person classroom settings in the fall.
“The HHS has put out very clear guidance about what schools should be doing. And that means layered prevention strategies. It’s not just one thing that schools should be doing, but many things, of course. First and foremost, for those who are eligible by age, getting that vaccine, promoting that vaccine. We have said that schools should be mandating universal masking indoors for everyone in the school, teachers, staff and students. We also think testing is really important. People should be testing frequently so that you can identify the virus and then prevent its spread. And then, of course, small groups of students cohorting, so, that if there is an exposure, it’s not very large. And then following protocols for contact tracing and case investigation and working with the local health department, those things are very, very important, as well as improved ventilation in schools.”
While some sense of normalcy has returned to outdoor life in Detroit and across the state, some measures being used to combat the COVID virus may be here to stay, according to Dr. Khaldun.
“You know, none of us has a crystal ball, but I will say it is likely that COVID-19 will be with us similar to the flu. It’s likely that we may need ongoing regular booster shots. That’s a possibility. Again, we have to really rely on the data that we’re seeing. But what we really want is to make sure we’re not seeing our hospitals overwhelmed and we’re not seeing people die in these large numbers that we’re seeing, particularly in other states across the country.”
Meanwhile, for people who are immunocompromised, the immediate rollout in Detroit of a third vaccine dose is underway. Arcola Cooks is in her mid-80’s, and on a recent morning arrived at TCF Center, seated as a passenger. It was a family affair to get vaccinated inside the TCF Center parking garage, as she was joined in vehicle by her husband, brother and another close relative.
“My resistance is low already, so I needed to get the booster vaccination. My brother, he takes care of us, so he’ll come see to us in making sure we get to our appointments. I couldn’t be more appreciative in in getting this shot and how quick this process has been.”
No matter how quick the process or accessible the vaccination distribution in Detroit has become, getting most Detroiters dosed up remains a challenge. As COVID cases mount, and the Delta variant becomes a growing concern, Fair says the city’s health department is providing incentives and is now making house appointments.
“We want to reward Detroiters that are passionate about the vaccine, the passion about bringing their loved ones to the center or any one of our multiple sites. So, we want them to become a good neighbor and we’re going to incentivize them. So, if you have a good neighbor, a family member, church member, you can call up sign up to be a good neighbor, bring them to one of our sites and you’ll get a $50 gift card for each person that you bring.
“We’re even going to people’s homes now. They can give us a call. They want us to come into their home? That’s fine. We want to be there. We want to put them first.
“If Detroiters don’t take the opportunity to get their vaccine. They are at risk. And it’s the unvaccinated that are putting all of us who are vaccinated at risk. So, we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, which is to make sure that we’re providing equitable access to every Detroiter. They can come to the center, they can go to the local church, all of our community sites to get their first, second and now their third shot.”
Detroit residents who are immunocompromised and want a third vaccine dose or are unvaccinated and interested in a first and/or second dose, should register by contacting the City of Detroit at (313) 230-0505.
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