Detroit's COVID-19 Case Spike is a Warning to the Midwest

The coronavirus crisis is deepening in Michigan, and especially in Detroit, where the situation is rapidly escalating. This should be a signal to the rest of us.

The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

The Detroit skyline, as seen from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Photo by Michael Tighe / CC0. The city, home to about 673,000 people, is seeing a dangerous increase in coronavirus cases this week.


As of the evening of Thursday, March 26, there are a total of 8,185 cases of COVID-19 that have been identified in seven Midwestern states. Just five days earlier, on March 21, that number was 2,400.

In many ways, you can think about the Midwest as its own country. This region — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin — is home to more than 55 million people. It’s a population that’s smaller than Italy (~60 million) or France (~66 million), but larger than South Korea (~51 million) or Spain (~46 million).  

And as its own theoretical nation, the Midwest’s total of positive cases of coronavirus would rank 10th in the world. And it’s clear that number is climbing rapidly, as the United States tests more and more people, revealing the true spread of the dangerous virus across the country. America is now the epicenter of the pandemic, with its total number of people confirmed to be infected with the virus now at more than 83,000 people, more than the total number of cases reported in China or Italy. 

There have been 1,222 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, and while New York (285) and Washington State (132) have seen the greatest number, these seven states combined have seen 131 deaths from the virus. Nearly half (60) of those deaths have been in Michigan, where the number of total cases is exploding, up from 1,328 on Monday to 2,856 by Thursday afternoon. 

And in Michigan, the greatest number of cases are coming from Detroit, where on Thursday, the state reported a total of 851 cases in the city alone, and nearly 1,400 cases in Wayne County. Wayne county had the 7th most cases in the country as of Wednesday. At Thursday’s White House briefing, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the coronavirus response, identified Wayne County as a coronavirus “hot spot.”

Here has been the number of COVID-19 cases in the city of Detroit, each day. 

  • March 21: 248

  • March 22: 325

  • March 23: 411 (6 deaths)

  • March 24: 563 (8)

  • March 25: 705 (12)

  • March 26: 851 (15) 

As Jeramey Jannene notes at Urban Milwaukee, the Milwaukee metro area has the sixth highest COVID-19 case rate in the country, according to a March 22 study from City Observatory. Detroit is fourth. The author of that study, Joe Cortright, said, “The worst-affected cities are about one to two weeks ahead of typical (median) large metro area in the progression of the virus.”

Right now, the worst affected city in the Midwest is Detroit, and what’s happening in Detroit is a warning to the rest of us in the Midwest. 

Things in Detroit are getting serious. The virus is spreading faster there than just about anywhere in the United States. Bridge Michigan reports that “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.”

One Wayne County emergency room had to close because the volume of coronavirus patients was too high, and will become a makeshift intensive care unit (ICU). That hospital, Beaumont Health, began to run short on ventilators on Tuesday. Beaumont and Henry Ford Health System in southeastern Michigan were caring for more than 1,000 coronavirus patients across 13 area hospitals as of Tuesday, and two more hospitals in that system reached capacity to treat new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday. The state of Michigan is asking hospitals outside of the area to help with the overflow of patients. 

The virus has hit the Detroit Police Department hard. One police captain has died from the disease. As of the 26th, 398 officers -- a fifth of the police force -- were in quarantine, as 25 officers have tested positive for the virus.

Health officials said this week that many in the city face a greater risk because of the city’s high poverty rate and number of pre-existing health conditions. And not unlike Milwaukee, the impact is being felt in more significant ways in “marginalized and poorer communities, particularly communities of color,” Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun told The Detroit News.

Late Thursday night, news broke that the Henry Ford Health System was preparing for a scenario where doctors would have to ration the life-saving care. A prepared memo from the system said some patients “will receive treatment for pain control and comfort measures” instead of going to the ICU or being put on a ventilator. 

Chad Livengood @ChadLivengood
Leaked memo from one of Michigan's largest hospital systems: "Patients who have the best chance of getting better are our first priority. Patients will be evaluated for the best plan for care and dying patients will be provided with comfort care."
crainsdetroit.com/health-care/he… #covid19

Chad Livengood @ChadLivengood

Henry Ford Health says document leaked on rationing ventilators is 'worst-case scenario' https://t.co/tz3wZUHGAe via @jaybgreene & @crainsdetroit

What we’re already seeing in Michigan is a full-on tragedy. And the situation isn’t yet at its worst.

At a Wednesday news conference, Mayor Mike Duggan said, “Four people connected to me have died in the last 48 hours. That's the last 48 hours. We haven't hit the peak in Michigan.” On Wednesday night, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said, “We're at the beginning of the curve. We're nowhere near the apex,” adding that a recent federal shipment of supplies “was not enough for a full shift at one hospital.”

When that peak comes, we can only hope that the heroes in the hospitals are given enough resources to fight this thing and limit the damage (though, based on the federal response from the Trump administration, it sure seems like that won’t be the case, especially for Michigan). 

But if projections that the peak is still weeks away are accurate, it’s all the more reason to adhere to the stay-at-home orders that governors are issuing around the region (Iowa is the only one of the seven states mentioned earlier not to have a statewide order). The worst, sadly, is yet to come. 

So as the situation escalates in Detroit, it will be worth noting how our home cities compare to our friends in the Motor City. On March 21, Detroit had 248 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Here in the city of Milwaukee, we had 254 cases on March 25.

What’s happening in Detroit is a signal to the rest of us. These next few weeks will be extremely important. 

Stay home, stay safe, save lives. Let the heroes in the hospitals do their jobs and fight this virus. We’ll recombobulate together again when the worst of this is behind us.


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