The COVID-19 Pandemic: One Year Later – Where Do We Go From Here?

When will it end? When will Detroit, the state of Michigan, America, and the world take commanding control and eradicate the COVID-19 pandemic? When will everyday life return to some semblance of normalcy?  And is a “return to normalcy” even possible after the deadly coronavirus has wreaked havoc on every sector of society for the last 12 months?

Since the reclassification of COVID-19, from an epidemic to a pandemic in the United States on March 11, 2020, an ever-climbing number of family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers and others have either contracted COVID-19, been hospitalized or have died from the virus.

In addition to the dreadful human side of the virus, nationwide businesses, industries, institutions and other entities have experienced some form of disruption, loss of workforce and shutdowns during periods of the pandemic. Nothing was exempt, not houses of worship, schools at every level, small and large businesses, sports and entertainment events or the hospitality sector.

While at times the pandemic has painted a picture of permanent doom and gloom, there is a ray of light and s scientific pathway out of the pandemic based on adults, and ultimately teens and children in all 50 states, receiving one of three vaccines approved to date:  Pfizer (two shots), Moderna (two shots), and Johnson & Johnson (one-shot).  The vaccines have been authorized for use by the FDA under an Emergency Use Authorization with others still under trial.

In Detroit, two giant COVID-19 vaccination sites have been set up to administer shots in arms:  TCF Center, to accommodate Detroiters 50-years of age and older who meet other requirements, and Ford Field for any eligible person living or working in Detroit.  In addition, according to the City of Detroit’s website, designated churches and community centers across town are administering vaccinations through what’s being called “Community Saturdays.”  Appointments must be made in advance of receiving vaccinations at any of the sites.

Getting vaccinated in Detroit and other American cities should get a boost, following President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which he signed on March 11.  The bill provides funding to further fight the coronavirus in the country, including $10 billion for distributing vaccines in high risk and hard-hit communities. And $48 billion is targeted for testing and contact tracing across the country.

While Detroiters rapidly race to receive vaccinations, the coronavirus is running its own race at an alarming pace.

“The positivity rate has doubled in the past ten days,” Denise Fair, chief public health officer for Detroit’s Health Department, said at a March 22, 2021, COVID-19 briefing.  “Our numbers are going in the wrong direction.  In terms of our hospitalizations, they are also increasing.  Just a few weeks ago, we were at 69 hospitalized patients who tested positive for COVID-19, and now we are up to 91. The biggest proportion of these cases is among 20- to 29-year-olds, followed by 50- to 59-year-olds.”

Fair said the rising numbers are concerning, but she also offered good news.

“We are seeing a reduction in the proportion of cases in Detroiters aged 60 to 69,” Fair said. “What that means is the vaccination effort that we are putting forward in the city of Detroit is working, and we cannot stop this momentum.”

“We are now closing in on 200,000 vaccines in Detroit,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “You’re getting no reports of people having bad effects with the vaccines.  But there are tragic consequences for those who don’t get them.  And this is going to continue to be the case.  It’s important that you reach out to people who have been skeptical and accompany them, take them in to be vaccinated because you may be saving their lives.”

Duggan acknowledges that some African American residents of Detroit may be hesitant about being vaccinated because of historical distrust of the healthcare industry in general, rooted in the belief of systemic racism against Black people.  To study and improve the delivery of health disparities in minority communities in Michigan, especially Detroit, Gov. Whitmer created The Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities through her Executive Order 2020-55 in April of 2020.

Chaired by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan’s first African American to hold the office, the Task Force on Racial Disparities has achieved positive results.  And the nation has taken notice.

“Strong leadership, sustainable infrastructure, accurate data, and targeted strategies are keys to addressing racial disparities and inequities during COVID-19 and beyond,” said Andrea Thoumi, a member of the National Governors Association Center For Best Practices. “The Michigan Task Force has made substantial progress in addressing COVID-19 disparities and making lasting structural changes.”

Gilchrist urges African Americans and other underserved racial populations to get vaccinations when it’s time.

As Detroiters continue to be vaccinated, parents and guardians across the city are concerned about their children returning to in-person learning at public, charter and private schools, with safety being an overriding factor.  Teachers, administrators and staff are also concerned about returning to classrooms and what safety precautions are being taken.

To help schools get back to in-person learning, President Biden announced on March 24 that the government will send $81 billion immediately to all 50 states for their school districts to reopen safely.  Biden’s recent coronavirus relief bill signed into law also earmarks $122 billion for K-12 schools.

On February 24 of this year, Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) reopened its learning centers, followed by all District schools reopening for in-person learning on March 8.  According to Chrystal Wilson, assistant superintendent of communications for DPSCD, about 9,000 students have been attending regularly, with about 500 teachers returning. Non-returning students continue to learn through virtual platforms.  In a district with approximately 50,000 students and 3,000 teachers there are plans to increase the number of returning students and teachers.  Vaccinations for teachers is a significant part of the plan.

“We are working with our teachers, and we are confident they will come back to in-person learning,” said Wilson,  “The vaccine is available to all DPSCD teachers.  And there is a teacher incentive negotiated by Superintendent Vitti through the teachers union, where teachers can earn an additional $3,000 in hazard pay.  The District is working with Mayor Duggan’s administration, which is doing a great job of providing vaccine opportunities for educators.”

Citywide, there are also concerns centered on getting Detroit’s economy back on track.  According to a comprehensive economic report prepared by several of Michigan’s top universities, the unemployment rate rose from 8.8 percent in 2019 to 20 percent in 2020.

Nicole Sherard-Freeman, group executive of Jobs, Economy & Detroit At Work for the city of Detroit, has her hands on the pulse of Detroit’s economy, and she is optimistic about its rebound.

“When the pandemic hit last March, the resident employment rate was a little over 230,000, which was an all-time high for Detroit residents employed, followed by an all-time low of just over 160,000 residents employed,” said Sherard-Freeman. “By December, the resident employment rate had bounced back to just over 215,000.  So we are coming back, but we are not out of the woods because we don’t know what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be.”

Sherard-Freeman is not sitting around in hope mode, as she continues to proactively attract major companies to Detroit. For such companies and businesses already in the city, she looks to broker opportunities for Detroiters to be the first choice for available jobs.  Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) is a classic example of her success in giving Detroiters first opportunities at job openings.  There are now about 3,000 Detroiters who Stellantis/Fiat Chrysler has hired.

According to Sherard-Freeman, at least five other major companies made similar pledges of first choice hiring opportunities.  She is also working to boost the local economy through the power of the 60-000-plus Black and Brown small businesses in the city which collectively she calls “one of the largest job generators.”

Detroit’s Black and Brown small businesses are expected to be helped by Biden’s $1.9 trillion Rescue America Plan.  And the Biden administration is in the early stages of assembling a        $3 trillion package to invest in the country’s infrastructure in areas like roads, bridges, rail lines, electrical vehicle charging stations and cellular networks, all of which the president feels will generate millions of jobs for Americans.

While Detroiters and other Americans are cautiously optimistic about the pathways to the other side of the pandemic, many questions hopefully will be answered, such as how effective are the vaccines and how long will they last?  Will people be required to get other vaccines to protect against COVID-19 variants?  How long will people have to wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings?  How will healthcare and insurance companies deal with COVID-19 long-haulers who continue to experience the virus’s associative symptoms?  And how will people mentally deal with the aftermath of the devastating pandemic?

“We’re going to need to be patient with ourselves and others as we process what we’ve all been through,” said Michelle Riba, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Michigan. “It’s important to understand peoples’ individual needs and recognize that many people are still grieving.”

Yet, optimism is being voiced from the mayor’s office.

“People are tired of COVID-19; everybody feels that way,” Duggan said. “We are not that far from the end.  We are at a point now where we can break the back of COVID-19 once and for all with the vaccination effort. I believe the city can be completely open again by this summer, but we have to have our vaccinations.”

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