One Year Later COVID-19: The Pandemic, the Pathways, the Politics

Part One of a Three-Part Series on COVID-19 – One Year Later

On January 21, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquartered in Atlanta, Ga., announced that a 35-year-old man in Snohomish County, Wash., just outside Seattle, tested positive for COVID-19.  It was the first confirmed case in the United States after the virus’ origin, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), started in Wuhan, China in late-December of 2019.

After spreading through Washington and zigzagging state to state across America, on March 10, 2020, Michigan confirmed its first two cases of the coronavirus.  The following day, March 11, WHO reclassified the coronavirus from an epidemic to a full-blown pandemic.  Six days later, CDC reported that all 50 states had at least one case of coronavirus accounting for 100 deaths.  The CDC, as of March 10, 2021, reported more than 527,000 U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19.  The death count in Michigan, one year after its first confirmed two cases, is almost 16,000.

In Michigan, like most other states, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc, severely impacting every sector of society inclusive of the hospitality industry, schools, large and small businesses, churches, sports and entertainment venues.  In essence, America’s economy had not experienced such a dismantlement since the Great Depression.

Across the 50 states, governors, county executives, mayors and other stakeholders looked to the federal government for help in confronting and fighting the pandemic.  President Donald J. Trump’s administration was slow to respond, after showing no response at one point.  In many ways he was in denial, believing at the infancy of the pandemic, the virus was “their new hoax.”

“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus,” Trump said at a campaign rally in North Charleston, S.C. in late February of 2020.  “It is their new hoax to damage me and my administration.”

Ultimately, the Trump Administration realized COVID-19 wasn’t a hoax.  Yet, his administration, even with a Task Force headed by then-Vice President Mike Pence, basically put the onus on each state to fend for themselves.  States in some cases were in competition with each other to acquire ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals to handle the massive hospitalizations.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer drew the ire of Trump early in the Pandemic, when she said on MSNBC that “the federal government did not take this serious early enough.  To hear the leader of the federal government tell us to work around the federal government because it’s too slow is kind of mind-boggling.”

Whitmer’s comments came on the heels of Trump’s conference call to numerous governors, telling them they are basically on their own in stocking respirators and ventilators.  Of course Trump, a Republican, fired back at the Democrat governor of Michigan, who was said to be a possible choice for VP for Joe Biden’s run for president.  The verbal exchanges between Trump and Whitmer would last through much of 2020.  In many ways, the rhetoric was the same between Trump and other “Blue State” elected officials.

Nevertheless, Whitmer, through the power of Executive Orders, sought to slow down the spread of the deadly virus. Her first Executive Order aimed at the pandemic was issued on March 10, 2020, the same day that two people in Michigan were confirmed to have COVID-19.  Over the ensuing days, weeks and months, she signed many more, including the “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” order which required all Michigan residents to stay in their respective homes unless they are essential workers or getting necessities like food, gas or medicine.  Her stay-at-home Executive Order was reported by many media outlets to be one of the strictest of its type in the nation.

Through 2020, and into the first quarter of 2021, Whitmer’s Executive Orders have had a profound impact on just about every sector of life in Michigan.  There were orders that called for the temporary prohibition on large assemblies and events which impacted restaurants, bars, sporting events, casinos, schools and even houses of worship.  As a result, Michigan’s unemployment rate shot to unprecedented levels.

While Gov. Whitmer’s many Executive Orders were aimed at keeping Michiganders safe from the raging pandemic, not everyone saw it that way.  In October of 2020, after months of litigation pertaining to the governor’s Executive Orders, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer violated her constitutional authority by continuing to issue Executive Orders to fight COVID-19 without state lawmakers’ approval.

“The Supreme Court ruling, handed down by a narrow majority of Republican justices, is deeply disappointing,” Whitmer said in a statement following the ruling.  “And I vehemently disagree with the court’s interpretation of the Michigan Constitution,  Right now, every state and the federal government have some form of declared emergency.  With this decision, Michigan will become the sole outlier.”

The governor said that even after the Supreme Court ruling takes effect, her directives will remain in place through “alternative sources of authority.”   Whitmer’s fight against COVID-19 received a boost when Joe Biden was sworn in as America’s 46th President on January 20, 2021. Whitmer now has an ally in the White House who takes the pandemic seriously and is guided by science and other tools needed to bring the pandemic to a halt.

With stopping the pandemic as his No. 1 priority, Biden formed the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, quickly picking Michigan’s Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, an African American woman, to serve on his team.  Khaldun, the chief medical advisor for Whitmer’s Michigan Coronavirus Task Force, was instrumental in compiling and making public COVID-19 case data by race, which showed African Americans representing high numbers of cases and deaths caused by coronavirus.

In addition, Michigan Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who is African American, heads Michigan’s COVID-19 Taskforce on Racial Disparities which was created by Whitmer in April of 2020.  The Taskforce, under Gilchrist’s leadership, addresses fears, distrusts, concerns and questions of systemic inequities and racism in the healthcare system that traditionally overlook African Americans.  Gilchrist is encouraging African Americans and other people of color to get the vaccine to fight the virus.

“The presence of a vaccine only matters if people get vaccinated. … It will be critical that we vaccinate as many people as possible,’’ Gilchrist said at a recent press conference.

While Gilchrist and Khaldun have worked diligently on behalf of addressing racial disparities, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans wants more equity pertaining to vaccinations.

“I am fighting to ensure Wayne County receives the number of doses it needs based on a fair and equitable formula that reflects our population, the higher social vulnerability of many of our residents and our status as Michigan’s most diverse county,” Evans said in late January.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is equally concerned about vaccinations for a city with a huge Black population.  After the mayor made controversial comments recently about not wanting the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine for Detroiters, he walked his words back during his State of the City address on March 9.  After admitting that his research on Johnson & Johnson should have been better, Duggan announced that the company would occupy space at the city’s new vaccination site at the Northwest Activity Center on Detroit’s westside.

The new site, in addition to the downtown TCF Center where the city’s Health Department has already administered 120,000-plus vaccines, is important.

“What I want to do is give Detroiters two choices,” Duggan said. “You can go to the main one-shot center at the Northwest Activity Center, or you can come down to the TCF Center for the two shot vaccines.  We will then build out to the community, where we will have vaccine activities at churches and recreation centers, where the one-shot Johnson & Johnson will be available or the two-shots by Pfizer and Moderna. Please get vaccinated and let’s get our city going again.”

Duggan also touts the importance of the Biden-Harris administration’s goal of at least 100 million doses of the vaccine to be administered in Biden’s first 100 days in office.  Whitmer is also in lockstep with the president’s overall vision for Michigan and the nation to move forward.

In January of 2021, Whitmer unveiled Michigan’s COVID Recovery Plan, which she believes will spark Michigan’s economy and bring an end to the pandemic. Michigan House Republicans subsequently released their own recovery plan.

“To help grow and strengthen our economy, we must provide crucial support for our families, small businesses and frontline workers,” Whitmer said in a press release statement.  “The MI COVID Recovery Plan will help small businesses get through the winter, help us put more shots in arms and ramp up vaccine distribution and get our kids back on track in school.  It’s the right thing to do to protect public health and jumpstart our economy.  I’m ready to work with the legislature to get it done.”

On March 2, 2021, at a coronavirus press conference, Whitmer announced relaxed COVID restrictions, which included restaurants and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity, up from 25 percent.  An increase in capacity was also announced for retail establishments, casinos, gyms, stadiums and entertainment facilities.

One year after the pandemic hit Michigan, hope is in the air for the state and nation.  Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act of $1.9 trillion is being touted by many, but not all, as the stimulus package that will tremendously assist Americans and greatly boost the country’s economy.  It should be noted that Trump signed two stimulus packages while in office:  March 27, 2020 ($2 trillion), and December 27, 2020 ($900 billion).

Yet, the hallmark of Biden’s massive stimulus package, which the President is expected to sign before March 12, features $1,400 going to many Americans; $160 billion for COVID-19 strategies to manufacture, distribute and set up more vaccination sites; $350 billion in aid to state and local governments; an extension of federal unemployment benefits, and more.

“It’s big, and it’s bold,” Biden said of his record-setting stimulus package in a recent White House speech.  “My plan not only addresses the immediate crisis we’re in, but it’s better for the long-term economic health of our nation and our competitiveness.  It’s time to act.  We can put people back to work and school safely.  We can gain control of this virus.”

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