Dispelling The Myths: One-on-one with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is something most of us had never heard of prior to a few months ago. Now it’s permeated our lives and the world will be forever changed. This pandemic has swept through not only the United States but also the entire world at an alarming rate. Currently, Michigan is firmly in the grips of COVID-19 and with no clear end in sight all we can do is wait while some of the world’s most brilliant minds look for a way to defeat or at least weaken the disease.


Globally (at the time of writing this article) the number of COVID-19 cases is over 1.6 million, with 102,594 fatalities. Of that 1.6 million, 375,958 have recovered according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Since the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Michigan on March 12, 2020, we have watched the number steadily climb without any rhyme or reason. On April 10, Michigan health officials reported 1,279 new cases of COVID-19 bringing the state’s total cases to 24,638 with 1,487 deaths.

It’s safe to say that Michigan is on edge and citizens have so many questions. The Michigan Chronicle was able to sit down with Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the Chief Medical Executive and Chief Deputy Director for Health for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, to find out what is known about COVID-19 and how we can stay safe.


Michigan Chronicle (MC): According to public health data Detroit, which is 79 percent African American, has 7 percent of Michigan’s population but almost 30 percent of the state’s infections and 35 percent of its deaths. It appears that African American populations are disproportionately sickened and killed by the coronavirus. Why is that and what is being done about it?


Dr. Joneigh Khaldun (DJK): What we know right now is that 33 percent of COVID-19 diagnoses and 40 percent of fatalities in Michigan are African American. Obviously, that’s very concerning. We can’t say for certain why that is but what I can tell you is that there is a higher rate of chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, etc. in the African American community. And we know that the social determinates of health, i.e. living in poverty, struggling with transportation, those things also contribute to poor health outcomes in the AA community. So, it’s important that we’re mindful of that and we do the appropriate outreach in our community.


MC: It seems like the country was behind in response to this pandemic. Why is that?


DJK: I think from the beginning President Trump was not taking this seriously, calling it a hoax and that didn’t really help our cause. However, in Michigan we’ve been aggressively treating patients and doing what we can to mitigate the damage. But yes, overall, we are behind which is why you see the shortages in test kits and medical supplies.


MC: Self-isolation and social distancing can be difficult for those who don’t have money or a home. What is being done for that segment of the population–the homeless and indigent?


DJK: It’s so unfortunate that often when these health crises come it’s people who are already facing inequities that suffer the most. We are working to ensure people have access to medication; we’ve waived copays for insurance and have been doing what we can to remove barriers to accessing care. But it is difficult and we realize that this is impacting them significantly. So, we will continue to work closely with shelters, food pantries and local communities to support those in need.


MC: The CDC released a statement saying that wearing a mask is encouraged. Is there a certain type of mask that should be worn or can you use a bandana, scarf or anything that covers the nose and mouth?


DJK: If you must go out wear a homemade mask and wash the mask frequently. Put it on and leave it on; do not touch your face. When removing the bandana be sure to remove it from the back so as not to touch your face. Because masks can sometimes obscure breathing, we recommend that you only wear a mask if you are able to adjust it or remove it yourself.


MC: Originally it was stated that this virus was similar to the flu do we think this will be seasonal like the flu?


DJK: We just don’t know a lot about this so we cannot say for certain how COVID-19 will behave; whether it will be seasonal or not. We are studying it and trying to learn all that we can about this virus.


MC: With the weather getting warmer people will be tempted to want to gather and go outside. What do you say to those people who feel that a weather change changes everything?


DJK: It’s just not true. We still need to uphold social distancing. We cannot ease up on these social distancing measures. People are dying and people will die if we don’t comply with the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order.


MC: We haven’t heard much about children being impacted by COVID-19. Can you tell me the outlook for children and some of those statistics?


DJK: We are definitely seeing children being infected with COVID-19. And we are seeing that when they do get the disease they tend to not get as sick and are less likely to die. But make no mistake there have been cases of newborns and infants across the country that have died from COVID-19. So low risk is not the same as no risk. Children can get the disease; they can get very sick from the disease and they can pass it on to others.


MC: What are we learning from the people who have recovered from COVID-19? And, if you’ve had it and recovered does it “live” inside of you and can you catch it again?


DJK: It’s just too early to tell. A lot of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 still have a long road of recovery ahead of them. Some of these people were on ventilators and that’s not something you bounce back from quickly. We are monitoring that and we are looking to learn anything we can from those who have survived COVID-19.


MC: Reports have said in order to get a handle on this we will have to get everyone tested. How realistic is that?


DJK: Honestly, our country was just too late in getting these tests up and running. We’re playing catch up so our most important priority is making sure we are testing those most vulnerable of getting ill, healthcare workers, first responders, etc. I don’t think we will be able to test everyone anytime soon; the country was just too late in getting the tests and we are still facing supply chain issues.


MC: During the Governor’s town hall Gov. Whitmer stated, “If everyone stayed home for two weeks, it would eradicate the virus.” Is that accurate?


DJK: The incubation period for COVID-19 is two weeks. Which means If you’re in contact with someone who has the coronavirus it’s going to take about 14 days for you to develop that disease— if you’re going to get the disease.


So, in theory, if the government made every single person stay home for two weeks then we would significantly decrease the number of cases and that’s getting to the point of why social distancing is so important. If you stop coming in contact with people with the disease then you won’t get it. And that’s really the only thing we can do to fight this thing.


MC: What can people do if they are sick and do not have health insurance?


DJK: So, we don’t want anyone to go without care. If you are sick and especially if you have difficulty breathing, do not delay. I’ve heard that the federal government will be reimbursing hospitals that care for the uninsured. Insurance coverage should not be a factor when it comes to life and death.



MC: Is there anything else you would like the public to know about COVID-19?


DJK: There are no home remedies that can combat COVID-19; there is no pill you can take for this—this disease can and will kill you. So please everyone protect yourself. We are not out of the woods. We have to stay home to stay safe. And if you do go out please practice social distancing and wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds. We will get through this but it will take all of us doing our part.


  • If you have symptoms like fever, cough or shortness of breath call 559.0659for advice on what to do next. Please note: screening is required before a COVID-19 diagnostic test.


  • The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has set up a hotline for public health and other experts to answer health-related questions about COVID-19. The hotline will be open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 888-535-6136

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