Environment & Health

Detroit’s Health Care Workers Ask: ‘How Many Lives Can We Save?’

Doctors and nurses in one of the nation’s poorest, blackest big cities are fighting a raging coronavirus outbreak and a flawed health care system. Here’s what life is like for them right now.
Seth Herald for HuffPost

DETROIT — It was here before we knew it was here.

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It was on Maddelein Street on the morning of March 6, when the 9th Precinct on the east side hosted a “Police & Pancakes” breakfast. About 100 people showed up, pooling syrup on paper plates and small-talking with officers, including a 43-year-old community leader named Marlowe Stoudamire, broad-smiling and beloved, who would be dead in three weeks.

It was almost surely downtown that evening, at the sprawling convention center on the Detroit River where Sen. Bernie Sanders enticed thousands to rally ahead of Michigan’s presidential primary. And likely, too, at a high school on West Outer Drive on the eve of the primary, when 2,000 supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden showed up for another shoulder-to-shoulder rally, getting a shot of hand sanitizer on their palms as they passed through the door.

Key Findings

  • Detroit’s high poverty rate, the prevalence of underlying health conditions like hypertension and diabetes and the inability of its working class residents to social distance themselves made the Motor City ripe for a COVID-19 outbreak.

Biden won the March 10 primary, with historically high turnout. Three hours after the polls closed, Michigan’s governor stepped before the cameras, far more staid than she’d been at the Biden rally the night before. The coronavirus was here, she said. The first two cases were confirmed, both in the Detroit area. In scarcely a week’s time, the number of sick people multiplied 40 times over. Three died: one from Detroit, two from nearby suburbs.

The coronavirus was here, in one of the nation’s poorest and Blackest big cities, a place where the incidences of asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure are all more than 50% above the national average. Proud of its history as a mobility hub, Detroit is also one of North America’s busiest land border crossings and home to an international airport where 1,100 planes pass through every day, including direct flights to Seattle, New York City, Rome, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing.

Seth Herald for HuffPost

The Skyline of Detroit, Michigan and an empty Woodward Ave.

This enduring city, just five years out from the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, is framed as a comeback town, ready for revival. But in a cruel twist, the coronavirus turned the city’s greatest strengths — its connectedness and its networks of mutual aid — into a deadly threat.

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had infected more than 7,141 Detroiters and killed 469 of them. Michigan, which has reported 1,921 coronavirus deaths, has the country’s highest death rate. Of the statewide death count, 80% have been in the Detroit region. Wayne County, where Detroit sits, has more deaths than the state of California.

Over the past two weeks, HuffPost and Type Investigations have spoken with dozens of officials, health care workers and their patients, particularly at three of the city’s major hospital systems, Henry Ford, Beaumont and Detroit Medical Center, as they confront a novel pathogen while struggling with familiar hardships: a fragmented health care system, an underfunded safety net, and governments unprepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

Key Findings

  • Like New York City and other hot spots across the country, the major hospitals in southeast Michigan were quickly overwhelmed, in some cases without enough space to accommodate the living or the dead.

Many of the stories they tell — of supplies running short, of medical challenges unseen, of emotions rubbed raw — echo what workers and patients in cities like New York and New Orleans describe. And they are likely a preview of what’s coming to the rest of the country as the pandemic continues to spread.

The stories from metro Detroit’s big hospitals include tales of innovation, persistence and even triumph. In just the last week or so, a shift in admitting patterns suggests, however tentatively, that the number of new infections may have finally stopped rising.

But even if the worst turns out to be over for Detroit, COVID-19 has exacted a terrible toll here, measured not only in lives lost but also in lives changed.

‘We’re Going To Be Made The COVID Unit’

In early March, Chris Wasen was still caring for patients as they recovered from knee and hip replacements. As an orthopedic surgery nurse at Beaumont Hospital, a major medical center in metropolitan Detroit, he helps people escape pain they’ve lived with for years.

About the reporters

Patricia Anstett

Patricia Anstett

Patricia Anstett is a medical writer who worked 40 years in newspaper journalism in Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Detroit, her hometown.

Jonathan Cohn

Jonathan Cohn

Jonathan Cohn is a senior national correspondent at HuffPost who writes about politics and policy with a focus on social welfare.

Tom Perkins

Tom Perkins

Tom Perkins is a Detroit-based freelance journalist.

Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit and the author of The Poisoned City: Flint's Water and the American Urban Tragedy.

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