More than 20,000 Michigan residents have now died of COVID-19, a grim milestone in the pandemic that has gripped the state since Michigan's first cases were confirmed on March 10, 2020.
That means about 1 in 504 Michiganians has died from the virus.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported Friday 20,011 confirmed deaths as the state prepares for a projected new onslaught of infections caused by the highly transmissible delta variant that is sweeping the country. Michigan added 29 deaths over a two-day period to surpass the milestone and had 3,127 new infections to reach 919,133 confirmed cases.
Many families are still coping with grief and loss more than a year after Metro Detroit first became a national hot spot for the virus in spring 2020.
For others, such as the family of Danielle Schoewe, a 45-year-old wife and mother from Warren who died on May 5, the pain is new and acute.
"I wake up alone. I go to bed alone. I just miss her," said her husband, Bill Schoewe, who is now raising the couple's three teen and pre-teen daughters by himself.
"She was my world, my soulmate, and I feel lost."
Confirmed deaths associated with COVID-19 have risen and fallen in a series of three waves in Michigan over the past 17 months, with a quarter of the fatalities associated with the first wave of the virus in spring 2020.
As of Thursday, Michigan ranked 12th in the nation for deaths per 100,000 people, coming behind such states as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With 617,096 deaths through Thursday across the United States, according to the CDC, the COVID-19 pandemic appears on track to exceed deaths from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
There's no official death count for the pandemic that swept through the country from 1918 through the winter of 1919, said J. Alex Navarro, assistant director at the Center for the History of Medicine at University of Michigan. But researchers estimate there were between 625,000 and 675,000 deaths, he said.
The Spanish flu had a higher mortality rate, meaning a greater percentage of the people who got sick perished. But the novel coronavirus is more infectious — as much as two to three times more for the delta variant — so more people are getting sick. And the COVID-19 pandemic is lasting longer than the pandemic of 1918, Navarro noted.
"In 1918, you had lots of people dying in a short amount of time, but the pandemic period was shorter," said Navarro, adding that a majority of the deaths occurred between September 1918 and December 1918.
Public health officials back then tried to curb the spread with mask mandates, business closures and other non-medical interventions — and were met with opposition. There was even an anti-mask society formed by 2,000 people.
The current pandemic has tested the public's patience due to its long duration. Residents also have had to cope with the return of measures like recommended mask-wearing to try to halt the spread of the delta variant, though Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said she doesn't plan any more epidemic orders for mask mandates or restaurant shutdowns.
"Those (interventions) were all in place in 1918 for a matter of a few weeks to perhaps two months, depending on the location," Navarro said. "Today, the vaccination campaign started to release some of those, and now we're having to reimplement some of them because of the delta variant."
Statistical models project that U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus will continue to increase before starting to decline in the middle of September, said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The estimates also suggest the U.S. will add 76,000 more COVID-19 deaths between July 26 through Nov. 1, he said. Michigan deaths will increase to just under 22,000 by Nov. 1, according to the projections.
A fourth surge in COVID-19 is possible in Michigan and as many as 6,000 more residents could die because of the virus this fall, according to a presentation released Wednesday by the state Department of Health and Human Services. Under current vaccination and social contact trends, which could change, the projections from the University of Michigan say the state could experience 3,937 to 6,177 deaths linked to the virus from August through November.
The U.S. projections were based on the most likely scenarios, but fewer deaths could occur if more people decide to get vaccinated or take other safety precautions, Mokdad noted.
If 95% of the population were to wear masks indoors, or outdoors where social distancing isn't possible, the institute projects 49,000 fewer people would die by Nov. 1 across the United States, with 1,000 lives saved In Michigan alone.
People who were already infected with COVID-19 should still get vaccinated, he added.
"We're concerned that people in Michigan will say, 'I had COVID. Why should I go and get the vaccine?'" he said. "The vaccine provides better protection than the infection. It's very important to get the vaccine to be protected."
'She fought for three weeks'
Bill Schoewe was a 16-year-old athlete at Warren High School when he rode along with a friend to watch a girls softball team practice at Warren's Mott High School. Danielle Schimento, 15, was the catcher for the Mott Marauders.
"A pop-up went up and she spun around and caught it … and instantly I was like, 'Oh my God, she's amazing,'" said Schoewe, a project manager with a Tier 1 automotive supplier.
That led to a first date at a skating rink, marriage, three daughters, multiple dogs and 30 years devoted to family, friends and a shared passion for softball.
When the pandemic started, Danielle was laid off from her job as a facilities manager at J.D. Power and Associates in Troy.
"God knew the day he was going to take her because the day COVID hit she got laid off and she was able to spend every day after that with our daughters," Schoewe said.
In April, Danielle received her first dose of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine. But a couple of days later, she came down with a fever. The whole family got sick, and Danielle was the sickest.
On Day 5, she was still breathing fine. But a family friend who works in the medical field urged Schoewe to buy a pulse oximeter to measure the oxygen in her blood. Normal ranges from about 95% to 100%.
"It was 79% to 81%. I took a picture, and my friend said, 'Dude, she needs to be admitted now,'" Schoewe recalled.
Schoewe drove his wife to Beaumont's Royal Oak hospital, where she was admitted. He couldn't accompany her inside, but she sent him texts throughout the night. First, she sent a picture of herself in an oxygen mask. Then she texted they were putting her on a C-pap machine.
"By 3 in the morning, she texted and said I’m going on a ventilator. That’s the last time I talked to her," said Schoewe, who along with his daughters was allowed to visit his wife one last time on the day she died.
"She fought for three weeks," he said, "and then she was gone."
Where deaths were worst
Among the populations disproportionately affected by the virus in Michigan and across the country have been the elderly and African Americans. Michigan was one of the first states to identify, study and address the toll of the virus among Blacks.
Geographically, the highest number of deaths per population occurred in the Upper Peninsula, particularly in Baraga, Iron and Ontonagon counties. They also have some of the lowest population numbers among the state's 83 counties, giving greater weight statistically to a single death.
In Baraga County, as of Friday, about 0.49% of the county’s 8,158 people died from a confirmed case of coronavirus, while about 0.37% of Iron County’s 11,631 people were confirmed as COVID deaths. About 0.36% of Ontonagon County’s 5,816 residents died from COVID.
Detroit, counted separate from Wayne County because it has its own health department, ranked sixth in the state for deaths per population, with roughly 0.33% of the city’s 713,777 people dying of the virus. Detroit's population is based on census numbers released Thursday, which the city plans to challenge.
Based on quantity alone, Detroit along with Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties ranked highest for confirmed coronavirus deaths. The totals, as of Friday, came to 2,327 confirmed deaths in Detroit, 2,347 in Oakland, 2,386 in Macomb and 2,597 in Wayne.
Deaths have been highest among the elderly and African Americans.
Those 70 years and older accounted for 69% of Michigan's COVID-19 deaths. Individuals above the age of 80 accounted for 8,500 of the total confirmed deaths, about 42%, while people between the ages of 70 and 79 have accounted for 5,390 confirmed deaths or about 27%.
Confirmed deaths among African Americans have accounted for about 4,360 or about 22% of Michigan's COVID deaths, while Blacks comprise about 14% of the state’s population.
The largest spike in confirmed deaths occurred in spring 2020, when daily confirmed deaths hit 164 on April 16. Deaths spiked again in the fall and in April of 2021, with the highest daily confirmed deaths amounting to 140 on Dec. 8 and 85 on April 22.
More than a quarter of Michigan’s 20,000 confirmed deaths occurred between early March and June 2, 2020, when Whitmer ordered the partial lifting of the state’s restrictive stay-at-home order. Michigan reported 5,516 confirmed COVID-19 deaths that day as the governor announced the loosening of some restrictions on businesses and workplaces, outdoor gatherings and outside sporting events.
Michigan eclipsed 10,000 confirmed deaths at the height of the second wave on Dec. 9, when 191 confirmed deaths were added to bring the state total to 10,138.
Shortly after the spring 2021 wave peaked on April 22, Michigan stood at a total of 17,168 confirmed deaths related to the virus.
Now, the number of Michigan residents lost in the COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed the seating capacity of Little Caesars Arena for a Red Wings game.
'A blind alley with no lights'
Sybil Glenn, who recently retired after working throughout the pandemic as a chaplain at Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit, said watching a family member die from COVID-19 is "like walking down a blind alley with no lights."
In the midst of counseling families who lost loved ones, Glenn lost her own brother to COVID-19 on March 25, 2020. George Glenn, 78, of Southfield had been busy and active with his church and volunteer work until days before he died.
"It was really devastating for our family," said Sybil Glenn, recounting the pain of not being with her brother at Ascension Providence Hospital-Southfield Campus, where he died. "There was no light to guard our pathway."
In retirement, Glenn has continued to volunteer with Open Arms, a program of Ascension Southeast Michigan Community Health, where she facilitates a support group for people who've lost loved ones to the coronavirus. The program provides counseling and resources for children and adults suffering from grief or trauma.
"This is a club that nobody wanted to be a member of, the grief group club," Glenn said. "But it does give people the opportunity to hear what other people are experiencing — and they become a family."
While grief is always a unique experience, there is much to be shared among those who've lost loved ones to COVID-19, said Karen Gray-Sheffield, director of Open Arms.
"People who have lost loved ones to COVID, that's not an expected or anticipated loss," Gray-Sheffield said. "With these COVID deaths, people have gone in and not ever expected that their loved one would not come home, so that's been very traumatic for them.
"When this happens, it changes everything that is going on in your home environment, and there are some special and unique needs for children, and for others who are now becoming caregivers for those who are left behind."
The isolation associated with COVID-19 has also been unique to survivors of the pandemic, Gray-Sheffield noted. People in lock-down were separated from the friends, family members or churches that normally provide a natural support network.
"There is help, and people should not feel that they can't ask for help," said Gray-Sheffield of people still suffering from the grief, trauma and loss.
"Sometimes, people feel like they can handle things themselves, and it will really stay hidden and stuffed inside of you," she said.
But the group support experience is "extremely beneficial," Gray-Sheffield said.
"People can see that 'I'm not alone in this,'" she said. "Other people have gone through this."
Schoewe's wife, Danielle, was so loved, he said, that 600 people came to her funeral. They hired a Chicken Shack truck to serve food in the parking lot.
One of her nurses at Beaumont Royal Oak recorded Danielle's heartbeat, so it could be placed inside of teddy bears for the girls to listen to. Beaumont Health pulmonologist Dr. Waheeda Nazneen, who cared for Danielle, came to the funeral. When 18-year-old Paige graduated from Warren's Cousino High School in June, there was a moment of silence in memory of her mother.
Schoewe said he's going to counseling: "It really helps. It kind of gets me through the week."
But it makes him sad to think about everything his wife is missing. Payton is starting seventh grade at Carter Middle School in a few weeks. Allie will be entering 10th grade at Cousino High School. And Paige will leave for her first year of college at Eastern Michigan University.
"My oldest, Paige, is a lot like me — she wears her heart on her sleeve. They were best friends," he said. "They would laugh and drink coffee, and then go shopping and hang out.
"I tell her 'I’m not your mom, I’m your dad.' But I’m going to try to be the best girl-dad I can be."
Open Arms: A program by Ascension Southeast Michigan Community Health that provides counseling and resources for children and adults recovering from grief or trauma.
For information: Call 313-369-5780, or email firstname.lastname@example.org