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2021 Michiganians of the Year

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun helped push state toward a 'culture of public health'

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There are many moments from the past 18 months that will stand out for Michigan’s former Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, but one immediately rises to the top.

The 41-year-old Metro Detroit physician, who became a face of the state’s pandemic response, remembers walking to a Lansing press conference through a crowd of protesters, some holding Confederate flags, who were rallying against the COVID-19 response she helped develop.

“I’m a doctor,” Khaldun said in a September interview, shortly before announcing her departure from her state position. “I never expect everyone to agree with recommendations or guidance that I’m giving them. But I don’t think I expected the level of anger and disregard — not from everyone, I think it’s actually a minority of people — but the level of anger and disregard for very basic things that would just protect everyone.

“I don’t think I could foresee how political very basic public health things would potentially become in the country.”

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michiganian
Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun has been named Michiganian of the Year for her efforts to guide the state through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

But the mother of three and Ann Arbor native said she will also remember the state leaders and workers, residents and businesses who came together to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Their work, she said, was humbling and helped to create a “culture of public health” in Michigan.

"The pandemic certainly is not over but we definitely are in a very different place than we were a year ago," she said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer praised Khaldun's efforts as "transformative" and said her service to the state "will go down in history."

"Her perspective and insights were invaluable as we faced unprecedented challenges and her work to tackle racial health disparities has been recognized at the national level," Whitmer said.

"At the height of COVID-19, we stood side by side frequently communicating with the public directly, delivering critical information and explaining state-level decisions in a clear, accessible way to ensure every Michigander had confidence knowing that we were leading with the best medical information and data." 

Khaldun was hired by the state in 2019, more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic would slam the state and prompt some of the strictest mitigation measures in the country. After nearly three years with the state, more than half of which were steeped in the COVID-19 pandemic, Khaldun announced in September she’d be leaving for a private job with CVS Health.

Khaldun will serve as vice president and chief health equity officer with CVS Health.

Prior to taking up the mantle as Michigan's top doctor, Khaldun was used to working in public-facing roles, serving as the director for the Detroit and Baltimore public health departments. But she said there wasn’t much that could have prepared her for the weight of decisions made during the pandemic.

Her past experiences working for public health, as well as her jobs outside the pandemic, helped to inform state policy.

As a mother, she had a front-row seat to online learning and the challenges of keeping her kids educated, entertained and healthy.  

As an emergency medicine doctor with Henry Ford Health System, Khaldun got a firsthand taste of the shortage of personal protection equipment and hand sanitizer.

“Those were things that weren’t really guaranteed as a practicing physician,” Khaldun said. “And those were things that I think really drove home what was needed from a policy level, from a supply level, and what was really needed nationally as well.”

The state has “shown grit,” she said, but challenges still remain.

“We still have more people who need to get vaccinated so that we can get to a place where COVID-19 is manageable, if you will,” Khaldun said. “I don’t think the virus is ever going to completely go away at this point.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun

Age: 41

Occupation: Former Michigan chief medical executive

Education: Undergraduate at University of Michigan, medical school at University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, emergency medical training at King’s County Hospital Brooklyn SUNY Downstate

Family: Married, three children

Why honored: For pushing the state of Michigan toward a culture of public health

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