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Detroit becomes first Michigan city to test for COVID-19 without prescription

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Detroit became the first Michigan city on Monday to open up COVID-19 testing to city staff and essential-business employees who don't have virus symptoms or prescriptions.

Mayor Mike Duggan made the announcement at an afternoon news briefing, saying the regional testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds is equipped to take up to 500 individuals per day without prescriptions. That includes city workers and firefighters not previously screened for the virus as well as employees of essential city businesses, although the company owners or managers must call to schedule the visits. 

"Starting today, we have a major shift in our strategy," Duggan said. "We have made so much progress that now we have at least 500 appointments a day available to people without symptoms. We need to be able to have this city recover economically as quickly as possible."

Businesses and others without symptoms should call (313) 230-0505 to schedule appointments. The site will continue to test another 500 city and regional residents per day with medical prescriptions, Duggan said. 

The mayor first said last week Detroit intended to prioritize businesses for testing, starting with employees in industries like foodservice, where the virus could spread easily. 

Detroit, meanwhile, is working on a plan for the reopening of the city government, which Duggan said won't happen without a medical sign off. He believes that will serve as a "road map" for businesses. 

"Everything will be opened up on a different timetable. Some might be open by May, some might not be opened until August," he said. "We are going to open them when the doctors have signed off that we have a medically safe way of operating."

On Monday, Detroit's Health Department said the city's confirmed case total has reached 7,736 and 629 total deaths. The Monday figure reflects an increase of 24 deaths over what was reported on Sunday. 

The mayor said the grim figures are from Detroit's nursing homes; there are now 119 deaths recorded among residents and staff. About 30% of those who are symptomatic have tested positive for the virus. Those without symptoms are testing positive at about the same rate, he said.

"I wouldn't at all be surprised if when we write the final chapter on the coronavirus in Detroit if 1 out of 4, 1 out of 5 of all of our victims were nursing home victims," he said. 

The city has tested 1,038 nursing home residents and staff in 13 facilities. The health department expects to be through testing all of the city's nursing homes by Thursday. 

Detroit also is providing masks and gloves to nursing homes "who didn't have access to these valuable, life-saving resources," said Denise Fair, Detroit's chief public health officer. 

There was good news for the Detroit Police Department. Only seven police officers, he said, have been in quarantine over the last week and 900 officers have returned to work. 

The Detroit News reported Sunday that the youngest person to fall victim to the virus in Michigan was a 5-year-old Detroit girl. Skylar Herbert was taken off a ventilator Sunday after being diagnosed with the virus last month and developing a rare form of meningitis and brain swelling. 

The mayor called Skylar a "real daughter of the city of Detroit," noting her mother is a Detroit police officer and her father a city firefighter. 

Her tragic death, he said, is "a reminder to all of us what's at stake with our commitment to social distancing."

"I want the Herbert family to know they are being held in the hearts of all Detroiters today," he said. 

The city last week offered a breakdown of its confirmed coronavirus cases by ZIP code on its website. 

Skylar's family lives in northwest Detroit, an area that's among the hardest-hit, with 559 cases reported as of Sunday. 

The first positive case was reported in the city just over a month ago. 

Over the weekend, the city was recognized during President Donald Trump's daily White House briefing on the virus. Dr. Deborah Birx, the country's coronavirus response coordinator, held up the city as a model community for testing and social distancing efforts. 

Birx on Saturday gave an overview of the top 25 metro areas in the country and noted Duggan and the people of Detroit have done "an extraordinary job with their social distancing."

Duggan on Monday noted Birx's comments about the city but warned residents have to stay vigilant.

"The progress is great, but we're at a dangerous time," he said. "If you look at the pattern for other countries, we have dramatically bent the curve ... but every place in the world where people started to pat themselves on the back and said 'This is under control, we can relax,' they have seen a significant spike. We just can't afford that here in the city."

cferretti@detroitnews.com