Detroit tops 1,000 COVID-19 deaths; construction projects to resume

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan announced the city topped 1,000 COVID-19 deaths Wednesday but is moving ahead with plans to resume construction projects as there's a decline in new cases.

Detroit's coronavirus outbreak appears to be on the decline, Duggan reiterated during a press conference at police headquarters Wednesday, expressing some cautious optimism about the trend in the state's hardest-hit city.

"The hardest part of this is, three times a day we get an updated report on the deaths in the city; as we cross the 1,000 (mark) today, it was heartbreaking," Duggan said.

The mayor's evaluation comes as he announced on Tuesday the first steps to restart the Motor City's economy, outlining how the first wave of workers will return next week with added safety measures.

There have been 1,008 deaths in the city from COVID-19 as of Wednesday, an increase of 21 from Tuesday, Duggan said. But many of those deaths were from several weeks ago and were slow to be counted because of reporting delays, he said.

The city's death toll is "unimaginable comparable to New York," he said.

"More than 700 of our citizens lost by late March," Duggan said. "It’s all the more important that we continue to do what we are doing. There are only 14 people at the TCF Center... It’s unimaginable where we would be if we didn’t stop the infection rates."

Cases are trending downward and “the city is continuing to slow the spread,” Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer said Wednesday at the press conference.

There have been 8,954 coronavirus positive tests in the city, officials said Wednesday.

Duggan said the number of nursing home deaths continues to be troubling, but they are slowing as well. By Wednesday, 216 nursing home residents and three workers have died from the virus, Duggan said.

He said the lack of testing was a problem in the facilities, and that if they had access to a rapid-testing system a month or two earlier, the death toll would have been lower. The city recently completed quick-result testing of all the city's 2,030 nursing home residents across all 26 facilities.

"Looking at the last 16 deaths, 14 of them were over the age of 70, eight were over the age of 80," he said. "More and more, it is our elders ... the people who are always left most vulnerable."

Nursing home staff are required to get tested by May 15. Personnel at the city's 130 long-term care facilities will also be tested at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds, Fair said.

"The reality is, we are going to be in this for a long time. This is the new normal ... Vanity should never come before one's health," Fair said.

The city has 16 contractors who have been awarded $110 million before the coronavirus hit to rebuild roads, redo water systems and do other construction projects. The city is moving forward with contractors and has issued a set of standards, including a requirement that each worker be tested before entering the job site.

"(Contractors said) in the suburbs, they're not requiring this, in Grand Rapids they're not requiring this, and I said, we've lost 1,000 of our neighbors. African Americans are dying of this disease two-to-three times more frequently than caucasians if you get infected," Duggan said.

"We are going to have a higher standard in the city of Detroit, and an amazing thing happened. All 16 contractors have come back and said to us saying, 'we want to keep our workers safe. We'll eat the extra costs.' " 

First to return to work on Monday will be about 200 workers in the city's General Services Department, who primarily work on cutting grass. They must test negative for the virus and will have their temperature checked before they begin work. 

The city will limit employees to three to a vehicle, rather than five, based on suggestions from union officials. The employees also will report to five sites, rather than one, Duggan said.

Kerlin Blaise, with Detroit-based Blaze Contracting, said they are ready to get back to work, even if it meant taking cuts to supplement other expenses for screenings. 

"Having to stay at home really hurt," said Blaise, adding the company hires many city residents. "We took the time during this process to devise a plan to have most of the PPE in-house and started a work sanitization bucket at each job site ... We took cuts ... We can't take deeper cuts."

Union leaders said they were involved in the re-entry plan and praised it.

Census standing 'not good'

Duggan made a direct appeal to Detroiters to respond to the Census, saying, "Where we stand is not good."

Aside from shares in voting representation in Lansing and Washington, there is $675 billion allocated across the country based on population. Every week, Duggan and city officials track where Detroit stands among the nation's 17 largest cities.

"Of the 17 cities, now we sit in 13th place. We're ahead of Buffalo and Cleveland and Miami and New York. So I guess that's somewhat better than 10 years ago, when we were dead last," he said. "But this is not where we want to be. When Minneapolis can get 62% of the people to send in their forms, when Milwaukee can get 51%, and we're sitting here at 42%, we are giving away the money we need for our residents' health care, for their food, for all kinds of support for 10 years."

Duggan said a large amount of money was lost in the last decade because residents didn't fill out forms. The city has divided online tracking by neighborhood to see where forms and responses are lacking.

"We are sitting in 13th place. And if we stay there, our residents are going to suffer for quite a long time," he said.

Detroit rapper Icewear Vezzo, who said he has lost family members to the virus, joined Duggan to discuss the neighborhood-by-neighborhood census response rates.

"We need to fill out these forms right now more than ever. If we had filled this out right 10 years ago, we could have had some type of leverage with proper funding that could have went to health care workers," Icewear Vezzo said. "In 10 years from now, we need to be prepared.

"Under half of Detroit has filled this out. This is an action of appreciation for these health care workers and our residents we lost. Do it with your actions, Detroit."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_