Honda loaning minivans to transport Detroiters to testing site; city deaths at 1,111

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Honda is loaning a fleet of 10 customized minivans for use in transporting Detroiters without cars to the coronavirus testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said the vehicles have been modified to physically separate the driver from the passenger and alter the air-handling system so the driver isn't breathing the same air as a potentially infectious passenger. 

Four cab companies have been providing $2 rides to the fairgrounds for testing and running 200 trips a week with "intense" cleaning in between, Duggan said. 

Ten donated 2020 Honda Odysseys sit in the parking lot of the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit.

"The cab drivers sharing that enclosed space, that air space, has been a source of some uneasiness," Duggan said during Tuesday's press briefing. "These 10 vehicles will be put on loan to the four cab companies for the duration of this epidemic."

Honda Senior Vice President Rick Schostek said a team of Honda engineers and fabricators at the automaker's research and development unit in Ohio modified 10 Odyssey minivans by installing a polycarbonate barrier and modifying the ventilation system, following a model first rolled out in Tokyo. 

"We're in this together, and Honda stands with the Motor City and the rest of America to help solve today's problems," Schostek said, noting the fleet is on loan for a year or as long as the city needs them.  

Honda got involved after city officials saw reports about similar modifications the automaker had made to vehicles in Tokyo, Schostek said. 

"The mayor's staff saw that reported and called us up and said, 'Can you do that here?' " he said. "And two weeks later, they're done, and the vehicles are here."

Schostek said the modifications could be done on other kinds of vehicles, and that Honda is "certainly open to talking with other automakers, with other manufacturers and sharing our know-how."

"The more we can do in various municipalities around this country the better," he said.

Duggan has stressed the importance of testing all Detroiters, even those without a car. The hard-hit city reported 9,449 known cases of COVID-19 and 1,111 deaths through Tuesday.

The rate of new cases and deaths has slowed in recent weeks, and Duggan said the 1,000-bed field hospital at the TCF Center had just three patients Tuesday.

"The numbers continue to drop almost by the day," he said. "The key to everything that we have done has been testing." 

Duggan said this week that the city has run about 25,000 tests for the virus between the fairgrounds site — now doing 1,000 tests a day — and with rapid kits obtained from Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories.

The fairgrounds site has tested as many as 10,000 Detroiters and 7,000 suburbanites, with 27% of Detroiters testing positive overall and 26% of suburbanites, he said. 

"Ten percent of the people in the southeastern Michigan area who do not have symptoms are COVID-19 positive today and don't know it, and that is what is keeping us from wiping this virus out," Duggan said.

"This is being spread by people who don't have symptoms. And until we ultimately get to rapid testing for everybody, it's gonna be very hard to contain this entirely, which is why we've got to keep doing what we're doing."

Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair said the city has completed testing at 23 of 37 long-term care facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and is seeing an infection rate of 10%.

"We plan to continue testing and we'll probably complete our goal by May 15, or even earlier," she said.  

Asked about the gathering of people at Belle Isle during last weekend's nice weather, Duggan said he'd driven the park at least six times on Saturday and Sunday, and that while there were a lot of cars, people were "distancing pretty nicely." 

"What I did not see ... were any State Police," Duggan said, adding that Detroit police Chief James Craig spoke to the head of State Police about a presence to encourage social distancing. 

"I'm confident that you're going to see the State Police provide the same kind of visual presence on Belle Isle that the Detroit police are providing in all the other parks. I think it's going to be just fine."

He said crowding hasn't been an issue in the city's large parks because Detroit police are regularly present and visible most of the time. 

"We aren't seeing real problems with gathering," he said. "When a group starts to get too big, (police) go and talk to them and they split up, which has been great cooperation."

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed