Mike Duggan, Gretchen Whitmer: Contrasts in COVID-19 crisis

As coronavirus cases flared and deaths mounted in March and April, Detroit revealed itself as epicenter of the virus in Michigan. The Motor City's unfortunate prominence during the pandemic pushed Mayor Mike Duggan to the forefront of response alongside Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with their contrasting approaches on display.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the 2019 Auto Show Charity Preview.

Duggan and Whitmer say they stand united in the battle against the deadly respiratory virus, with the mayor broadly supporting Whitmer's stay-home orders. Behind the scenes, Whitmer's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, former director for Detroit's health department, has kept in contact with the mayor. 

But at times, Duggan has criticized parts of the state's handling of the pandemic and the power struggle between the governor and GOP state lawmakers.

"The juxtaposition between the two is jarring," said John Sellek, CEO of the Lansing-based public relations firm Harbor Strategic. "They both face the same crisis, both are trying to solve problems here in Michigan and are allies in the same political party. Also, clearly, there's been some tension at times."

Both the governor and mayor's ties to former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, heightened the attention on Detroit and Michigan. 

Duggan, a friend and early supporter of Biden's, has kept his response largely focused on detail, data, facts and a local strategy to combat the virus. Whitmer, a potential Democratic running mate for Biden, appeared frequently on state and national TV to discuss the state's response and the federal government's alleged failings in the crisis.

"For the most part, she's been absent from looking like she's a hands-on leader in the biggest city in the state with the biggest explosion of cases," Sellek said. "You find her on national cable shows. You don't find her in Detroit."

Duggan, the former CEO of the Detroit Medical Center, spent mid-April rolling out aggressive COVID-19 testing for the city's nursing home residents and staff, as Whitmer worked to do the same while also battling GOP limits on her authority and arguing her policies almost daily on the national stage.

Most recently, Duggan noted Detroit hospitals had hundreds of empty beds and called for elective surgeries and treatment for those battling chronic illnesses to resume. Putting it off, he's warned, could lead to more health challenges down the road. 

Khaldun has stressed to medical systems that there is "flexibility" built into a directive from Whitmer restricting elective procedures and offered guidelines on best practices for reopening. The original order, however, remains in place. 

Duggan, during a recent news briefing, expressed "deep appreciation" for Khaldun's action, reiterated medical systems must be open to take care of patients beyond those with COVID-19 and said “we’re seeing signs of that."

When hospital systems prepared “in huge detail” for the H1N1 swine flu a decade ago, Duggan said he ordered DMC employees to get vaccines and wear masks.

The mayor added Detroit's Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry, former labor relations director for the DMC, to help the city start out the COVID-19 outbreak "with some leadership that has lived this."

'Execution and details'

Detroit became a national hot spot for COVID-19 cases and deaths until a recent decline — which some experts attribute to the Duggan administration's efforts.

As of Tuesday, the state was reporting 52,350 cases and 5,017 deaths, while Detroit had 10,444 cases and 1,278 deaths.

“Really, it’s execution and details. It’s get people tested, it's get people to follow proper medical procedures with masks and distancing and cleaning," Duggan told The News. 

Duggan said it's the state's job to set the overall guidelines and Detroit is in constant contact with Michigan officials, offering input on its phasing plans and lifting restrictions.

“You can argue a day earlier or a day later, but we’ve been in agreement," he said. "All along, (Whitmer) has had a broader consideration than the city of Detroit."

The mayor said he talks to Khaldun at least once each day. Both sides, he said, are continually making sure that each knows about any “glitches” in COVID-19 data.

Duggan has publicly criticized the state’s data, calling it “not reliable” and noting that officials quickly learned they “couldn’t trust any of the weekend numbers” because they weren’t being promptly reported by medical systems.  

In an interview with The News, the mayor contends those challenges haven’t been a product of shortcomings on the state’s end. 

“That’s the reality of putting together a data system in the middle of a pandemic,” said Duggan, adding Khaldun is "obsessive about getting it right."

"You’re asking hospitals, at a time when patients are stacked everywhere, to make sure to get all your reports in by the end of the day. There were things on their mind more urgent than getting their reports into the government.”

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, echoed Duggan's position. The state, she said, has sought the mayor's expertise "as the person who is leading one of the nation's hot spots through a tremendously complicated period."

The state, Brown added, has made an investment in the city, been responsive to areas where Michigan can help open up revenue streams to address the pandemic and through the creation of a racial disparities task force, is focused alongside Duggan on making the response work for Detroit. 

"Our joint enemy is the pandemic and any attempt to place a wedge between who is doing better is nonsense," she said. "We value his advice, he’s done a great job, and he has said that we have, too."

David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University, said Whitmer and Duggan both have done the best with what they have. The reaction from Detroiters to the state's and city's handling of the crisis, he said, has been positive. 

"They have seemed to be in stride," he said. "Now, whether that changes is an open question."

Greg Bowens, press secretary under former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, said the enormity of COVID-19 caught everyone flat-footed, from the federal government on down.

In Michigan, Bowens said, Whitmer could have moved faster in declaring an emergency and with direct marketing to the public. But, even so, she “was a calm and steady voice in the midst of this disaster.” 

Bowens, a Democratic political consultant who authored a recent column on the virus’ disproportionate impact on African Americans, said Duggan’s background as a CEO of a major medical center provided him with unique advantages.

“Detroit is fortunate that they had somebody at the helm that was the CEO of a major hospital system,” he said. “So you’ve got a leg up when it comes to that and knowing who to call, how to call and how to marshal the resources to get it done.”

The Michigan State Fairgrounds is Metro Detroit's drive-up hub for coronavirus testing.

Improving testing

Duggan was an early critic of Michigan's lack of testing and ultimately arranged his own testing regime at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. The city already has run more than 35,000 tests at the regional drive-thru site.

“I knew immediately that the key to beating this was going to be widespread testing,” he said. “We made a decision to build our own testing capacity.”

At the outset, the state was conducting just 150 tests per day and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hadn’t yet approved other labs for processing.

Doctors couldn’t get people tested in hospitals and medical facilities were working to get their own labs certified. The state, Duggan said, was dealing with hospital demands across Michigan, but officials were engaged.

“Their job was to get testing up to speed and the burden off state labs," he said. "My job was to get Detroiters tested.” 

As to Duggan’s public worries over lags in testing and data reporting, Bowens said it’s to be expected there would be stress from the leadership at the top in Detroit, considering the city's high numbers of infections and fatalities.

A worker installing a wall, left, with a finished room example, at right, at the field hospital at the TCF Center in Detroit on April 6, 2020.

“It’s par for the course,” he said. “There’s pressure from the frustration of having your citizens be (contracting the virus) at a greater rate than other people."

Detroit last month administered nearly 2,000 tests over a 10-day period to workers and residents in the city's 26 nursing homes. The widespread testing helped identify close to 500 COVID-positive cases and, at the time, an infection rate among city nursing homes of 26%. 

The effort was winding down just as the state's Department of Health and Human Services began requiring nursing homes to submit data on their COVID-19 cases. The first statewide report on nursing home cases was publicly released at the end of April. 

Duggan said nursing homes didn’t even have the protocols for reporting to the state and had to “create it from scratch.”

“Now we have pretty reliable data every day out of hospitals and nursing homes,” he said. 

Brown said the state has been asking for more testing and the city of Detroit's plateau is "one space, not a region, health sector, or the state as a whole," and that the state has "been working on nursing homes since day one."

The mayor also defended Whitmer's decision to set up a 1,000-bed field hospital at the TCF Center downtown to help ease the burden on overrun hospitals. Overall, 39 patients were treated at the site before a "pause" in operations this month.  

“Nobody could have envisioned flattening the curve so fast in Detroit," he said.