State: Michigan plateau in COVID-19 cases extends to Detroit as suburbs remain high

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

For the second week straight, Michigan officials touted a plateau in new coronavirus cases, noting the trend extends to Detroit, where one of the hardest-hit populations is experiencing a lower incidence than the surrounding suburbs.

The Detroit region — which includes Wayne County and eight surrounding counties — is at 50 cases per million persons per day with a positivity rate of 4.1%, Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said during a Friday press conference. 

But the city's rate is much lower at 26 cases per million people per day and a positivity rate of 2.6%. The state has said manageable rates that could influence reopening decisions rest at about 20 cases per million people and a positivity rate of about 3%. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during a press conference on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. Four million free masks are being provided to Michigan residents who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 through a partnership involving the state, Ford Motor Co. and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Friday.

By contrast, more affluent Macomb County has the highest rate in the region with 82 cases per million people per day and a positivity rate of 7.4%, Khaldun said. 

Wayne, Monroe and Oakland counties each have more than 40 cases per million people per day and a positivity rate of more than 4%.

"Much of the elevation in cases and percent positivity is related to the counties surrounding the city of Detroit," said Khaldun, who stressed the importance of working with local health departments to address local increases. 

The Detroit Health Department attributed the decrease to the compliance of businesses and residents with orders requiring masks, social distancing and other recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"Access to testing has also been key to our ability to rapidly identify cases, monitor and mitigate spread," said Denise Fair, chief public health officer for the Detroit Health Department. 

Officials in Macomb County did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

The update on cases around the state came as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the availability of 4 million free masks to Michigan's low-income residents, seniors and schools through a partnership with the Ford Motor Co. and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

The MI Mask Aid project is an effort with the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities to help those most susceptible to the virus. Whitmer noted during the press conference that the masks have a Ford symbol on them. 

"Vulnerable populations may have difficulties buying masks and our schools need face coverings to keep students, staff and community members safe," Whitmer said. 

Masks are available by calling (888) 535-6136. 

Friday marked the second consecutive press conference where media were banned from the press auditorium and instead asked to participate through Zoom.

Whitmer's office has said the move was an effort to keep reporters safe and observe limitations on indoor gatherings of more than 10 people in a room. Her office also noted concerns that reporters had recently been exposed to a state senator who tested positive for the virus 11 days ago.

Whitmer was joined by Ford CEO Jim Hackett, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon and Khaldun a day after the state announced a large uptick in confirmed cases. The 1,121 new cases announced Thursday came as the state tallied a record number of COVID-19 tests of 40,441. 

Despite the one-day spike, Whitmer noted that the state's numbers continued to plateau this week but urged residents to continue to be vigilant to keep numbers low and clear the way for school reopenings. 

"Youth will not protect you from this virus," the governor said Friday. "Your political affiliation will not protect you from this virus. And this virus will not go away just because we’re tired of dealing with it.”

The state also recorded 16 new deaths Thursday, nine of which occurred prior to Thursday but were only just confirmed through a records review. 

The state's overall case tally reached 90,392 and the death count hit 6,289. 

More than 63,600 people in Michigan are considered recovered from the virus because they are still alive 30 days after contracting the illness. 

Whitmer acknowledged Friday that she is close to an agreement with Republican House and Senate leadership on legislation that would address some aspects that were missing from her late June executive order laying out guidelines for school reopenings. 

The agreement between the Legislature and Whitmer is expected to be the subject of a rare Saturday Senate session and Monday House session.  

While there were conflicts between the back-to-school plans from the Legislature and Whitmer, the crux of the disagreements appeared to stem from a requirement in the lawmakers' plan for districts to offer in-person instruction for kindergarten for fifth-grade students. 

The Legislature’s plan would establish "electronic learning days" that would be exempt from a funding requirement that schools have 75% attendance and would establish "extended continuity of learning" plans. 

Whitmer's return-to-learn plan would allow each of the state's 544 traditional school districts and nearly 300 public school academies to develop, get approval for and have in place by Monday their own plans.

The traditional school and charter plans must fall within guidance the governor issued in late June that differs depending on which phase of the Michigan Safe Start Plan a certain region is in. Most of the Lower Peninsula is in Phase 4 of the safe start plan, while northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are in Phase 5. 

The governor's plan allows school districts the freedom to choose when to host online classes instead of in-person. Some larger districts already have said they will begin the school year with online schooling only — including a larger number of districts in Wayne and Oakland counties.