Whitmer activates emergency center, prepares 'for the worst' on coronavirus

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Dimondale — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday activated the State Emergency Operations Center in reaction to the worldwide spread of the coronavirus as the state prepared "for the worst."

"I want to be clear," Whitmer said. "There have been no confirmed cases in Michigan, and the current risk in the U.S. is still low.

"That’s a good thing, but based on what we’ve seen in other countries. we should expect to see more cases of coronavirus in the United States," she added. "And that’s why for the safety of our families and communities we are activating the SEOC and harnessing resources from across state government to be ready, to be prepared and to help inform the population.

"We will hope for the best, but we will prepare for the worst. Just in the event that we need to be active, we will be ready."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the media about the state's steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus at a Friday press conference at the Michigan Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale.

The governor announced the move at a press conference at the state Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale. 

Five suspected individuals have been tested in Michigan during the outbreak, and the results were negative, according to state health officials.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Friday press conference with Michigan State Police Capt. Emmitt McGowan, center, and State Department of Military Affairs Gen. Paul Rogers, along with others, speaks on the coronavirus COVID-19 response.

There were 83,652 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 2,858 deaths across the globe as of Friday, according to the World Health Organization.

China accounts for more than 94% of cases worldwide at 78,961 with 2,791 deaths, according to WHO's website. Fifty-one countries account for the other 4,691 cases and 67 deaths. 

Activation of the State Emergency Operations Center in Michigan is among a multitude of efforts across state government to prepare for a potential spread of the disease. The center is staffed by emergency managers from every state department, who gathered there Friday morning to coordinate Michigan's response. 

"The governor’s decision to activate the State Emergency Operations Center, SEOC, ensures a coordinated response from state agencies to address the potential spread of coronavirus as it impacts our state," said Captain Emmitt McGowan, commander of emergency management with the Homeland Security Division of the Michigan State Police. 

State health officials also launched Friday a state webpage at www.michigan.gov/coronavirus to provide information and updates on COVID-19. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services next week plans to start a radio and social media campaign next to educate people on hygiene practices that can reduce the spread of the disease, such as frequent hand washing and bumping elbows instead of shaking hands.

"The main goal of these efforts is to help slow the spread of the virus," Whitmer said Friday. "We don’t anticipate this will cease the spread, but we can slow it, and we can protect especially our most compromised Michiganders.

"I urge all Michiganders to take these recommendations very seriously and to share this information with their friends, family and co-workers."

The state Department of Health and Human Services activated the state's Community Health Emergency Coordination Center on Feb. 3 to coordinate with local health departments and medical providers, said Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun.  

"We’ve been supporting our local health departments and home monitoring of people with recent travel to China, so that if they do develop any symptoms we find out quickly and connect them to the appropriate medical resources," Khaldun said.

Michigan has asked 357 people since Jan. 31 to quarantine themselves for 14 days after recent travel to China that may have exposed them to coronavirus, state health officials said Thursday. The number monitored changes daily as some people complete their 14 days while others begin their period of self-quarantine.

All of the people were travelers who showed no signs of infection when entering the United States, according to the state health department. Some are no longer self-quarantined after completing 14 days of isolation with no symptoms.

Emergency managers from every state department met at the State Emergency Operations Center in Dimondale Friday for briefings on preparedness for coronavirus.

State health officials said Thursday that Michigan now can test for COVID-19 at the state laboratory in Lansing with a turnaround time of four hours per test. All coronavirus testing was previously handled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, after testing kits sent to all state health departments in February were deemed defective by the CDC.

Federal health officials said they fixed the problem with the kits by revising the protocols for how they're used. Michigan now has the ability to test up to 150 people using kits the state received from the CDC on Feb. 8.

The CDC said it also loosened the protocols for who can be tested for coronavirus. Until now, only travelers to the epicenter of the epidemic in China, and those known to have been exposed to someone confirmed to be infected, were being tested. 

The expanded testing protocol followed news from California late Wednesday of the first case of coronavirus acquired through "community spread" — an expected but alarming new phase in the worldwide epidemic. The patient had not traveled to China or been exposed to a confirmed case of the disease.

"It had to happen," said Dr. Teena Chopra, corporate medical director for infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the Detroit Medical Center and a professor of infectious diseases at Wayne State University. She noted the health system received an alert Wednesday about the California case.

"We have been in communication with the state, and if we have a patient, we are in a position to draw labs and send it to the state to test it," she said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses staff in the emergency operations center on Friday.

At the height of the flu season, Chopra noted, decisions about who might require testing often will be made through a process of elimination. Patients who don't test positive for flu or any other known disease or condition may be referred for coronavirus testing, she said.  

"It would be helpful if we had availability of (testing) kits in-house," Chopra added. "That would be the gold mine if we can get that."

Michigan has no current plans to send testing kits to hospitals, Sutfin said. 

"The CDC is sending out more kits, and we will be able to get additional. I am not aware of a shortage," she added. 

The state education and health departments are preparing next week to send out guidelines for handling sick students and those suspected of having the coronavirus, said Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

Any school closings would be made by individual school districts in consultation with local public health officials, state health officials said.

For health-related situations, school districts can decide whether to close a school if attendance drops below 75%, said Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa.



Prevention tips for coronavirus

  • Wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds several times a day.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, mouth or any part of your face.
  • Stay home from work or school if you get sick.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Instead of shaking hands, bump fists or elbows.

Source: Michigan Department of Health and Human Services