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'So much has changed': Ex-Wolverine Chris Hutchinson sees many positives in COVID battle

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Two months ago, Chris Hutchinson, an All-American defensive lineman and Michigan co-captain in 1992, was in the thick of front-line work during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as an emergency room physician at Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital.

During this time, many businesses were suspended, schools across the country initiated online teaching, and college and professional athletics went on hiatus. There have been roughly 1.6 million COVID cases nationally, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, and nearly 98,000 deaths. In Michigan, there have been close to 55,000 cases and nearly 5,300 deaths.

The Hutchinson family at Easter: Front row, daughters Aria, left, and Mia, wife Melissa and Chris; back row, Mia's boyfriend, Tim Jones, and Aidan.

Hutchinson, who spoke to The Detroit News two months ago about the early stages of the pandemic, said he’s seeing positives now.

“That honestly feels like a career ago,” Hutchinson said in a recent telephone interview. “When I took those pictures (that accompanied The News story), it could have been 2015. To tell me that was two months ago, it's really hard to get my hands around.

“So much has changed. So much has happened. It's literally a lifetime ago.”

Two months later, things have calmed down at Beaumont. The curve is flattening, and Hutchinson has a much better understanding of what the country has had to handle with this pandemic and what is needed going forward. He also now has a more informed opinion on a potential college football season this fall, considering his son, Aidan, is entering his junior year as a Michigan defensive end.

“Our volume is half of what it is now,” Hutchinson said of the Beaumont ER. “I remember I talked about it was 80 to 90 percent COVID; now it’s the opposite. It’s maybe 10 to 20 percent COVID.”

In the last month, Hutchinson said the typical ER patient in the pre-COVID era, those with, say, chest pains and injuries, have started returning. Patients will tell him they’ve had chest pains for four or five days. "Why didn't you come in?" he will ask.

“So there is is a downside to the stay-at-home order,” Hutchinson said. “People are afraid. They don't want to get medical care because they're afraid of getting COVID and dying. So it’s delaying care, and it's not insignificant.”

Looking forward to the fall, and resuming in-class teaching and sports, the fear from national expects and policymakers is a second wave of the virus. Hutchinson, who took a 25-percent pay cut, believes a second wave can be contained. Hospitals are better equipped and doctors know what to look for and how to treat. He stresses people must wear masks and practice social distancing.

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“I would be very surprised if we get a second wave that makes the resources scarce again,” Hutchinson said. “We might get a second wave, and it may be this general trend, but it's not going to overwhelm our ICUs. That’s really what this is about, is overwhelming the health care system.

“What really is frustrating me is it looks like the policymakers are being driven by this fear of the second wave. And if you don't get a second wave, that's great. But now you've trashed the economy because you're so afraid of this serious second wave. I'm not afraid of a mild little trend upward. We can deal with that. We've had these systems in place. We know how to turn them back on again. That's not an issue. If we start getting this big, massive spike and people are going back to the ICUs, OK, that's different. But I'll be honest, I can't imagine that happening. I can imagine it but I think that's extremely unlikely."

Care for elderly patients at nursing homes must improve, he said, and those with underlying health conditions must continue to be vigilant. All of this is important as, gradually, the country tries to resume some sense of normalcy, and that includes sports.

Fall football outlook 

The NFL, MLB and NHL are heading toward playing again, but it remains uncertain what will happen to college football. Some teams have announced a return to voluntary workouts in early June but there has been nothing definitive about the fall.

Would Hutchinson be comfortable if his son plays football this fall?

“Absolutely. One hundred percent,” he said. “I’ve got no problems with it.”

Aidan Hutchinson

It helps, he said, that the NFL will be a sort of trial balloon as leagues and teams determine guidelines. Teams must establish proper protocol for testing, which isn’t cheap.

“There is an expense attached to it,” he said. “And you’re testing from 100 football players, not to mention, the 30 or 50 support staff here every week. Now, Michigan's gonna be fine, but are the MAC schools going to be able to absorb that? That's a sizable number – $100 a pop, times 200 tests every week? That adds up fast.”

Hutchinson said he has spoken to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh a few times recently about the virus. Harbaugh said last week on a national television program that he would rather play football games in empty stadiums than not play at all.

While having dinner together recently, Hutchinson told Aidan it’s possible there could be football this fall with no fans.

“I kid you not, literally, his jaw fell,” Hutchinson said. “And he looked at me like it was blasphemy. He's like, ‘How can we play Ohio State with no fans?’ And I let that sort of marinate and I said, ‘Well, would you rather not play Ohio State or play with no fans? Those are your two options.’ And you can see the wheels turning in his head because he was aware enough of what's going on, and he's like, ‘Wow, I guess that is a possibility, so if that's my alternative, I guess I'd rather have no fans.’”

But there’s much more to the process, and Hutchinson said an issue that must be addressed early on is if someone on the team tests positive. If it’s a player, how will he be quarantined?

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“A lot of these issues are going to be worked out,” Hutchinson said. “As a country right now, our positive test rate is less than 10 percent, and that's one of the benchmarks. I would be surprised if they have to push the start of the football season back to October. I think that we're going to have enough information that we’ll be ready to go.

“So that means you're going to have to start these contact drills in August, but the NFL is weeks ahead of you on that. I think from the NCAA standpoint, I think the most common scenario is the season starts on time. But it's not far down the list that it could be pushed back. I think the most important thing is they talk about not having this stuttering season where they start and stop.”

Stick to original goals

Hutchinson said that some who believe it will only be safe to proceed if there are no longer positive COVID cases, that’s just not going to happen. He also doesn’t think the country can wait for a vaccine before completely re-opening.

“We're continuing to learn. The studies are starting to come in, but when I hear (Michigan Gov.) Gretchen Whitmer say that things aren't going to be back to their normal until there's a vaccine, I'm like, 'Oh, now come on, let's, be realistic,'” he said. “We don’t even know what a vaccine even means at this point for this. We have no idea if these things mutate and that vaccine you just spent 12 months on is now obsolete. So putting all your eggs for a normal society into a vaccine I think is foolish and I think we need to accept what the original goals (flattening the curve) were of this whole process.”

So much has changed in the last two months, but Hutchinson has been proud of the way Beaumont Royal Oak responded in a number of ways, including how all medical personnel were always in personal protective equipment and new ways of sanitizing were developed. Of 130 providers who worked with COVID patients there, including attending physicians, residents and physicians’ assistants, he said five tested positive.

Individuals must continue to keep others safe by wearing masks and socially distancing, he stressed, but Hutchinson believes it is time to gradually and cautiously return to some semblance of normal.

“I think it's going be sort of a reset on our values," Hutchinson said. "I realize there is a subset of the population doesn't like to be told what to do, and I get that. You have to step out of your little box and say, 'I might not be that symptomatic, but I may give it to the person next to me in Costco who takes care of their 80-year-old at home.' I don't think that people like to think that way, but that's the reason I get the flu shot. I don't get the flu shot because I'm worried about the flu. I'm worried about being symptomatic and giving it to a nursing home patient. I can literally kill someone.

“We have to get comfortable with the fact (COVID) may be endemic, and we have some baseline things that we do to keep people safe. But again, you can’t eliminate college football or any activity where people get close to each other. It’s just not feasible.”