Dan Wallace took the coronavirus pandemic seriously — very seriously. As a man in his 60s with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that already makes breathing difficult, Wallace is considered as having a high risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19. So he did his best to avoid the coronavirus like, well, the plague.
He and his family always wore masks when they went shopping, and drove around with what he calls a "sanitation station" in the back of their van. But Wallace also didn't let the threat of the virus keep him from continuing to enjoy an active lifestyle, doing outdoor activities with his 29-year-old son, riding his motorcycle, and hiking the Au Sable River Trail.
Despite his efforts to stay safe, Wallace contracted the virus in early October — a month that saw coronavirus cases in Michigan soar past heights not seen since the spring, when the state was one of the top COVID-19 hotspots in the nation. Though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's pandemic response was credited to drastically driving the number of cases down, the very same day Wallace was hospitalized, on Oct. 2, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer's emergency powers, ruling them unconstitutional. Also that day, President Donald Trump revealed that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19 — which was not all that surprising considering he'd been holding large campaign rallies, including in Michigan, where his supporters followed his lead in denying the threat of the virus, refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing.
Cases have surged in recent days; on Saturday, Michigan reported 3,792 new coronavirus cases, the most reported in a single day so far, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 178,180. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have also increased, as has the state death rate. A similar explosion is happening across the country, with the U.S. reporting a record-shattering 500,000 new cases last week, with more than 9 million reported cases so far and more than 230,000 deaths.
Wallace believes he may have become infected when he had to be hospitalized due to his COPD, possibly from the ambulance ride, since nobody else in his family tested positive. The COVID-19 symptoms started with an itching feeling in the back of his throat, and he soon lost his sense of taste and smell. "Food tasted absolutely bizarre," he tells Metro Times by phone from his hospital bed. "It was almost impossible to eat. Everything tasted like I was eating blocks of lemon salt."
Then came what Wallace calls "a bunch of dark nights" — a mental fog.
"I couldn't think very well," he says. "Then, all of a sudden my lungs just went out."
When doctors said they might have to intubate him — or place a tube down his throat so that a ventilator would make him breathe — Wallace resorted to the only option he had left: mind over matter. "I literally spent hours staring at my oxygen monitor and learning how to breathe, just so I could keep it above 88% saturation," he says.
He pauses, his breathing laborious.
"There were so many nights when the COVID was the worst," he says. (He calls it "the COVID" as a way to personify it, he says, as a joke.) "I couldn't remember any other function other than just trying to sleep and breathe. I know it sounds almost bizarre to say, but I started forgetting any other primary objectives. I completely didn't think about, you know, my house, or my kids, or my cat, or my wife. I was just lost in this thing of trying to just survive by breathing."
He says he has recovered somewhat; the day we speak is the first day he felt well enough to talk. But now, he doesn't know if he'll ever be able to do any of the activities he used to love again, since COVID-19 can leave lungs and other organs with lasting damage. He'll have to wait and see.
On Tuesday, the same day we spoke by phone, Trump held a campaign rally in Lansing. Though he is a critic of "socialized medicine," Trump enjoyed the finest health care government can provide to treat his case of COVID-19, including experimental treatments not available to the general public. But any hopes of the president emerging from his sickness with a newfound grasp of the magnitude of the virus — or for the safety of his supporters and those they might spread the virus to — were soon dashed. Seemingly as soon as he was able, Trump resumed his re-election campaign, criss-crossing the country and holding massive rallies, as the virus continues to spread across the country. (Trump's rival, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, did not hold large rallies, opting instead for virtual and drive-in events.)
“I completely didn’t think about my house, or my kids, or my cat, or my wife. I was just lost in this thing of trying to just survive by breathing.”
A recent study published last week by Stanford University found that Trump's rallies could be contributing to the surge of COVID-19. In the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, researchers looked at 18 of Trump's rallies held between June 20 and Sept. 22 — including one held in Freeland, outside of Saginaw, on Sept. 10, where at least one attendee later tested positive for COVID-19. The researchers determined Trump's rallies resulted in more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and likely caused more than 700 deaths, increasing the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 by more than 250 per 100,000 residents.
This infuriates Wallace.
"I'm enraged," he says. "You don't even need to be a scientist to understand this stuff. ... I'm enraged to the core of my soul that these people have so misled the ignorant."
"Our government at the federal level is so inept right now, they have provided nothing but criticism for the people who are honestly trying to address this, like our Michigan governor, Whitmer," he says. "You know, I think she in retrospect maybe closed too much stuff down, but this was like an evil beast outside the door that they didn't know anything about."
Gov. Whitmer's response to the pandemic has been both celebrated and criticized. In the spring, soon after Michigan reported its first cases of COVID-19 and quickly emerged as one of the top three hotspots in the nation, Whitmer invoked the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, issuing a stay-at-home order and forcing much of the state's economy to shut down. Invoking a separate law, the 1976 Emergency Management Act, Whitmer extended her emergency powers beyond the initially allowed length of 28 days. The governor's critics accused her of using an opaque, "one-size-fits-all" approach to the state, shutting down even in places up north with a low number of cases. Lawsuits followed, as well as accusations of Whitmer being a "dictator" from Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, the conservative press like The Detroit News, and even Trump. So did an FBI-foiled plot to assassinate her, apparently inspired, at least in part, by the shutdown.
Meanwhile, cases dropped, and by June, Michigan was deemed on track to contain the virus. She was praised as a rising star in the Democratic Party and an example of a leader who helped tame the virus, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and her pandemic response efforts even caught the eye of Joe Biden, who briefly considered her as a possible running mate. (Women leaders have been noted for their effective responses to the pandemic. In a study published in June, a pair of researchers from England reviewed 194 countries' fight against the coronavirus and found that women-led countries such as New Zealand and Germany fared "significantly" better than countries led by men. The study, which was not peer-reviewed, surmised this was because women were quicker to lock down their countries, perhaps because women tend to be more risk-averse than men and also tend to respond more strongly and intensely than men when anticipating negative outcomes.) An October poll by The Detroit News and WDIV-TV found 51% of respondents viewed Whitmer favorably, as opposed to 41% who viewed her unfavorably.
Still, in October, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled her extension of her emergency powers was unconstitutional, and any further emergency response efforts would require the approval of the Republican-led Legislature. Whitmer requested a delay of the Supreme Court's decision to cancel all emergency orders until Oct. 30, but the request was denied. Trump and Michigan Republican leaders considered it a victory.
"We just got a BIG win for the people of Michigan," Trump tweeted.
It turned out that the ruling was largely a legal formality, however. That's because the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, utilizing a separate law established in response to the Spanish Flu of 1918, was able to mirror many of Whitmer's executive orders that the Michigan Supreme Court struck down. Under the Michigan Public Health Code, the state health department has the power to "exercise authority and promulgate rules to safeguard properly the public health to prevent the spread of diseases and the existence of sources of contamination; and to implement and carry out the powers and duties vested by law in the department." Within days of the state Supreme Court ruling, the MDHHS reinstated rules like mandatory mask-wearing, capacity limits for businesses, and other measures. Last week, the department strengthened and expanded the directives, including tightening restrictions in the Traverse City area, which previously had looser restrictions because of a lower number of cases, to bring all sectors of the state under the same pandemic emergency response level.
The revised order also reduced maximum gathering sizes for indoor gatherings such as weddings, parties, and banquets from 500 people to 50 people, and ordered bars and restaurants to limit party sizes at tables to six people; home gatherings should have no more than 10 people from two households. Additionally, businesses are required to take down the names and contact information of customers in case contact tracing is necessary in the event of exposure to the virus. (Separately, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, MDHHS Chief Deputy for Health, advised Michiganders to order carryout instead of dining indoors at restaurants, citing a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found people who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant two weeks before reporting symptoms. Khaldun advises people to dine only with other people in their households, and wear a mask unless they are eating.) Violators are subject to a $1,000 fine and may also be treated as a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than six months, and businesses could lose licensure.
"The only way to beat COVID is to act on what we've learned since March," MDHHS Director Robert Gordon said in a statement. "Wear masks. Keep six feet of distance. Wash hands. And avoid the indoor get-togethers where we have seen COVID explode."
Even though the MDHSS reinstated many of Whitmer's orders, Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious-disease specialist and Wayne State University professor, strongly criticizes the Supreme Court ruling and Republican moves against Whitmer's efforts.
"It was shameful for them to do it, and it has definitely impacted the community," she says. "We have a strong leader in our governor who had made some great choices, and we will see the impact of this."
On Oct. 20, House Republicans introduced their own coronavirus response plan. The new plan would direct county health officials to take action based on local case numbers, and to set their own rules about gathering sizes and restaurant capacity limits as long as their communities remain within a set of coronavirus benchmarks.
Still, Chopra believes this is a case of "politics vs. science."
"Science should be guiding these decisions," she says.
Chopra believes the virus is surging because of the misinformation peddled by politicians like Trump, who have cast doubt on the effectiveness of wearing masks and promoted the concept of "herd immunity," or stopping the spread of the virus because a significant percentage of the population has become immune to the virus. (The theory has also been suggested by Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey; experts say without a vaccine, a "herd immunity" approach would result in tens of thousands of more deaths.) Chopra also criticizes Trump for vilifying officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation's top infectious-disease experts, for contradicting him in public and painting a less-rosy picture of the pandemic. (On the campaign trail, Trump has promised that a COVID-19 vaccine was just "around the corner." Fauci says this is unrealistic, as does Chopra.)
But Chopra also thinks the virus is spreading due to other factors, like the incoming cold season, which is forcing people back indoors, as well as the start of the school year, where the majority of schools offered some form of in-person learning. She also worries that a more mundane reason could be driving the new surge, as well — that people have simply become tired of the pandemic, and are now throwing caution to the wind.
"I think the most important thing to remember is that even if we are tired of the virus, the virus is not tired of us," she says.
Chopra notes that while COVID-19 cases are up, hospitalization and mortality rates remain lower, which suggests the new surge is being driven by young people, who tend to not be as susceptible to the virus. Another unproven theory is that mask use lowers the amount of the virus that spreads, and therefore lowers the viral load, making for less severe infections. But she worries about the possibility of young people spreading to older populations with the impending holiday season coming.
Chopra hopes, despite the example set by Trump, that people at the very least get serious about wearing masks. It's the easiest thing they can do.
"[That's] until we have a vaccine," she says. "And we may not be able to get a vaccine until the summer of next year."
Marie Williams wants to refute any notion that young people are basically invincible to the virus. (Full disclosure: we went to college together.)
She first began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms in mid-March, when there were only a few cases reported in Michigan, and before Gov. Whitmer issued her first stay-at-home order. At that time, there weren't testing facilities or many other resources for possible COVID-19 infections.
"I had to call this hotline, and I was told that any tests would be reserved for people who were healthcare workers, or had underlying conditions like autoimmune disorders or women in their third trimester of pregnancy. ... I was told that the only way I could receive any treatment is if I needed to call 911 because I'm not breathing anymore."
Williams is in her early 30s, and physically fit. Her boyfriend also got it, but recovered quickly.
"At first it was just like shortness of breath, and I thought, 'Wow, this is, like, not that big of a deal. This is going to get better on its own,'" she says. "And then the second week was, like, absolutely like the most devastating and horrible thing I've ever experienced in my life. It got way worse by the day. By day nine, day 10, I started having severe breathing problems. I would go to inhale and then my lungs would only fill up to about 40% of what would be normal capacity."
Williams says the first three to four months were "such a blur." "I was just in bed the whole time, and I was extremely exhausted," she says. "I had a hard time breathing. My throat was completely swollen, where it was stiff all the time. And something really weird that happened to me is that every time I would touch something, it felt like it was vibrating. It was such a weird symptom." She also says she had a hard time tasting the difference between hot and cold food and drink.
“I think the most important thing to remember is that even if we are tired of the virus, the virus is not tired of us.”
Four months later, she was still feeling pretty much exactly the same. "I felt like someone, every single day, was just standing on my chest, like a 180-pound man was just standing on my chest," she says.
Nearly eight months later, "Honestly, I still feel bad," she says. "There are days where I feel better. My biggest goal is to be able to walk for a half hour a day."
She visited a few doctors, but none could make her feel better. They started treating her as if she had chronic heart problems, and floated the possibility that she had a pre-existing condition that made the disease worse. Williams doubts this. "Before this, I was in CrossFit, I eat extremely well, and I've never had any health problems," she says. To add insult to injury, her health care plan didn't cover much, and now she has a considerable medical debt.
Part of the problem with the spread of COVID-19 could be that people have a tendency not to truly understand the severity of it unless they or a loved one have it. The most help Williams says she's been able to receive is the ability to commiserate with other people who have had COVID-19.
"The only people who acted as true doctors or people that could relate to my experience and talk to me at all were just peers that have also been sick," she says. "Other than that, there was no help from anybody else except people who could relate."
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