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Coronavirus death toll nears 100 in Detroit, with 14 new fatalities reported


Spirit of Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • Spirit of Detroit.

The coronavirus death toll in Detroit rose to 97 on Thursday, with 14 new deaths reported over the past 24 hours.

The city also reported nearly 400 new positive cases, bringing the citywide total to 2,860.

Detroit’s dramatically rising fatalities have raised concerns that the city is on the verge of following in the deadly path of New York City, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic. With 6.7% of Michigan's population, Detroit has about a quarter of the state’s deaths.

As of Wednesday, 91 members of the Detroit Police Department, including Chief James Craig, and 17 firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19. Another 525 DPD members and 1,336 firefighters were under quarantine.

City Council President Brenda Jones announced Thursday that she has tested positive for COVID-19.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of the city’s homicide chief, Jonathan Parnell, and a 38-year old dispatcher whose name has not been released. Other well-known Detroit figures who have died from the coronavirus are state Rep. Isaac Robinson, community activist Marlowe Stoudamire, and Wayne County Sheriff’s Department Cmdr. Donafay Collins.

Detroit has dramatically increased its testing capacity and launched a drive-through testing site. Overcoming the state’s severe testing shortage is critical to understanding how many people are sick and where people are getting infected.

“We know that this great testing that was set up in the city shows a much higher prevalence of COVID-19 than anyone anticipated,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Thursday during a news conference, where she announced schools will be closed until the fall.

“This is a challenge unlike anything we have faced before,” Whitmer said.

On Wednesday, Mayor Mike Duggan, who says he wears a mask when he’s outside, took a different tone, saying he was “deeply disturbed’ by news reports that suggest poverty in Detroit plays a role in the coronavirus outbreak.

“There is no evidence that the coronavirus checks your bank account before it jumps to you," Duggan said, dismissing numerous studies that show poverty increases the risks of infections and fatalities during pandemics.

The first wave of the 1918 influenza pandemic hit lower-income people harder because they tended to live in closer quarters than their wealthier counterparts.

Studies have long shown that cities like Detroit, where a third of the population is impoverished, are susceptible to higher infection and fatality rates. Lower-income people tend to rely on public transit and come to work ill because they don’t have paid sick days. Many of them live in densely packed apartments or public housing projects and are employed in the service industry, where they can’t work remotely and are in close contact with the public.

When pressed about the city’s high fatality rate compared to the rest of the state, Duggan suggested that Oakland County, which is far more affluent, was seeing a similar rate of deaths. It’s not. Detroit and Oakland County have roughly the same number of deaths, but the county’s population is nearly twice Detroit’s. In addition, Oakland County health records show that the highest proportion of coronavirus cases are in lower-income communities like Oak Park, Pontiac, and Southfield, which also have large Black populations.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit news site Bridge found that the coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on Black communities.

“There is no question that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a more significant effect on marginalized and poor communities, particularly communities of color,” Michigan's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, told Bridge.

Duggan eventually conceded that Detroit’s high rate of chronic illness, which is a symptom of poverty, could result in more deaths.

“If you are older or you already have breathing issues, you are more vulnerable to be affected badly,” Duggan said. “There are a lot of reasons why Detroiters can be vulnerable and a lot of really good reasons we should practice social distancing.”

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