One year later: The week when everything changed and how the business community lived it from Crain’s Detroit

March 8, 2021

The stark reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is now more than a year long. Some 520,000 Americans and nearly 16,000 Michiganders are dead. Businesses remain disrupted by the long tooth of the infectious disease that continues to prevent customers and workers from being in close contact without substantial safety protocols.

COVID-19 landed in America in late January 2020, but didn’t reach Michigan’s borders, at least officially, until March 10. The weeks before but particularly the eight days that followed were among the most tenuous for the state’s lever pullers.

In early March 2020, before the state’s first confirmed case, life was normal. Offices and factories remained open. Restaurants were serving hot meals and cold drinks from inside the walls.

A year later, that’s all changed. Many people haven’t been to the office in about 365 days. Others have played offense for many months, following rigid safety rules to avoid contracting the virus at retail, hospitality and manufacturing jobs. With three vaccines now being distributed across the state — more than 2.4 million doses have been administered as of last week — hope is on the horizon. The death and despair of 2020 is drifting.

But between January and March 18, 2020, the state’s political, business, health care and education leaders witnessed the mirage of control they held evaporate into uncertainty. Those leaders, and those throughout the country, had no idea what they were about to face.

This is the COVID-19 outbreak through their eyes.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell sends a letter to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, imploring the agency to expand screening operations from major airports like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and San Francisco International Airport to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Only days earlier, Chinese authorities publicly identified a cluster of pneumonia cases as a new fast-spreading coronavirus in the industrial city of Wuhan. Health officials worry the virus is contagious and deadly enough to trigger a global pandemic. Wuhan is home to several factories of Detroit’s auto companies and frequent business travel occurs between the cities. Later that same day, the CDC announces the first confirmed case of the virus in the U.S. in Washington state, shredding optimism that the U.S. could block the virus’ entry. Delta Air Lines, the predominant airline at DTW, would suspend air traffic from China two weeks later.

Dingell: “They were checking people at only a few airports, yet Detroit had the most direct traffic. It made no sense. We weren’t screening at DTW and it was just obvious the virus would come through that airport at some point. People on Capitol Hill were making fun of me for how serious I was taking this threat. But I was very aware of the potential danger in January. The auto executives were talking to me about what was happening in China. They knew this could be bad.”

Feb. 25, 2020: A peek into the future

The CDC says the outbreak is headed toward becoming a global pandemic.

David Lawrence, chief administrative officer for Livonia metal stamper and fastener firm Alpha USA, returned from a business trip to Japan days earlier. Japan was in the midst of its strategy to contain the virus and offers Lawrence a perspective on what may be coming to the U.S.

“The (Diamond Princess cruise ship) was quarantined out in the port in Tokyo. I remember the fear in Japan. Everyone was already distancing and wearing masks and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. This was a country that had already faced SARS. I saw how a society could function using the appropriate safety measures and I expected it in the U.S. soon. Back home, at the end of February, we sensed COVID was spreading in the U.S. and it was only a matter of time before it landed in Michigan. There were talks circulating what could happen to manufacturing plants since we saw the shutdowns across China. But getting information at that time was difficult. There was a void of information coming from customers and the government. We were hanging on everything coming out of the press, wondering whether we’d have to shut down.”

March 10, 2020: We’re surrounded

The first two confirmed cases of coronavirus are detected in Michigan, a man from Wayne County and a woman from Oakland County.

Phillip Levy, an emergency room physician at Detroit Medical Center and chief innovation officer at Wayne Health, formerly Wayne State University Physician Group, calls colleague Steve Lanier, professor of pharmacology at Wayne State University and vice president of research at Wayne Health, to discuss the potential spread of the virus across Detroit’s hospital systems, including DMC.

“We were realizing any hope of avoiding widespread exposure to the virus was wishful thinking. We knew the hospitals were going to be most impacted immediately, and soon. We had to determine what was needed here and right now. We had no idea how to prevent it and no idea how to treat it.”

Continue reading “One year later: The week when everything changed and how the business community lived it” from Crain’s Detroit.

One year later: The week when everything changed and how the business community lived it from Crain’s Detroit
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