Like everyone else on the planet, the top three City Pulse’s COVID-19 heroes hope like hell this will not turn into an annual event. But there is a silver lining in the cloud of horrors that descended upon the globe in 2020. The pandemic and its economic consequences have spawned millions of heroic acts of kindness, compassion and empathy everywhere, and greater Lansing is no exception.
Last month, City Pulse asked readers to nominate individuals and organizations they consider heroes in the fight to cope with and defeat COVID-19. Then we asked readers to vote on them.
It seems almost arbitrary to acknowledge three people out of so many, but each of our top three vote getters — mask making fabric store owner Jessy Rae, bill-paying do-gooder Mike Karl and Michigan’s stalwart Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — are neighbors to be grateful for.
Let their stories serve as a modest tribute to a bigger spirit, to the innumerable health care heroes, teachers, delivery people, mail carriers, burger flippers, and so many others who are keeping the flame lit in a dark time.
Among this legions of heroes large and small are the other nominees: Julie Davis, a preschool teacher at Capital Area Community Service Head Start; Jane French, a large animal veterinary technician; the MSU 3D PPE Maker team; Scott Rolen of Lou & Harry’s; Kristi Schneider, an ER nurse at Sparrow Hospital; Julie Stephenson, a crisis therapist at Clinton-Eaton-Ingham Community Mental Health; Pamela Vandervest, a clinical laboratory scientist at Sparrow Hospital; and Tracey Lynn van Duesen, a clinical therapist. Now let’s not do this again soon.
With a vacuum of leadership at the federal level, to put it politely, it’s hard to overstate Michigan’s good fortune in being governed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, one of our readers’ top three “COVID-19 Heroes,” in the pandemic and flood year of 2020.
But Whitmer wouldn’t want her role overstated. Drama is not her thing. She does not consider her “liberate Michigan” feuds with President Trump and sparring with the state’s Republican-led Legislature over her sweeping lockdown orders to be the main event.
Through it all, “the woman from Michigan” sticks unflinchingly with science. Pressed to negotiate with the Legislature, to “give a little” by the president, she has repeatedly declared that “we’re not in a political crisis, we’re in a public health crisis.”
So instead of gushing over “Big Gretch,” let’s cede the podium to the scientists. A study released May 21 by Imperial College London and Oxford University tracked the relationship between mobility in various states and the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The study found that on March 12, before Whitmer issued her stay-at-home orders, each person with the COVID-19 virus was spreading it to 3.5 other people. By mid-May, the “reproduction number” was down to 1, meaning each person with the virus was spreading it to one other person, on average.
One of the researchers was Seth Flaxman, a senior lecturer in mathematics at Imperial College London. Flaxman did a “back of the envelope” estimate for The Detroit News of the number of lives Whitmer’s orders may have saved for. He estimated that some 74,000 Michiganders might have died in an “unmitigated epidemic” instead of the roughly 6,000 that had died up to then.
The British research team estimated that about 130,000 Michiganders were infected with the COVID-19 virus at the end of March. By mid-May, the number was down to 25,000.
John Fox, CEO of Beaumont Health, said that thanks to the governor’s stay-at-home orders, “we narrowly avoided the red zone of needing to care for more patients than we could manage.”
“If the Governor had not taken or delayed the action she took on March 24 with respect to the Stay Home, Stay Safe order, I believe it would have had disastrous consequences for our patients at Beaumont Health and many other health systems across Michigan,” Fox wrote in an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press May 8.
Of course, Whitmer isn’t everybody’s COVID hero. The uproar over the lockdown in Michigan is well known around the world and has even become an emblem of the existential battle between selfishness and compassion. Pick up a copy of the latest New Yorker, read an article about the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, and — for real — you’ll find a paragraph invoking the moral ugliness of “Operation Gridlock,” the first and most notorious in a series of protests against Whitmer’s stay-at- home orders.
But the drama of thousands of angry people thronging the Capitol, complete with automatic weapons, Confederate flags, Trump signs and effigies of Whitmer in a noose and a Hitler getup, has been well documented elsewhere, and to Whitmer, it’s another side- show from the real work of saving lives. Check out Jonathan Mahler’s epic-length chronicle in the June 25 New York Times Magazine for a breathtaking account of the cascade of unprecedented challenges, from a pandemic to a 100-year flood to civil unrest, suddenly thrust upon a governor whose campaign slogan set the modest goal of fixing the damn roads.
Then look around the country and you will see a vast, foundering ship, with no captain in sight. Scattered in its wake are 50 lifeboats, most of them taking on water or going even further from shore. The governors who steer those lifeboats are reversing course and reversing the reversals as COVID cases spike in states like Arizona, Texas and Florida. The pandemic is far from over, and cases are ticking upward in Michigan as well, but the state has been lucky to have a governor who stuck to science all along.