An invisible, human-borne wind sweeping the globe turned much of Greater Lansing into an eerie zone of isolation and dread this week.
There were no sandbags along the Grand River, no boarded-up windows, no panicky exodus clogging the freeways. This was a new strain of disaster.
In a breathtaking few days, state and local governments, businesses, entertainment venues, bars and restaurants battened down the hatches with a sweeping and unprecedented wave of closures, cancellations and other social distancing measures in an all-out attempt to “flatten the curve” of possible COVID-19 infections that lay ahead.
In a few days, the size of gatherings recommended by the Centers for Disease Control shrank from 250 to 50 to 10, and local officials quickly gave those recommendations the force of law.
People hunkered down in their homes with takeout food, stockpiled groceries, and Netflix, if they were lucky — for how long, no one knew.
Others went about their business and took their chances, albeit with dwindling options.
Sports and entertainment and arts events are on indefinite hold. Familiar sights like students packing the MSU Library to cram for exams or crazy-long lines in front of Golden Harvest Restaurant vanished altogether.
After one last, ill-advised weekend spasm of St. Patrick’s Day revelry, bars in East Lansing, and elsewhere, shut down at 3 p.m. Monday. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered nearly all social gathering places, from eateries to gyms, shuttered until Monday, March 30, although restaurants may stay open for pickup and delivery.
The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan topped 50 over the weekend and 4,000 nationwide, but those numbers will surely be obsolete by the time you read this. As of Tuesday morning, there were three confirmed cases in Ingham County.
However, health officials and epidemiologists say that the actual number of people with the virus could be five to 10 times as many, or more, than the number of confirmed cases in any area. As the virus heads toward exponential spread that could overwhelm area hospitals in the coming weeks, no one knows how effectively the great shutdown will flatten the curve, and the economic and social consequences of such a vast experiment are just as murky.
‘Please believe the science’
Issuing drastic social distancing orders that were unthinkable a month ago, Governor Whitmer called coronavirus “a challenge unlike any we’ve experienced in our lifetimes.”
“Fighting it will cause significant but temporary changes in our daily lives,” Whitmer said. “This about saving lives.”
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor hit the same note when he declared a state of emergency in the city Monday, closing City Hall, 54-A District Court, community centers and “related city facilities” until further notice.
“Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors and our co-workers by practicing social distancing and flattening the curve,” Schor said.
Leonard Fleck, a medical ethicist and MSU philosophy professor, said the closures and restrictions were needed and timely. He contrasted them with the mixed signals that came from the federal government in the outbreak’s early stages.
“My recommendation to everybody who reads City Pulse, or any other media, is that the only person you can trust in the federal administration is Anthony Fauci,” Fleck said. Fauci, a top adviser to President Donald Trump and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has drawn notice for his willingness to contradict the president’s rosy assessment of the coronavirus outbreak, particularly with respect to testing, which Fauci called a “failure.”
Fleck said Fauci “is giving an accurate picture of what we’re facing and why, at this point, the social distancing is extraordinarily important, because, at this point, we don’t have a lot of other tools to deal with the spread of this virus.”
One of those crucial tools is testing. As recently as two weeks ago, there was only one coronavirus test kit in the state laboratory in south Lansing.
In an interview with City Pulse Friday, the county’s chief health officer, Linda Vail, said she didn’t “have an exact number” on the area’s testing capacity now. Vail said private laboratories, hospital laboratories and state facilities are “ramping up” capacity to test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Local health officials across the country have expressed deep frustrations about the shortage of testing capacity. The tests are most effective earlier in an outbreak, when local health departments have the resources to investigate a patient’s contact history and trace the path of the virus.
Later in an outbreak, Vail said, tests become less useful.
“If you reflect back to what happened with H1N1, where we ended up having 743 million cases across the world — there comes a time when we know the virus is here, this is not practical any more, and we treat the symptoms,” Vail said. “We’re not at that point right now. We don’t have thousands and thousands of cases.”
For now, Vail said, there is enough personnel on her staff, including environmental health staff who usually do restaurant inspections, do conduct contact tracing of infected persons.
“When the virus — if the virus — becomes very widespread, finding contacts and getting them quarantined is not effective anymore, when you know the virus is all over the community. But again, we’re not there and we may not get there.”
The only effective line of prevention, Vail said, has become all too familiar in recent weeks, but bears repeating as often as possible: Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, stay home if you’re sick. (See below for more advice.)
“I implore people to be with me on this,” Vail said. “We need everybody to be doing these things. That is the science of public health. Please believe in this science and do those things.”
Fleck said the best we can hope for this week is that “we will somewhat ramp up our ability to do testing by the end of this week.”
“But the people who will be tested won’t be you and me, but people who are clearly symptomatic,” he said. That leaves a lot of people with the virus, but who feel no symptoms, walking around spreading COVID-19. That includes thousands of arrivals from abroad, crammed into long lines at overwhelmed airports last weekend in the chaos surrounding new federal travel restrictions. Some of those people likely have the virus and will be at their most virulent this week and next. The result, Fleck predicted, will likely be a “huge spike” in cases “over the next two weeks and longer.”
Hospital ‘happy talk’
In the face of a likely spike in COVID-19 cases, area hospitals are sticking to vague assertions that they are ready for anything.
Sparrow Health System’s website is still sending the message that coronavirus is not much different than any seasonal flu. Karen Kent Van Gorder, chief medical and quality officer at Sparrow Health System, said in a video interview, “We’ll very likely see coronavirus here, just like we’ll see the regular seasonal flu.”
Dale Jackson, Sparrow’s director of EMS, took a similar line. “The vast majority of people who get this, whether it’s cold, flu or coronavirus — they get mild to moderate symptoms. They can stay at home and self care, the same you would do with any flu-like illness.”
But coronavirus is not an ordinary flu. About 45 million Americans have been infected by the flu this season, which typically peaks in February, and about 40,000 have died, according to The New York Times. Last week, a disease modeler at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control presented agency officials with a worst-case scenario of 160 million to 214 million people infected with coronavirus and 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths. The scenario includes the nightmarish prospect of 2.4 million to 21 million people in need of hospitalization. The total number of staffed hospital beds in the nation, according to the Times, is about 925,000, and less than a tenth of those are for people who are critically ill.
Nevertheless, Chris Farnum, director of infection prevention and control at McLaren Greater Lansing, said the hospital has “ample space to accommodate additional cases of any kind in an emergency scenario and has updated plans for expanding our treatment areas if necessary.”
“That’s the kind of happy talk that is ethically and socially problematic,” Fleck said. “Anybody who has any degree of sophistication does not believe that. If something bad happens, and they make hard decisions, there are going to be lots of angry people, saying ‘You said you had enough, blah blah blah.’ That would make the situation with COVID-19 that much more difficult to manasge, because you lose credibility and there would be a very distrustful public.”
Speed weaving a safety net
Not only is the prognosis for the spread of COVID-19 still unknown; the preventive measures of recent days open up a second, almost as ominous, box of fears. How will this mass social experiment in isolation affect the population at large, especially the most vulnerable?
One of the most immediate concerns is food security for students who get much of their food from schools.
The Lansing School District has set up 20 locations, mostly schools and community centers, where curbside food pickup — breakfasts and lunches — will be available on weekdays to adults and children under 18 through April 3. Parents don’t have to bring their children. The locations and hours are posted on the Lansing School district website. Other school districts in the area are working with food banks and other organizations to develop similar plans.
The Greater Lansing Food Bank is trying to fill any cracks in this rapidly developing web of food support by stepping up programs such as offering backpacks of food to students. The food bank’s next mobile distribution, from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, March 21, at Tabernacle of David, 2645 W. Holmes Road, will change to a drive-thru model to minimize physical contact.
Advocates for low-income and poor Americans have long pushed against restrictions on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits put in place by the Trump administration. Such benefits, they argue, not only manifest basic compassion to others, but also serve as an economic stimulus, as the funds are used to buy food and other necessities.
The federal emergency coronavirus bill, which the House has passed, calls for about $1 billion in food security aid and would suspend the Trump administration’s plan to tighten work requirements for SNAP benefits. The bill, which also includes free virus testing and enhanced unemployment benefits, is under Senate consideration and President Trump has signaled that he will sign it into law.
As draconian restrictions on activity become reality, many kinds of businesses are bracing both for immediate impacts and long-term ripple effects. Local restaurants and bars are hit hardest, although takeout and delivery orders from loyal customers are blunting some of the impact.
Bob Trezise, president of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, urged residents last week to buy a gift card once a week from “your favorite local business” to keep the cash flowing and saving the cards “to enjoy the service at a later date.”
U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, whose district includes all of Ingham County, encouraged Michigan small businesses to take advantage of Small Business Administration loans to help them “weather the storm.”
Legislation passed earlier this month makes $1 billion available to the Small Business Administration to subsidize disaster relief to small businesses, agricultural cooperatives and nonprofits that have suffered substantially from the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans go up to $2 million.
As the national standstill settles into place, no one knows how many layoffs, bankruptcies and shuttered business are in the offing. Monday, Whitmer signed an executive order extending unemployment benefits from 20 to 26 weeks, and extending benefits to workers who are taking care of children that are home from school or are caring for ill family members. Benefits will also go to laid-off workers who are sick, quarantined or immune-compromised and don’t have access to paid family and medical leave, and first responders in the public health community.
Six feet apart
It’s doubly unnerving that an all-encompassing catastrophe should take hold of society just when the green shoots of spring are beginning to show.
On the lifeline of social media, positively minded people are choosing to view the current crisis as a chance to hit “pause” on life and concentrate on what matters most.
Like every other public facility, the Fenner Nature Center at 2020 E. Mt. Hope Ave. will be closed until April 8. However, a press release announced that the nature center’s trails remain open and free each day from 8 a.m. to dusk.
Fenner’s programs manager, Sam Ansaldi, put the best face on the situation. “Parks and trails are a great place for social distancing,” Ansaldi said. “It’s easy in the 134 acres of Fenner Nature Center to keep six feet apart from other people, and being in nature can help combat some of the mental fatigue bound to occur in challenging situations like this.”
Where to get information:
For an updated report on closures, please see www.lansingcitypulse.com