ANN ARBOR, Michigan ― Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) is following the advice of public health experts.
Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) isn’t.
Yet somehow it’s Whitmer that President Donald Trump has attacked as the one who is “in over her head” and “doesn’t have a clue.”
The difference in how Trump has treated the two says a lot about the way he has handled the coronavirus pandemic ― and why, in the view of so many people who work in public health, that approach is so dangerous.
Michigan is among the states where COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is already having a big impact, with 5,486 confirmed cases and 132 deaths as of Sunday. Whitmer, now in her second year as governor, issued a stay-at-home order a week ago, after the number of documented cases in the state passed 1,000.
Although Michigan isn’t exactly under lockdown, with grocery stores, gas stations and other essential businesses still open, Whitmer has called for strict social distancing. And the population appears to be listening. When people walk in their neighborhoods, they keep apart from each other. Even busy city streets are mostly deserted and nonessential businesses really have shuttered.
The now-familiar goal of this strategy is to “flatten the curve” ― to avoid a sudden spike in cases that would overwhelm the hospital system. And it didn’t come a moment too soon.
“Southeast Michigan is burning,” one doctor told the Detroit Free Press this week, and the region’s two large hospital systems, Beaumont and Henry Ford, are already near capacity with COVID-19 patients. Other hospitals, including the Detroit Medical Center downtown and the University of Michigan’s in Ann Arbor, aren’t far behind.
Shortages are a real concern in all of these places. The hospitals are going to need more ventilators, the machines that allow people with coronavirus-ravaged lungs to breathe. And they are already low on personal protective gear: gowns, gloves and, most crucially, the high-quality N95 masks that will reliably stop transmission of the virus, which can take aerosolized form.
Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, a pulmonary physician who works in the northern Detroit suburbs, saw the number of COVID-19 patients on life support in his hospital go from one to 15 in just one week ― and during that time, he told HuffPost, the protocol for using masks changed as hospitals across the region realized they would need to ration their limited supplies.
Normally workers would use a new mask with each new patient encounter. But with so many patients and so few masks, Al-Hadidi said, hospitals have been telling staff to use the same mask over and over again, with cleanings in between.
And the N95s are only for those who come in direct contract with patients who test positive for COVID-19, Al-Hadidi said, even though other workers face exposure through patients not yet showing symptoms or not yet tested.
“It’s really heartbreaking ― the doctors, nurses, the janitors too,” Al-Hadidi said.
He noted that infected workers could then spread the virus to their families and communities, while leaving hospitals dangerously short on staff when they are unable to work.
Whitmer Spoke Out, Trump Lashed Out
Whitmer and other governors have repeatedly sought federal help with acquiring supplies, and spoken out when those supplies have not arrived.
“We need tests, we need personal protective equipment,” she said during a CNN interview with Jake Tapper on March 20. “We need [a] regular, sustained national strategic plan here and solid clear communication, and these are all the pieces that are missing from the federal government.”
When Tapper pressed her on Trump’s rejection of pleas for the federal government to do more, including the president’s quip that it’s not his administration’s job to be a “shipping clerk” for medical supplies, Whitmer said, “I’m just frustrated. I don’t want to be in a sparring match with the federal government, but we are behind the eight ball because they didn’t do proper planning.”
The comments were sharp, but with those and other statements, Whitmer seemed to be going out of her way to avoid singling out Trump personally.
Trump has not returned the favor.
Appearing on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Thursday, Trump said, “We’ve had a big problem with the young, a woman governor from … Michigan. We don’t like to see the complaints.”
At a White House briefing the next day, Trump said he had told Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the administration’s COVID-19 response, “don’t call the woman in Michigan” because she wasn’t “appreciative” of Trump’s help. (He acknowledged that Pence was calling anyway and, later, said he never intended to prevent contact.)
Trump’s reference to the “woman governor” drew a more direct response from Whitmer, though she resisted saying anything about the gendered reference. “Hi, my name is Gretchen Whitmer, and that governor is me,” she wrote on Twitter, throwing in a waving hand emoji for good measure. “I’ve asked repeatedly and respectfully for help. We need it. No more political attacks, just PPEs, ventilators, N95 masks, test kits. You said you stand with Michigan — prove it.”
Hours later Trump responded, this time with some name-calling: “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer is way in over her head, she doesn’t have a clue. Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude!,” Trump wrote Friday.
Those comments notwithstanding, Trump formally approved a national disaster declaration for Michigan on Saturday, right as a shipment of more than 100,000 N95 masks from a national stockpile were arriving. That was in addition to about 200,000 masks the state had gotten previously.
But delays in those previous shipments were one of the reasons Whitmer had taken her pleas public in the first place. And even with Saturday’s delivery, the state has just a fraction of what it needs.
In the face of a pandemic, a major hospital system like Beaumont or Henry Ford can easily go through more than 10,000 N95 masks in a single day. That means Michigan actually needs millions, as Whitmer’s team confirmed to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent last week (and later to HuffPost directly).
Whitmer praised Trump’s Saturday announcement and the delivery as a “good start.” On Sunday, appearing on network political shows, Whitmer wore a Detroit-made sweatshirt that said “EVERYBODY VS COVID-19” and talked up unity, even as she warned the state needed more help because hospitals “would be in dire straits in a matter of days.”
“We’re not looking for a fight with this guy, we’re trying to bring the temperature down here,” one Whitmer administration official told HuffPost, noting that Whitmer had a good working relationship with Pence and support from Republicans as well as Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. “It doesn’t change the fact that we still need more supplies here.”
Florida’s Governor Followed Trump’s Lead, Got Praise
Another state, Florida, hasn’t had to wait for its supply orders, according to a recent report in the Post. And while it’s not clear why Florida might be having an easier time, it’s obvious that the state’s governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, is getting nicer treatment from Trump than Whitmer has.
“He’s a very talented guy,” Trump said this week. “He’s a very good governor. Everyone loves him. He’s doing a fantastic job for Florida.”
But DeSantis’ response to the crisis has been far from fantastic, in the view of most public health experts.
DeSantis resisted calls to shut down the beaches, even after college students from around the country descended on the state for spring break ― and public health experts warned that those students could become “super-spreaders” of the disease.
DeSantis did issue guidance to avoid large social gatherings, but the students ignored it, quite possibly taking the disease with them when they returned to their campuses. A video circulating on social media, which a firm called Tectonix GEO said it constructed from mobile phone tracking data, showed how a group of people on one small section of Fort Lauderdale beach in the middle of March dispersed across the eastern half of the U.S. in the following two weeks.
And while some individual counties eventually shut down beaches on their own, others did not. As recently as Saturday, in the Jacksonville area, the St. John’s County beaches, which officials had kept open, had crowds that went right up to the border of the Duval County beaches, which officials had closed.
Pleas for a shutdown of nonessential businesses, like the orders in Michigan and so many other states, have gotten a similar response from DeSantis: no.
“You simply cannot lock down our society with no end in sight,” DeSantis said last Monday, echoing statements by Trump, who spent the week pushing hard to ease up on social distancing and get the country back to work. (“We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem,” Trump said that same day.)
DeSantis has cited the low level of reported cases in northern, more rural parts of the state as reason to hold off on a statewide shutdown ― again, in much the same way Trump has talked about easing up on restrictions in parts of the country where confirmed cases are still relatively rare.
But those numbers of confirmed cases don’t mean much when testing is so haphazard and the disease incubation period is so long. Nobody really knows how far the disease has spread in Florida’s more rural sections ― or in the rest of the U.S., for that matter.
“One challenge for COVID-19 is that it typically takes about a week for someone who has been infected to become symptomatic and seek testing,” said Kathryn Jacobsen, an epidemiologist at George Mason University. “The week between infection and onset of symptoms means that cases detected this week are information about of the number of people who became infected last week or the week before.”
And although DeSantis is trying to impose a quarantine on visitors from the heavily impacted states of Louisiana, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, those efforts won’t do anything to stop the spread from other states bordering Florida’s northern border ― to say nothing of other parts of the state where caseloads are already rising quickly.
“It is impossible to stop people from Tallahassee from getting to Miami,” Howard Forman, a Yale professor of public health, told HuffPost. “It is a huge state with such incredibly variable social distancing measures in place. And it is a tinderbox. Elderly people heavily rely on young people for many of their services, etc. and the elderly live in smaller, concentrated communities.”
As of Sunday morning, Florida had 4,246 confirmed cases and 56 deaths, which on both counts is far more than what Michigan had when Whitmer declared her shutdown. And the numbers are growing rapidly, with cases doubling every three days and following a trajectory that looks like New York’s. One model suggests that hundreds of thousands of Floridians will need hospitalization unless serious social distancing starts within the next few days.
“Florida is at risk of becoming major epicenter of epidemic spread of #COVID19 in the coming weeks,” Scott Gottlieb, a physician who served in the Trump administration as director of the Food and Drug Administration, tweeted on Sunday. “The outbreaks were apparent there weeks ago. And the state was slow to implement mitigation steps, and probably exported a lot of its infection.”
Trump May Play Favorites, But Viruses Don’t
Trump keeps saying publicly that he pays close attention to which governors praise and criticize him, frequently implying that it will affect how he treats them.
“It’s a two-way street,” Trump said at a Fox Town Hall on Tuesday, discussing his relationships with the governors. “They have to treat us well.”
“All I want them to do, very simple ― I want them to be appreciative,” Trump said in the Friday briefing at the White House.
Such rhetoric is not unprecedented for Trump, in public or in private. In a now-notorious phone call with the president of Ukraine, Trump offered aid in the country’s fight against Russia but said “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That statement became a key piece of evidence that the House of Representatives weighed when it impeached Trump late last year.
In that case, the issue was national security ― specifically, whether Trump was withholding aid to a strategically important nation in order to hurt a potential presidential rival in the U.S. This time, the issue is public health ― specifically, whether Trump is making it harder for states to fight COVID-19 because their governors have spoken out against him.
Maybe he is. Maybe he isn’t. Either way, the epidemiological facts of the coronavirus are clear.
The virus doesn’t distinguish among people based on their governor’s politics, and it doesn’t respect state borders. It’s going to be everywhere and probably already is. Just how many people die will depend a lot on decisions in state capitals like Lansing and Tallahassee, but maybe even more on what happens in Washington, D.C.
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