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On Michigan's COVID-19 anniversary, a conversation with Dr. Joneigh Khaldun

headshot of Dr. Joneigh Khaldun
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
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Dr. Joneigh Khaldun is the chief medical executive for the the state of Michigan.

On March 10, 2020, Michigan identified the first two known cases of COVID-19 in the state. In the year since, more than 650,000 Michiganders have contracted the disease and more 15,000 have died.

As part of Michigan Radio's look back at the past year, the state's chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun spoke with Michigan Radio's Doug Tribou on Morning Edition.

At the beginning

The earliest known COVID cases in the U.S. happened in January and February 2020. The full picture of the coronavirus just hadn't emerged at that point. For example, there were still discussions around the world about what actually qualified as a pandemic.

Khaldun said in those early days, testing quickly became a focus for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

"Our team and the MDHHS, particularly in our public health administration, were working very hard, even back in January on understanding the virus or how it was believed to spread, understanding if it was spread from person to person or not, and also trying to build out in our lab the ability to test so that we could test individuals," she said. 

COVID's racial divide 

Before joining the Whitmer administration, Khaldun served as director of the Detroit Health Department and as chief health officer for the city of Baltimore. She noted that U.S. funding for public health measures has been declining for years in Detroit and Baltimore. 

Across the country, the pandemic has affected people of color disproportionately. Khaldun, who is Black, called that aspect of the pandemic "very, very devastating" to see. 

"It's really, really important that people get caught up on their usual preventative medical care." -Dr. Joneigh Khaldun on healthcare postponed during the pandemic

"But I'll say, it's not a surprise when you talk about communities of color and how they disproportionately tend to live in poverty and lack access to resources, not because of anything about genes or race, but just because of systems and racism that has existed in society," Khaldun added. "I think there's no question that this was inevitable when it comes to our current societal structure."

Khaldun also praised her colleagues in the Whitmer administration for working to narrow the divide.

"We were able to quickly understand the data when it came to disparities on cases and deaths. And once we got that data, we were able to act. And I applaud the leadership of Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Garland Gilchrist for putting in place very intentional policies to be able to address the disparities that we found."

Asked if there is a particular moment in the past year stands out in her memory, Khaldun pointed to something more positive. 

"I certainly will always remember the day I was able to watch the first vaccines roll in to the University of Michigan Hospital," she said. "And really just what that meant, just a sense of relief that there is a vaccine, and that if we can get enough people vaccinated, there will be an end to this pandemic."

Challenges and hope ahead

Many people are feeling mental health strains right now, and many Michiganders have canceled or delayed medical appointments and procedures. Also, COVID long term effects aren't yet known. Khaldun expects fallout from all of that in the coming year and beyond.

"I am absolutely concerned. Once we get through the immediate public health emergency of COVID-19, there is no question that we will see  - and we're already seeing - issues when it comes to cancer screenings, lead testing for children, immunizations for children, and people's mental health [and] substance-abuse disorders," she said.

"I think it's really, really important that everyone knows that our health care providers are taking care of people every day safely. They have protocols in place. They have the [personal protective equipment]. So it's really, really important that people get caught up on their usual preventative medical care."

With the ongoing rollout of vaccines and approval of a third option with the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, Khaldun wants to keep pushing toward brighter days later this year.

"My hope is that we get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. That is our best tool for us to be able to end this pandemic as quickly as possible. And I'm just really excited. We're getting more and more vaccines into the state every week. I just want everyone to know that these vaccines are safe and effective and they should be seeking to get the vaccine when an appointment is available to them."

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