Yvonne Gibbs, 72, will receive the COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna on January 27, 2021 at the TCF Center in Detroit. COVID-19 hit Detroit hard. But quick action by city guides at the start of the pandemic may have slowed the virus’ rampant progression among Detroit’s largely black population. According to the city’s health department, Detroit recorded 431 confirmed COVID cases on March 30, 2020, and another 387 two days later. (AP Photo / Carlos Osorio)

It was March 11th last year when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced that the St. Patrick’s Day parade had been canceled because a virus that had sickened tens of thousands around the world had reached Michigan.

“All of these people stood shoulder to shoulder for hours, it was a recipe for spreading the problem,” Duggan told reporters at the time. He said it was “a matter of days” before a city dweller was infected.

He was right. COVID-19 hit Detroit hard. But quick action by city guides at the start of the pandemic may have slowed the virus’ rampant progression among Detroit’s largely black population.

According to the city’s health department, Detroit recorded 431 confirmed COVID cases on March 30, 2020 and another 387 two days later. There were 49 confirmed deaths on April 1, another 51 on April 9, and 52 on April 16.

“We know Detroit was one of the first in the nation to be affected by COVID,” said Renuka Tipirneni, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan. “People live in overcrowded apartments and need public transport to be able to work in important professions.”

But Detroit struggled to get its residents tested for the virus early and had “a very targeted and robust messaging campaign,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive.

Duggan appeared on Facebook, YouTube and TV, urging residents to mask themselves, maintain social distance and stay at home.

He made Detroit one of the first cities in the US to use Abbott Laboratories tests that give results in minutes. In this way, the police and fire brigade were able to avoid quarantine if they tested negative after possible exposure.

Detroit also conducted free mass drive-through exams on the former state fairgrounds. Virus tests were also carried out in shelters for the homeless.

“The city of Detroit’s actions saved lives,” Khaldun told The Associated Press. “People who needed a test got a test. People had the right information about the virus and how to protect themselves from the virus. That is where the virus counts will go down.”

But Detroit did not escape tragedy. More than 30,000 cases have been confirmed in the city and nearly 1,900 residents have died.

In late August, Belle Isle – a state park on the Detroit River – was turned into a memorial to grieving families as they slowly passed hundreds of photos of loved ones who had succumbed to the virus.

People of color across the country were disproportionately infected and killed with the virus, and most of the faces in the photos on Belle Isle were black. Almost eight in ten of Detroit’s 670,000 residents are African American.

The elderly and poor are also vulnerable. Approximately 20% of Detroiters are 60 years and older. Detroit’s poverty rate is among the highest in the nation.

In the second week of April, Duggan said the “center of the battle” was in Detroit care homes after 11 deaths and 141 confirmed infections. The city launched daily rapid tests from residents and staff of nursing homes.

Mass testing and wearing masks are helping Detroit slow the pace of the virus

Robert Huguley, 74, receives the COVID-19 vaccine from Moderna on January 27, 2021 at the TCF Center in Detroit. COVID-19 hit Detroit hard. But quick action by city guides at the start of the pandemic may have slowed the virus’ rampant progression among Detroit’s largely black population. According to the city’s health department, Detroit recorded 431 confirmed COVID cases on March 30, 2020, and another 387 two days later. (AP Photo / Carlos Osorio)

This is “a good strategy,” said 60-year-old Sherry Evans, whose 81-year-old mother Ilene Hegler suffered from dementia and was living in a nursing home outside Detroit at the time.

“The nursing home contacted me between April 18-19 and said she had a fever,” said Evans of Dearborn Heights. “They called me back and said she tested positive. They called me back and said they couldn’t beat the fever.”

Her mother died on April 21st.

“They were more sensitive in Detroit that the virus was killing the elderly and black people,” Evans said.

The city reported around 149 new COVID-19 cases and around 20 deaths on April 23. Newly confirmed cases as of July 1 were around 39, and health officials saw fewer daily deaths. But the falls began to show up in late fall. On November 30th – after Thanksgiving – about 329 new cases were confirmed. The numbers have fallen since then.

“I think (Duggan’s) leadership played an important role along with that of the Black Church,” said Rev. Kenneth Flowers, who lives outside of Detroit but whose Missionary Baptist Church is in the New Mount Moriah area in the heart of the city .

The city worked with churches and other organizations to preach the importance of masking, said Flowers, who has recovered from the virus along with his wife, two daughters, sisters and a 90-year-old mother.

“We tested in our church,” said Flowers. “It makes me sad and angry when I see that many people in certain areas do not wear their masks and do not take them seriously.”

When the city received vaccination doses in December, it opened a downtown garage for drive-through vaccinations for people aged 75 and over before the age limit was lowered.

The city “recognizes the importance of meeting people where they are,” said Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, who wrote a report on COVID-19 co-authored in Detroit. “Drive-thrus are exactly what should be happening.”

An Associated Press analysis of vaccination data from 17 states and two cities that released racial breakdowns as of Jan. 25 shows that fewer blacks are being vaccinated than the rest of the population.

Duggan said he received 15,000 weekly doses of Moderna and Pfizer vaccines from President Joe Biden’s White House. The city has given more than 100,000 doses of vaccine.

Duggan also said the city will provide the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

For those reporting on their race, roughly 82% of those who have received at least one shot are black.

Robert Huguley, a 74-year-old black man who lives in Detroit, was vaccinated last month at the TCF Center.

“I think they are doing their best,” he said of the city’s efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible as soon as possible. “We need more vaccine. Without the vaccine, there’s not much you can do.”

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