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Politics and public health: controlling COVID-19 in Michigan’s Capital region

“You just find yourself in a rather unique position when you are the health officer in the capital city,” says Linda Vail, Ingham County’s Health Officer.";s:3:

Lansing has always been a busy place. It’s home to the state Legislature, which makes it a popular location for protests from across the political spectrum. And just down the road, in East Lansing, is the state’s largest public university, home to tens of thousands of Michigan State University students. But amid the ongoing pandemic, the large groups of people that tend to gather in the capital region have made containing COVID-19 particularly complicated.

For example, as hearings about alleged election misconduct continue at the Capitol this week, President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani will testify before lawmakers Wednesday evening, which could draw a crowd—heightening the risk of a “spreader event,” says Linda Vail, Ingham County’s Health Officer.

Vail used to be the health officer for Kalamazoo County. She says it wasn’t until the COVID-19 crisis hit Michigan that she realized how complex her position could become as health officer for the state capital.

“You’re dealing with a shutdown order and having people not gather in rooms and things like that, and you’re interfacing with people who are complaining to you about what’s going on with the Legislature,” Vail said. “And it’s like all of sudden, you’re in Ingham County and the Legislature is meeting in your county. What truly do you have the authority to do, and what do you have the responsibility to do?”

Vail says she’s received calls from legislators and staffers concerned about in-person meetings in county buildings and people failing to follow COVID-19 safety precautions. Vail says that while she knows some activities require in-person attendance—like votes in the legislature—she encourages people to refrain from meeting in person unless it’s absolutely necessary.

The politicization of the pandemic has also complicated her work this year. Large anti-lockdown protests that took place in Lansing earlier this year drew mass crowds to the Capitol—which is not what a public health officer wants to see in the middle of a pandemic. 

“The original protests about the executive orders and things like that were here in the capital,” she said. “Here we are in the midst of a shutdown, and I’ve got thousands of people flooding into the Capitol to protest and say they were going to stay in their cars. But then they didn’t stay in their cars.”

Just down the road in East Lansing, Vail is contending with another kind of challenge: college students on the MSU campus. Vail says many students are taking the threat of the virus seriously. But not all of them are, she adds.

“We have some who just—you know: ‘I’m not going to to get that sick, I’m not going to end up in the hospital, it’s not going to be bad for me because statistically, it’s not for younger people,’” she explained. “So they tend to be less careful and gather in larger numbers and do those sorts of things, and that’s very, very challenging.”

COVID-19 cases in Michigan and the rest of the U.S. continue to rise, especially as low temperatures set in and people meet up with loved ones this holiday season. But Vail says that she’s not sure more widespread stay-at-home orders make sense, based on the structure of the United States’ government.

“When you are in a country where you can issue a shutdown for lengthy periods of time and truly get a handle on this virus, you’re talking about a country where people’s income is going to get taken care of if they're in a shutdown mode,” she said. “People’s lives are not going to just literally fall apart and fall into unemployment and poverty and lose businesses and things like that, because they’re different kinds of governments.”

Vail says that in the U.S., unemployment means your health insurance and housing are at risk, whereas that’s not the case in some other nations. An effective broad shutdown would require a system in place to support people who might not have reliable work amid heightened COVID-19 restrictions, she suggests.

Vail says hospitals in Ingham County are currently at about 85 to 95% capacity. That’s very concerning, she says, particularly if cases surge again due to holiday gatherings.

“Shutdowns are about limiting the number of people that get sick at any one time so that our healthcare system has the capacity to take care of them,” she said. “If we exceed that, then we cannot take care of the seriously ill, as many of the seriously ill, as we need to do in appropriate ways, with the appropriate level of care and concentration on them. And we have, really, what we would call unnecessary deaths.”

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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