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Why this Detroit doctor sees signs for optimism in recent COVID-19 trends

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday that the growth rate of new COVID-19 cases in her state may be starting to flatten. But already, there have been more than 1,600 deaths and 25,000 confirmed cases. The Greater Detroit area has been hit especially hard. William Brangham talks to Dr. Steven Kalkanis, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group, about what he’s seeing on the medical front lines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michigan's governor, Gretchen Whitmer, had some encouraging news to share today. She said the rate and growth of new cases in the state may be starting to flatten.

    But, already, there have been more than 1,600 deaths and 25,000-plus confirmed cases. The greater Detroit area has been hit especially hard.

    William Brangham has our latest dispatch from the front lines of health care there.

  • William Brangham:

    And for a look at how one major health system within Detroit is dealing with this, I'm joined now by Dr. Steven Kalkanis. He's the CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group.

    Dr. Kalkanis, thank you very much for being here.

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    Great to be with you.

  • William Brangham:

    Can you just give us a sense now of how things are? We understand you have something of — over 4,000 positive cases that you're dealing with. How are things at the hospital group now?

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    Well, you know, as of today, this is actually the sixth consecutive day where I can say that we have more positive news than negative.

    We have discharged more patients than those who are being admitted. We have taken more patients off of ventilators than those who require going on ventilators to be intubated.

    So, we believe that we are through the peak of this surge. But we're not ready to declare victory yet, because we are being vigilant. We want to make sure that we have appropriate resources.

    But I will say, as of today, that our capacity for ICUs and ventilators are at about 55 percent, which means that, you know, we have plenty of capacity left, should the need arise.

  • William Brangham:

    I'm curious a little bit about the patient population.

    I know broadly, in Michigan, African-Americans, I think, are about 14 percent of the state's population. But my understanding is that they're something like 40 percent of the positive cases.

    What is your sense of why that might be? I — many people have pointed to things like structural inequality, high rates of chronic diseases. What is your sense as to why that disparity exists?

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    You know, we celebrate our diversity in the Detroit area, certainly at Henry Ford Health System, and we care very deeply about any concerns related to the perception of unequal numbers or understanding what might be driving some of that.

    I will tell you that our internal numbers are much less than 40 percent in terms of the African-American population. But I can tell you that, based on our early analytics right now, these patients, these African-American patients, are not faring any worse than the average patient that we have admitted with COVID.

    So, we're very pleased at least about that.

  • William Brangham:

    That obviously is some very good news to report, which we have unfortunately far too little of these days.

    I understand also you had a large number of your own staff who themselves were infected with the virus. And I'm curious as to why you think that happened.

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    Yes, it's a great question.

    I think we have to put it in context. So, Henry Ford Health System has about 34,000 employees. And about 800 of them tested positive. And we did this because, again, we were very, very proactive at the beginning of this challenge to say, if you are part of, you know, dealing with patients in any way, if you are coming into our centers, we want to know.

    And so, thankfully, we developed an in-house test early on that gave same-day results. And this allowed, I think, for a very robust testing effort.

    We're thrilled that we did, because that allowed us to identify health care workers and employees who were positive, so that we could immediately remove them from the work force, thereby preventing the infections of thousands and thousands of other patients. We feel, had we not done that early on, it would have been a lot worse.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned the good news that you're starting to see, that you're able to discharge more people than you're having to bring in.

    Is it your sense — or is this too optimistic — that do you feel like you have hit that plateau? Have you peaked, and are you on the downward slope of number of new cases, do you think?

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    We're not ready yet to declare victory.

    But I will tell you that, today, I am the most optimistic than I have been in about four weeks. For us, this represents the start of the fifth week of this challenge.

    And to be able to say that we have had five or six consecutive days where the numbers are trending in a good direction, instead of a worrisome one, it appears that we have at least plateaued or hit that peak and are now on the downslope.

    But we need to guard against a resurgence. We can't relax our precautions yet, until we understand how this works and how we can develop broader immunities, because we don't want to go through this all over again.

  • William Brangham:

    That's all positive news. We hope that trend continues.

    Dr. Steven Kalkanis, CEO of the Henry Ford Medical Group, thank you very much for your time. And good luck.

  • Steven Kalkanis:

    Thank you. Thank you.

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