Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's top doctor, expressed concern about the pandemic putting Michiganders off their immunization schedules. Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan's top doctor, expressed concern about the pandemic putting Michiganders off their immunization schedules. Photo courtesy the Office of the Governor.

As Trump cuts doctors at the CDC out of data collection for the coronavirus, Michigan’s Dr. Joneigh Khaldun has been a leader in the state’s response since before the first diagnosis.

LANSING, MI — Weeks before Michigan diagnosed its first case of the novel coronavirus, the state’s chief physician, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, was on the case and briefing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer about the threat posed by the burgeoning pandemic. 

In a New York Times profile of Gov. Whitmer, the Times highlighted the first meeting between the two women and other state officials regarding the pandemic. In that Feb. 27 meeting, Khaldun explained the health and economic realities the state would soon be facing. 

Potentially infected travelers were arriving daily, she told the governor, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was not providing her with the support she needed to adequately detect and contain the virus. Khaldun said she was certain the coronavirus had already come to Michigan, but a lack of support and supplies from the federal level left her unable to prove it. Symptom data later proved Khaldun’s insight was likely correct, The ’Gander reported

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Khaldun warned Whitmer that the disease was pernicious, deadly, and could spread even before symptoms were noticed. She warned that dramatic measures would be needed to prevent disastrous spread of the virus. She warned that Michigan was about to experience a disaster.

“I’m very proud of the people of Michigan, I’m proud of Gov. Whitmer,” Khaldun said in a recent appearance on Meet the Press. “She has, from day one, listened to the data, listened to the science.”

Thanks in no small part to Khaldun’s role in the prelude to the crisis, Michigan was prepared to take those dramatic actions to curb the spread of the virus. That same symptom data showed that the stay-at-home orders Michigan adopted were almost immediately effective in slowing the progression of the pandemic. That, in turn, helped doctors manage the patients that did get the virus.

But Khaldun has stressed that the pandemic is far from over.

“I’m very concerned,” she said in her Meet the Press interview, “I’m very concerned that people are making things, very simple things like mask wearing, political. I’m concerned that people are gathering in these large groups … So I’m very concerned, but I’m also confident that Michiganders can do the right thing, because we did it before.”

Since then, for many Michiganders, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun has become a face for the state’s pandemic response.

Cutting Out the Scientists

While at the state level Gov. Whitmer and Dr. Khaldun have regularly appeared together and worked closely crafting the state’s response to the virus since before the first case was diagnosed, the federal response has not been so harmonious with its scientific advisors. 

As The ’Gander reported, the White House has dismissed scientific objection from doctors to things like resuming in-person education in the fall semester, among other recent moves. 

“The science should not stand in the way of this,” said press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. “Our schools are extremely important, they are essential and they must reopen.”

But President Donald Trump cut doctors at the CDC out of the datastream about the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals no longer report their coronavirus data to the CDC in what the White House billed as an effort to improve the speed of tracking cases, but in what Politico reports will cost hospitals critical supplies as the resurgence of the virus continues nationwide. 

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The power struggle between the CDC’s doctors and the federal Department of Health and Human Services also cost data. CNBC reports that almost immediately after the data collection responsibility changed hands, coronavirus data was no longer accessible to monitoring groups like Covid Exit Strategy and Johns Hopkins. 

“What worries me is that we seem to be pushing rather suddenly in the midst of what feels like a very urgent time in terms of surging cases that we’re seeing across the country,” Johns Hopkins epidemiologist  Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo told CNBC. “The question is, what are we going to lose in this transition, and in particular at a moment where we really don’t want to lose any ability to understand what’s happening in hospitals.”

And Trump has formed a personal rivalry with the federal equivalent to Khaldun, Dr. Anthony Fauci. On coronavirus matters, Fauci is the most trusted man in America and has acted as a public face for the healthcare response to the pandemic. 

“So far, [criticism of Fauci] has not affected the way NIH [the National Institutes of Health] conducts and supports scientific research,” former NIH director Harold Varmus told STAT. “On the other hand, certainly, the government should have a representative who speaks the truth about what’s going on and no one is as well equipped as Tony Fauci to do that.”

The push against scientific consultation at the federal level contrasts starkly with Michigan’s science-led approach to managing the crisis. 

Big Gretch and “Dr. J.”

Gov. Whitmer regularly appears in press briefings alongside doctors including Dr. Khaldun, who she refers to as “Dr. J.” Together they have stressed the public health nature of the crisis and attempted to distance the discussion from the political crisis that has unfolded alongside it. 

Khaldun has, in particular, focused on getting Michigan to reach pace with the aggressive 15,000 tests per day goal the state set back in May. 

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“Michigan’s fight against COVID-19 is nowhere near over,” said Khaldun. “The best way we can know where disease is in the state to stop the spread is to make sure that anyone who needs a test can get one.”

This also contrasts with the Trump administration, which as The ’Gander reported had attempted to slow testing down to improve the daily numbers reported, at the time, by the CDC. COURIER reports that Trump has downplayed the importance of testing repeatedly and has called for slowdowns in testing before for a similar reason. 

“If we stop testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any,” Trump said at the White House in June.

Khaldun has also taken point on addressing other public health concerns like the backslide in vaccinations for other diseases caused by the coronavirus or other viruses spreading in the state. She has additionally consulted since the outset of the pandemic on matters of policy related to the state’s reopening safely.