Joneigh Khaldun is the doctor behind Michigan’s largely effective coronavirus response, and she’s hoping Michiganders take a key lesson from the pandemic.

LANSING, Mich.—She’s an emergency room doctor in Detroit and a mother who loves to play the cello with her daughter. But that’s not the everyday leader in the spotlight during the pandemic. 

Michiganders see Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive for the state of Michigan, as an avid spokeswoman for ending the pandemic. She boldly leads the plan to get Michigan vaccinated as part of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s cabinet and was the first in the state to get her vaccine live in front of millions of families watching. 

Khaldun advises the state on public health matters and has become a familiar face for everyday and many know her as the face of Michigan’s response to the year-long coronavirus pandemic. 

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She’s Michigan’s equivalent to Dr. Anthony Fauci—a trusted leader explaining the pandemic and the response to it in accessible ways to help promote practices that slow or stop the virus’ spread. 

And since even before the pandemic began to unfold in Michigan, Khaldun has been planning to get residents through it. 

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Pandemic 

In late February of 2020, Khaldun had a meeting with Gov. Whitmer. Khaldun was sounding alarms about a new disease that was coming to the United States.

Khaldun, an emergency room doctor in Detroit, said that she was certain the first coronavirus cases were already in Michigan, but the state lacked the testing capacity to prove it. Later, symptom data analysis proved her right. 

Khaldun warned that the disease was pernicious, deadly, and could spread even before symptoms were noticed. And once that case began to spread, she warned that daily life would need to radically change to keep the infection at bay. 

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“It’s been a long past 12 months,” Khaldun told The ‘Gander. “We’ve been monitoring this and developing response plans for quite a while. Before words like ‘contact tracing’ and ‘social distancing’ were known to people, the public health team really was working on this.” 

The next year played out fairly close to what Khaldun predicted weeks before the first confirmed diagnosis of the virus in Michigan. Thankfully, so did the people working together to slow the pandemic and buy time for the current vaccination campaign. 

“I’m proud of my team at the Department [of Health and Human Services]; I’m proud of also just everyday Michiganders,” Khaldun said, noting Michigan’s cases are in decline. “Michigan has done far better than, quite frankly, a lot of other states when it comes to our cases and deaths and bringing our curve down last spring and also this past fall… We are in this situation because Michiganders are doing the right thing. They’re wearing their masks, they’re washing their hands, they’re socially distancing. And people are seeking to get the vaccine when one becomes available to them.”

Learning Lessons That ‘Don’t Go Away’

Michiganders doing their part to end the pandemic, combined with the powerful vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna as well as a promising vaccine candidate from Johnson & Johnson, has her hopeful about meeting Michigan’s goal of vaccinating 70% of Michiganders by the end of 2021.

As of Sunday, Michigan had administered 1.6 million doses of the vaccine out of the 14 million needed to hit the target of 70% vaccination rates.

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The main thing the past year has shown Khaldun is just how crucial public health is to every other aspect of society. A breakdown in public health meant skyrocketing unemployment, explosive debt, pushing other health issues into a state of deferred maintenance as patients were more hesitant to seek treatment, radically transformed education, and impacted personal lives in innumerable other ways. 

“Businesses, restaurants, all employers, everyone now I think really understands public health and how they have a role to play in promoting the health of society,” she explained. “The pandemic will end, but these partnerships and lessons learned, I hope those don’t go away.”