As It Happens

A doctor explains why Detroit's COVID-19 cases are 'pretty much exploding right now'

Detroit is set to become one of the U.S. hot spots of this pandemic largely due to the city’s higher risk and “socially disadvantaged” population, according to an infectious disease specialist.

City becoming a hot spot because of 'socially disadvantaged' population, says Dr. Teena Chopra

A man sits in the streets wearing mask during the COVID-19 crisis in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP /Getty Images)


Having a coronavirus outbreak in Detroit is like "putting oil to the fire," says an infection diseases specialist. 

The Michigan city is set to become one of the U.S. hot spots of the pandemic largely due to the city's higher risk and "socially disadvantaged" population, says Dr. Teena Chopra.

About three weeks ago, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Detroit. As of Thursday, there were 2,858. 

Cases for all of Michigan rose by 1,457 on Thursday, bringing the state's total to 10,791. At least 417 people have died.

Chopra, corporate medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Centre (DMC), spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation. 

Can you give us a snapshot of what the situation is in your [Detroit Medical Centre hospital network] right now?  

Detroit is pretty much exploding right now. The cases are increasing at an alarming rate. We are on the exponential phase of the academic curve and the whole of southeast Michigan is suffering at the same time. And all the hospitals are overwhelmed and overburdened at this time. 

We are struggling with making sure we have a good process to triage patients. ... Our priority is to give them quality care and to keep our employees safe. 

When you say quality care, that can, of course, be limited as we're hearing from other places. Do you have what you need in order to deal with what you're anticipating?

At this time, we have what we need and we are following all the protocols and procedures that we have been preparing all this time.

We have been preparing for this for a long time, and we've had backup plans and backup to backup plans in case we come to this situation. And we are making sure that we leave no stone unturned. 

Dr. Teena Chopra is an infectious disease specialist and a medical director at the Detroit Medical Center working with coronavirus patients. (Wayne State University)

We know what we saw in New York and Italy is that things can ramp up very quickly. What exactly are you anticipating in Detroit? 

We saw from experiences in Italy and New York, and we are expecting a very similar situation as in New York. I think Detroit has such a high-risk population.

As I've always said, I know my people very well. I've worked with them for 15 years. They are like family. And Detroit's population is unique in the sense they have these high risk comorbidities including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, CFH — which is heart failure — and all of these high-risk features along with being socially disadvantaged puts them at a higher risk.

So we are going to need more resources. I would say three times more resources than we currently have. In the form of not only more beds, but more staffing. We do need help with more nurses. We need help with more physicians stepping up, retired physicians stepping up and helping us take care of some of these patients who can be stepped down to step-down units … other areas where we can transfer some of these patients in days to come. 

Where can you possibly get that extra personnel from? We've seen in New York they've called [for] out-of-state people to come. We know you are right across the border from Windsor, Ont. Many people actually live in Windsor and work in Detroit. Will you be putting out a call to Canadian doctors and nurses? 

DMC leadership is doing an amazing job in helping bring these nurses from Canada and from everywhere else and harness resources from the city and the state so that everybody understands that Detroit is underprivileged and under-resourced and we are going to need twice as much resources than other places around. 

Are there Canadians nurses and doctors who have responded to your call?

The situation is fluid at this time. We are receiving responses but we don't have any confirmations at this time.

Thirty-six per cent of our population is below the poverty line. There is lack of transportation. There is low literacy rates. There is lack of clean water supply.- Dr. Teena Chopra, Detroit Medical Center 

You mentioned a vulnerable community. It's known that a third of people in Detroit live in poverty. How does that compound the problem that you're facing in Detroit?

Thirty-six per cent of our population is below the poverty line. There is lack of transportation. There is low literacy rates. There is lack of clean water supply.

All of these things are going to affect patients getting more infections, and this is a virus we are talking about, which has a reproductive ratio of anywhere between two to three and a high mortality. 

So this is like one thing on top of another. It's like putting oil to the fire. That's our situation that we have here in Detroit, and we need more resources so we can help our community and we can save lives. 

Members of the Michigan National Guard set up hospital beds as the Detroit TCF convention center is converted into a field hospital on April 1. (Emily Elconin/Reuters)

We have seen that Washington is planning a lot of what goes where. Some states seem to be treated more favourably than others. Do you have a sense that your governor and your city will get its fair share of those supplies? 

We always see hope, and hope sustains life. And also, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel with all efforts made by our governor and our mayor of Detroit, also DMC leadership is doing an amazing job in collaboration with Wayne State and trying to not only help the hospital and triage patients, but also help the community in making sure that we can try to contain and mitigate this curve and flatten the curve by trying to test as much community population as possible. 

Written by Alexandria Kazia with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


  • An earlier version of this story stated that 117 people had died from COVID-19 in Michigan as of Thursday. In fact, 417 have died.
    Apr 03, 2020 3:05 PM ET