The Pandemic Year
Where we've been, and where we're going
by Jan Schlain, Cynthia Furlong Reynolds, & John Hilton
From the March, 2021 issue
Michigan reported its first case of Covid-19 on March 10, 2020. News of the first infection in Washtenaw County followed two days later, and the first local death ten days after that. The county's death toll stood at 241 as the Observer went to press and continues to climb.
Health-care systems were stretched to the limit, and livelihoods were lost as schools and businesses closed or went online to limit the spread of the virus. As Ann Arbor's pandemic year turns over, we called nine Ann Arborites we'd written about to ask how their lives have changed.
When we talked to U-M medical historian Howard Markel ("Shutdown," April), he was "gobsmacked by the 'Covid-19 crisis." A nationally known expert on pandemics, he was getting up at 5 a.m. and working late, fielding as many as seven media interviews a day while learning how to teach remotely.
By the time we checked back with him in February, nearly half a million Americans had died. "That's second only to the 1918 flu pandemic," Markel says, "and that was pretty ferocious."
He's studied the history of quarantines and knows, as he and a colleague once wrote, that "[m]asks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing remain the only reliable ways to limit contagion until treatments or vaccines emerge." He also knows that people quickly tire of taking precautions, but that lifting them too soon can be deadly.
So he's thrilled that vaccines were developed in record time--"there should have been bells" rung to celebrate, he says. And he was looking forward to better federal leadership under Joe Biden.
Then, just when "many of us were hoping this would go away by May or June," new, more infectious variants began to spread. It was "a punch in the gut."
But Markel's still confident that vaccines will make the difference--and that once production catches up with the need, America's health-care system can get the shots where they're needed.
"They've done that before,"
he says. "Maybe not 328 million people, but they've done it for tens of millions of people in the U.S. for flu, and we can do it again."
For the first time since it began in 1960, there was no Ann Arbor Art Fair last year ("Canceling Summer," June). Maureen Riley, director of the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the Original, is "cautiously optimistic" that it will return this year as scheduled July 15-18. In February she had already filled 121 spaces, and with socially distanced booths, that may be all she'll have room for.
The Guild of Artists and Artisans' Summer Art Fair is "planning on half the booths, and if that's the case, we're full," says executive director Karen Delhey. "We'll take applications for waitlists in case we can have more."
The Ann Arbor State Street Art Fair "could fit about 200 booths, ten feet apart," says State Street District director Frances Todoro-Hargreaves. Most will be filled by artists who rolled over last year's acceptance to this year, but she guesses they'll have seventy spaces available and will take applications at least through the end of February.
Because the fairs get most of their income from booth fees, they're under the same financial pressures as other downtown businesses. Delhey had to cut one of her five full-time staff members. Todoro-Hargreaves still has an assistant, but only because they're both in "the state's work-share program, which cut us to half-time" with unemployment benefits filling part of the income gap. Riley, now a staff of one, took a pay cut. Maggie Ladd of Ann Arbor's South University Art Fair also operates solo; she couldn't be reached before the Observer went to press.
The people hurting the most, the directors emphasize, are the artists who've lost their primary source of income. "I feel like these artists need this opportunity," Delhey says. "I really want to find a way to do events if we can, safely."
"We still have time," says Todoro-Hargreaves. "Last year we didn't cancel the fair until May 1." They're hoping to make a decision about 2021 in April.
During the deadly first wave last spring, physician Valerie Vaughn was on the front line as University Hospital added 150 intensive-care beds and created new teams to staff them ("Peak Medicine," July). Since then, Vaughn has moved on, she emails, "to take a job closer to my husband." She nominated another Michigan Medicine doctor, Julie Barrett, to catch us up on what's been learned about caring for people with Covid-19.
"In the spring we were trying to put people on ventilators as soon as possible," Barrett recalls. "One, because we thought it might be beneficial, and two, because we were trying to keep from spreading Covid to health-care workers. The sickest Covid patients who required a ventilator went to the ICU."
When the second peak came last fall, "we did not need the extra ICU space," she says, "or as many ventilators. Instead, "with the help of nurses and respiratory therapists," more patients are being supported with high-flow oxygen.
That's more dangerous for health-care workers, because "on high-flow, you can still cough and you can still spread the virus around the room readily--it's very high-risk," Barrett says. "But we found globally, people on high-flow oxygen tend to do better" than they do on ventilators. And with early shortages behind them, caregivers no longer live in fear of "running out of PPE, or whether or not PPE works."
Barrett also learned something about herself. "I previously thought of myself--and still do--as having good clinical intuition about how a patient is going to do," she says. "But Covid has really thrown me for a loop ... I have seen a lot of patients who, by all of their comorbidities, should not do well, and they get up and leave the hospital; and I've had other patients who are fifty and healthy and have nothing else going on for them who become very sick and are intubated for multiple weeks.
"That was something very surprising to me, in the spring especially; now I feel I'm able to take things in stride more."
The yard signs thanking health-care workers are mostly gone now. But "one of the best parts in the spring--the camaraderie that I felt--that still holds true," Barrett says. "I enjoy coming to work during the day, even if it's hard, because the people that I work with are incredible. They inspire me all the time."
Keeping health-care workers healthy is in Laraine Washer's job description. Washer ("Peak Medicine," July) is Michigan Medicine's medical director of infection control. In the first wave of the pandemic nonessential care virtually shut down. Since then, she says, they've learned to "have a balance--to provide for Covid patients, and provide for those who don't have Covid--and keep everyone safe in the community and the health system. That's something we've definitely learned, and that's one of our guiding principles.
"We know what to do when things aren't so good and out of hand," says Washer. "And we do those things to bring the numbers back down."
That applies to the public as well. She appreciates that "everyone is becoming very tired, and many are becoming lonely" from isolating. But with the state starting to open up, "I don't think we're out of the woods yet for this winter."
Till vaccine supplies catch up with demand, she says, "we need to double down on the things we know have worked from a public-health standpoint--that includes mask wearing when you're outside your household--whether inside or outside--social distancing, limiting our interactions as best we can.
"And then we need--at the highest level, from the federal down to the state and local levels--to get those vaccines in people's arms."
When an antibody test confirmed that Stephen Joy had been exposed to Covid-19 in May, he got a call from the county health department.
Joy's initial symptoms had cleared up in April - yet now he had a headache so crushing that he couldn't get out of bed. "The nurse said they had never encountered any other patients like me who tested positive for antibodies, but were still sick ten weeks, twelve weeks into this illness," he recalled in an October Ann Arborites profile.
Joy was the first known local case of what's since been identified as "long Covid" or "post-Covid syndrome." The headache lasted for ten weeks, and he was badly enfeebled for another ten. When we talked in September, he was still rebuilding his stamina.
"The good news is, I'm even more recovered," Joy says in February. In October he'd been "cobbling together" forty-hour work weeks through a combination of remote work and partial days in his U-M lab. Since November he's been "physically in the lab every day of the week, and I basically have not missed a work day since then."
Joy is still feeling some physical effects, including a shockingly painful attack of kidney stones. (A chemical biologist, he traced it to the beets he'd enjoyed at Thanksgiving and cut them from his diet.) But he's "genuinely overjoyed to be kind of normal again. It's just so exciting to not be just planted on the floor at home, in pain."
Unfortunately, he adds, "that's not true for all long haulers who got sick around the same time I did" - some have yet to recover. He's glad to see that the latest federal stimulus appropriation would include funding for research.
A private person, Joy hesitated to become the face of a serious illness. But he doesn't recall a single negative response from people he knows, and as his story spread on social media, he could see it "breaching bubbles" to be shared by people he'd never met. "That's great to see," he says.
At the time the profile appeared, the fall surge in Covid-19 infections was just spiking. If his story "made people mask up a little bit better, if any one person took it a bit more seriously for a few days, that may have limited transmission in some regards," he says. "So I feel very good about it."
"To tell you the truth, I haven't even told some family and friends about the changes I've had to make in my business," says Brenda Steiner. "I'm so embarrassed that it failed."
Steiner owned Unique Hair Salon for twenty-seven years ("Self (Un)employed," May.) With ten hairdressers renting booths and four employees, business was flourishing. So, when Governor Whitmer closed Michigan hair salons last March, Steiner was "confident we'd rebound quickly, because we had seen challenging times in the past--Pfizer's shutting, the 2008 recession, among others."
But Covid proved her wrong.
"We anticipated we'd have maybe five weeks with our doors closed," she says, "but the months that followed knocked me down and forced me to close my salon."
For the first time, self-employed people like Steiner and her stylists were able to collect unemployment benefits. Although her landlord refused to give her any break in rent, she offered her stylists a 42 percent discount in the rent they paid her. But as the closure stretched on, her clients' hair and her business debt load both kept growing.
"Bars were allowed to open before salons," Steiner says in exasperation. "That made no sense."
After three dark months, salons were finally given the go-ahead. Immediately, Steiner and her stylists spread the word to their clients and were swamped with requests for cuts and coloring. But Covid precautions meant working longer hours for less income--for instance, a stylist could no longer cut one client's hair while waiting for another's color to set. And within weeks, Steiner's stylists realized that one-quarter of their clients hadn't returned and didn't intend to until the pandemic ended.
By late spring, they began giving their notice, lured by new franchise "salon studios" that offered them the opportunity to operate their own businesses and promised a rent reprieve if Covid shut them down again. Six left immediately; three more gave notice they would leave at the end of August.
"Most of us had worked together for more than twenty years. This was the divorce you never wanted," Steiner says. "I went through the range of emotions--sadness, anger, hurt--while realizing they had to do what was best for them, and I had to do the same."
Steiner spoke with several other well-established salons and learned that they were facing the same challenges. "I know of two salons that had been in business at least as long as mine was, and they also shut down."
She and the remaining two stylists decided to go into business together in a salon studio. They chose Contempo on S. State St., because it was a local, family-owned business rather than a franchise.
The shutdown had caught Contempo owner Alicia Shattock in the midst of expanding her salon studio. "I decided not to buy into a franchise but still follow the salon studio business model," she says. She rents "studios" equipped with plumbing and cabinetry to independent owner-operators. They equip their spaces, make all client appointments, purchase their own supplies, and maintain their salon's space.
Steiner and the two other stylists from Unique now share two chairs at Contempo, arranging their schedules so only two are working at a time.
"I'm fortunate to have this option, and I will come around emotionally," Steiner sighs. "But the change still hurts."
When governor Gretchen Whitmer shut down restaurants a year ago, TeaHaus owner Lisa McDonald was determined to keep her kitchen open and her staff working. With less call for exotic pastries and tea-infused gourmet specialties, they began making lunches for stranded school children and homeless people ("Carryout and Kindness," April). Other restaurants did the same, but most eventually either focused on building a takeout business, or simply closed.
Not the TeaHaus.
The Fourth Ave. cafe stopped making lunches for kids because "the Ann Arbor school system kicked in with a terrific program," MacDonald says. But it continues to provide between 300 and 500 free meals each week for the local homeless population.
Three days a week, friends join McDonald in the kitchen of her associated business, Eat More Tea, around the corner on E. Ann. On Mondays they pack hundreds of lunches--turkey-and-cheese sandwiches, fruit, chips, juice boxes, and sweets. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's hot meals like spaetzle with pork gravy and vegetables and barbecued chicken. Everything is delivered to Food Gatherers' community kitchen at the Delonis Center.
When the cafe closed last March, McDonald had to let her ten part-timers go, but she was able to retain her permanent staff of five to handle online and takeout sales. Still, with no indoor service, income is just 30 percent of pre-Covid figures.
TeaHaus customers have donated to the meal program, and TeaHaus employees donate all their tips to it. And landlords Peter and Olga Bilakos "have been incredible," she says. "They gave us reduced rent for five months--and I can honestly say a lot of businesses on Fourth Ave. wouldn't have survived without their help.
"I am very, very fortunate to have had two things going in my favor when the shutdown began: such generous landlords and my online business. They have kept us going--otherwise, we'd have had to close like so many others."
The last twelve months have "been a bleep of a year--physically, emotionally, and financially," McDonald says. "Our family has lost three parents and jobs. But we have our health, our kids, and our friends. And the best decision I made for my family, my community, and my soul has been to use my kitchen to feed the homeless."
This article has been edited since it was published in the March 2021 Ann Arbor Observer. A section cut from the print issue for space reasons has been restored, and a reference to an earlier article on TeaHaus's donations has been corrected.
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