Artist Sonya Clark, whose Beaded Prayer Project was the catalyst for The Healing Memorial in Detroit, teaches volunteers how to help participants make pouches at Valade Park in June. The Healing Memorial is a large-scale participatory art installation in recognition of the widespread loss felt by the region during the COVID-19 pandemic. | city of Detroit photo
Just over 17 months ago in March 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the first case of COVID-19 had made its way into Michigan — kickstarting a period of uncertainty, change, hardships and a unified desire for “normalcy.”
Now, the deadly virus has infected 922,687 Michiganders in total. The state hit the grim milestone of 20,000 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, with the state reporting Monday that 20,030 total residents have now died.
“It is tragic that so many Michiganders have lost their lives to COVID-19,” said Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesperson Bob Wheaton. “We express our deepest condolences to everyone who has lost loved ones to the pandemic.
“The best way to prevent further deaths is for Michiganders to get the free, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves, their families, their friends and their communities.”
Vaccines gained emergency federal approval in December. All Michiganders ages 16 and older became eligible for vaccinations in early April. A month later, a federal advisory panel recommended that children ages 12 to 15 also receive the Pfizer vaccine. Now immunocompromised people are eligible for a third shot to help guard them against the highly contagious Delta variant.
When you were a kid, your parents told you, ‘If you do the right thing, you'll be rewarded.’ But it feels like there are a whole awful lot of times in life where you do the right thing and you still get screwed somehow, and this definitely feels like one of those situations.
– Marshal Brummel
According to the state of Michigan, 5.2 million residents 16 and older have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, or 64.5% of that population. Around 54.7% of Michiganders 12 years and older have been fully vaccinated.
With all restrictions lifted, the Delta variant spreading and community transmission rates jumping in all parts of the state, it is unclear how soon Michigan will be able to return to normal.
With the virus having infected nearly 10% of the state’s population, Michiganders continue to feel the effects — physically, emotionally and mentally — of living through a pandemic.
“[It] is incredibly anxiety-inducing when you’re trying to do what’s best for your child, your family, you’re trying to keep everyone safe and healthy, and you’re trying to also balance that with your livelihood; making sure that you can pay your rent or pay for your prescriptions that month, whatever it may be — it’s awful in all kinds of ways,” said Charly Norton, 32, of Wyandotte.
The Advance talked with some Michiganders about what their “new normal” has been like, the challenges they continue to face and what they hope for the future.
Jason Watts, 44, of Allegan, has been involved in Republican politics in Michigan for over two decades, both as a political consultant for his firm, SharkByte, and as a treasurer for the GOP’s 6th Congressional District Committee.
But when Watts became critical of former President Donald Trump and started viewing the COVID-19 pandemic differently than some of his fellow Republicans, that’s when things got volatile for Watts.
In February, after the pro-Trump Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which Watts considers a major turning point, Watts told a New York Times reporter that he never voted for Trump, despite campaigning for him for the 2020 election.
“I said, ‘Hey, the election’s over, Trump lost.’ And I needed to get this thing that’s been weighing on me off my chest, so that’s what I did,” Watts said. “And these people that I thought were friends all of a sudden were calling for me to step down [as treasurer].”
It was then that the local party turned on Watts.
He was required to attend an in-person 6th District Republican Committee meeting on March 25, which Watts said was when leadership wanted him to step down from his position.
Watts said he was uncomfortable with the amount of people attending the meeting during the pandemic, but felt like he didn’t have another option. So he wore two masks and put his trust in the first dose of the vaccine he received just days before.
But it wasn’t enough, and days after the meeting Watts was hospitalized for severe COVID-19 symptoms.
“They were saying that if I had waited a day or two later, I probably wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I felt like I was drowning. … I couldn’t catch a breath to save my life. I never really had asthma or any real health problems that felt like this.”
When Watts left his wife, Lesley, in the hospital waiting room that day, he said he was afraid he wouldn’t see her again.
I couldn't catch a breath to save my life. I never really had asthma or any real health problems that felt like this.
– Jason Watts
After experiencing life-threatening symptoms, Watts said he started receiving death threats in the mail at his family’s address when he returned home from the hospital.
“One was addressed from the red light district in Amsterdam, but it had a Grand Rapids postmark. It was just a skull and crossbones. Others said, ‘It’s God’s will what happened to you’ or that they hope God’s plan is carried out,” Watts recalled.
It was so bad that Watts and his wife considered moving out of their community and the experience has changed his perspective on how people have become so divided over their political beliefs during a pandemic.
“I used to tolerate the people that say, ‘It’s my choice,’” Watts said. “But no. It’s because of you, the unvaccinated, that we may have to reinstate mask mandates. It’s because of that mentality that I may not be able to take future trips with my wife. That’s something I really enjoy doing, but I’m not sure if I can do that right now. It’s that mentality that is holding our communities back.”
Like many parents with young children, Charly Norton has faced unique challenges during the pandemic, from juggling childcare with work and taking extra precautions for her immunocompromised daughter.
Norton, 32, is a longtime Democratic strategist based in Wyandotte. Aside from a brief leave to work on former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg’s campaign, Norton has worked remotely for the Washington, D.C.-based firm Bergmann Zwerdling Direct for just over two years.
When COVID-19 hit Michigan 17 months ago, Norton’s work life largely stayed the same, minus the weekly flights across the country for client work and plus the emotional toll many have felt from living through a pandemic. But a new objective came into focus: Shielding her 6-year-old daughter, Eleanor, from contracting the disease.
Children under age 12 are not yet eligible for vaccinations, even those who are more vulnerable to experiencing worse side effects of COVID-19. Eleanor has autoimmune issues and is immunocompromised.
The fact that her child has to continue missing out on important milestones in person, like attending kindergarten and birthday parties, to avoid risking a deadly virus weighs heavily on Norton’s mind.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been incredibly challenging,” she said. “… We’ve been incredibly vigilant and not letting our guard down, even though the adults in my immediate family are all vaccinated.”
Norton has not lost anyone in her family from COVID-19, but has friends who have. She has numerous friends who have caught the virus; some are still battling symptoms of “long COVID,” including mental fogginess and feeling winded from doing everyday tasks.
Norton emphasizes how lucky she feels in comparison to harder-hit communities in the state like the metro Detroit area.
“It’s horrifying what it has done to some communities, particularly Black communities in Detroit — certain friends, families and things where they’ve lost, you know, multiple aunts and uncles and cousins. I just can’t even imagine.”
As someone thoroughly entrenched in politics herself, the politicization of COVID-19 is something Norton has been unable to look past, including COVID-19 misinformation from Trump to state GOP lawmakers publicly battling Whitmer’s public health orders, resisting mask mandates and giving credence to anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.
“It has been really gutting, personally, and of course incredibly frustrating to see … it being politicized all throughout, of course, and continuously the messaging changing from various authority figures, [and] obviously the misinformation. All of that is incredibly off putting and yeah, it’s unsettling,” Norton said.
She pointed to collective experiences like isolation, constant news of racial injustice and societal unrest, endless “doomscrolling” on Twitter and more, on top of COVID-19, as factors that continue to weigh heavily on many people.
“Last year, for instance, was of course incredibly draining, emotionally and physically,” Norton said, particularly for frontline workers but for everyone else, too.
It's just going to continue to be important that anyone and everyone who believes in public health and saving our democracy — because they're intertwined — use their platform to spread accurate information to try and dispel a lot of the nonsense that is out there.
– Charly Norton
She emphasized that the pandemic has shed light on many facets of American society that are broken, including the health care system, the social safety net, childcare, policing in communities of color, lack of mental health resources and more.
“All of that weighs on you. … It’s incredibly soul crushing, in a lot of ways,” Norton said.
“It’s just going to continue to be important that anyone and everyone who believes in public health and saving our democracy — because they’re intertwined — use their platform to spread accurate information to try and dispel a lot of the nonsense that is out there.”
She also worries about what the long term impact of the pandemic will be on an entire generation of children, like Eleanor, whose lives have essentially been put on pause for more than a year.
But through the good days and bad days, Norton draws strength and hope from the resiliency of her daughter.
“She has been incredibly resilient and adaptable through all of this, which is just remarkable, from my standpoint,” Norton said.
Marshall Brummel, 23, of Grand Rapids, was watching how the pandemic was spreading in different parts of the world as early as December 2019 and made the decision to start quarantining before COVID-19 hit Michigan.
Brummel was working for Gentex, a Zeeland-based technology company, at the time, which has a number of suppliers and customers in Asia.
“We were hearing rumblings, even back then in December , of coronavirus. And we were pretty sure it was going to be really bad because they were shutting down plants, and lots of people were getting sick,” Brummel said.
Brummel, who was living with his grandparents in Zeeland, started working from home in February 2020 because he was nervous that he would catch an early case of the virus and spread it to his grandparents.
And a few months later, Brummel and a third of the company were laid off.
Brummel wasn’t alone. Michigan hit an all-time record for unemployment in April 2020 at 22.7% and the number of unemployed Michiganders was 1,048,000, also an all-time high.
“So, that was awful, for many reasons,” Brummel said. “One, I had been effectively quarantined from all my friends, my mom, my brother and my dad for months at that point. … So I had three months of pretty much no interaction with people and then I got laid off from my job.”
Brummel started another job at a bank in the Grand Rapids area, but it took months of job searching online.
Now, almost a year and a half after the state reported its first case of COVID-19, Brummel is fatigued and upset that there is still hesitation about mitigation efforts.
“I feel like I need to catch up and make up for this year and a half that I’ve lost,” Brummel said. “I think there’s some resentment. … I’m sure when you were a kid, your parents told you, ‘If you do the right thing, you’ll be rewarded.’ But it feels like there are a whole awful lot of times in life where you do the right thing and you still get screwed somehow, and this definitely feels like one of those situations.”
Nick Moran, 22, of Grand Rapids, graduated from Grand Valley State University in the spring, but the ceremony wasn’t what he imagined it would be.
He sat in his living room and watched his name scroll across the screen.
“It was so different, but oddly fitting,” Moran said. “Compared to other years where it feels so momentous, like a really culminating experience, but that was just not the case this year. I was just ready to get out of college at this point, as opposed to really savoring the moment.”
While Moran had always envisioned this end of an era to look differently, he says he isn’t naive to the fact that this is the world we live in now — a virtual one.
Even after graduation, Moran started his first job after college at an Illinois-based health publication completely remote.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, when businesses and schools across the world started shutting their doors and changing the way they operate, there has been this idea of a “new normal.”
Normal has become a buzzword in many ways.
But Moran hopes that people are able to take away from the lessons we have learned from COVID-19.
“I hope that there are some things that we continue to adopt as a culture,” Moran said. “I hope that workplaces are seeing the value in being more employee-focused with some of their restrictions for work environments. As a young person entering the workforce, that hybrid of remote work is spectacular.”
In recent weeks, the Delta variant has hit unvaccinated and semi-vaccinated people hardest and the uptick in new COVID-19 cases has caused many businesses to tighten up some restrictions.
Once the vaccine was available to all people ages 16 and older and before the Delta variant was widespread across Michigan, many businesses relaxed their protocols, allowed higher capacities, returned to offices and ditched their mask mandates.
It's a different kind of concern. I think before I was really worried about my family and my girlfriend, people who are really close to me. But now I'm worried about humanity and the country. It's a bit bigger now.
– Nick Moran
Whitmer dropped all COVID-19 state mandates on July 1 and Michigan began to at least look like the pre-pandemic world many people missed for the last year.
But as people dropped their guard, the Delta variant spread.
Now, many businesses are reverting back to some of the protocols that proved to lessen the risk of COVID-19 spreading. Some businesses are requiring masks or vaccines, large events are getting cancelled or are requiring attendees to show proof of vaccinations and many people are continuing to work remotely.
“It’s unsettling because just last month I felt like we finally made it, maybe our nose was touching the finish line,” Moran said. “Now we’re back to where we were six months ago, for the most part. But it’s a different kind of concern. I think before I was really worried about my family and my girlfriend, people who are really close to me. But now I’m worried about humanity and the country. It’s a bit bigger now.”
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