After a lengthy battle with COVID-19, State Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit urges her district to comply with shelter-in-place orders as African Americans across the U.S. continue to die at high rates. 

Increased Risk Facing African Americans

In an April 7th White House press briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci expressed new concerns over “exacerbation of a health disparity disproportionately afflicting African Americans.”

He noted specific diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and asthma which are more prevalent within minority populations also pose life-threatening complications when combined with the COVID-19 infection.

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This leaves black Americans (many on the front lines as essential workers and other jobs where social distancing is nearly impossible) infected and dying in higher numbers than white Americans living in the same location.

Larger households living together in tight quarters and a lack of quality healthcare also contribute to this crisis.

On April 19th, a 5-year-old Detroit girl in Whitsett’s district became the first child to die in Michigan. As of May 1st, the total number of deaths in the state is 3,866. The highest death toll shaded in red on this map represents parts of Whitsett’s district 9 in SE Michigan.

5-year-old Skylar Herbert was Michigan’s first child to succumb to the Coronavirus

Although lacking racial identifiers on 75 percent of patients, the latest data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows 30 percent of COVID-19 patients are African American, yet they make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population according to 2016 Census Bureau estimates.

Whitsett, a Detroit native takes these numbers to heart even during her own battle against COVID-19. She is responsible for 93,000 people calling on her for help finding basic resources.

Whitsett’s district includes Detroit and parts of Dearborn and has become a viral hotspot. Many residents are defying the statewide stay-at-home orders put into place on March 23rd, but some do so out of necessity.

“The mass majority of people in my district are financially challenged and unable to stock up on groceries. People go to the store every single day because they don’t have a refrigerator or stove,” she told Dr. Dave Janda of Operation Freedom.

Gas stations and liquor stores have remained open for community members to do their daily shopping for food and other essentials.

“I do sympathize with those who have sheltered in place and done the things that they are supposed to do and they have been doing it for a very long time. My heart goes out to them because it is not easy to do,” she added. She said later in the interview, “I urge everyone to call our governor because we are being left behind to die.”

A Devastating Diagnosis

Whitsett and her husband Jason both tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Already suffering from underlying health conditions including diabetes and Lyme disease, this new diagnosis added fuel to the fire. She had been in self-quarantine since March 12th with a suspected sinus infection and pneumonia and was being treated with Amoxicillin.

On March 24th, the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs LARA) issued a letter warning pharmacies and doctors against “inappropriate prescribing practices” of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine (referring to stockpiling) and “potentially creating a shortage for patients with lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or other ailments for which these drugs are proven treatments.”

This initial letter caused so much confusion among prescribers fearing legal action that LARA had to issue a second letter for clarification a few days later.

On March 31st, Whitsett was finally able to get tested, but her doctor refused her request for hydroxychloroquine. In a matter of hours her condition plummeted. Although absent a fever, she endured headaches, sweats, labored breathing and fluid build up in her lungs.

Her greatest fear was going into the hospital and not coming out. She had already lost friends and family members to COVID-19 and was fearing for her life.

She consulted with a second doctor via phone and he shared her concerns. Her condition was becoming critical. “I made the choice between a ventilator and a pill,” she said. “I’m not pushing a pill down anybody’s throat. You make the choice.”

“I truly believe hydroxicloriquine saved my life.” Her husband picked up her prescription that evening and “within hours” she experienced relief from her symptoms. The next day she was cleaning her house.

Censured After Speaking Out

Whitsett faced criticism from fellow democrats after she praised President Trump for bringing the controversial treatment to the forefront and making it accessible.

On April 14th, Whitsett visited the White House and met with the president  and other COVID-19 survivors. “I did not know saying thank you had a political line,” she told President Trump. “I would not be here today to even have this conversation with you and to be able to talk about the needs of Detroit.”

After using the controversial hydroxicloriquine treatment, state Rep. Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit visited the White House to advocate for her state with President Trump

On Saturday, the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party voted unanimously via Zoom to censure Whitsett, according to Detroit News.

Whitsett, the resolution said, “has repeatedly and publicly praised the president’s delayed and misguided COVID-19 response efforts in contradiction with the scientifically based and action-oriented response” from Michigan Democratic leadership, “endangering the health, safety and welfare of her constituents, the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan.”

The resolution also said, “Whitsett has misrepresented the needs and priorities of Democratic leadership to the president and public.”

Whitsett told FOX News, “the governor has decided she is going to slap me on the wrist by silencing me. It’s politics at its best during a pandemic. I guess it’s teaching me to be in my place, it’s not going to stop me.”

“As long as people are dying and bodies are piling up, I will continue to point the finger at Gov. Whitmer,” she added.

When asked if  the censure was appropriate, Gov. Whitmer told George Stephanopoulos (ABC NEWS) on Sunday, “I’m not getting involved in those maneuverings of what’s happening there. I know this state rep credits hydroxychloroquine for her success with COVID-19, but I do also know that the medical professionals are saying that’s not the case and we should not make that assumption.”

Protests Against Governor

As individual states struggle to balance civil liberties with safely reopening, protests have erupted across the U.S. including Michigan. Protesters waved American flags and signs that read, “Every Worker is Essential,” “Unlock Our Economy,” “Freedom is Essential.”

Public health officials are concerned these gatherings may cause a spike in COVID-19 cases as social distancing guidelines were mostly ignored.

Operation Gridlock protestors fight back against Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order in April.

On April 15, Operation Gridlock took place at the Michigan State Capitol followed by a protest outside the governor’s home. On April 30th, as lawmakers voted against an extension of the emergency declaration, hundreds of protesters, some carrying firearms entered the Capitol building. Gov. Whitmer extended the declaration by executive order later that day according to ABC News.

On April 24th, Whitmer extended her stay-at-home order through May 15th, the same day as Michigan Republicans held a special session to consider bills aimed at limiting her powers.

The governor told reporters, “I am not going to sign any bill that takes any power from me or any future governor. The powers of the executive office are incredibly important especially in times of crisis, where lives are on the line.”

Her extension of the stay-at-home orders now include wearing masks in public as medically tolerated. Some travel restrictions have been relaxed, lower risk workers are able to return to work and the use of motorized boats and playing golf is now allowed.

People Over Politics

As a government official, Whitsett believes the most effective way to represent people is to see them as people without a party affiliation. “I’m living in the home I grew up in and the community holds a special place in my heart,” she told Janda.

“I’m living in the home I grew up in and the community holds a special place in my heart,”

She explained that people in her district don’t have the luxury of sheltering in place because they lack basic essentials that are taken for granted by others.

Since fully recovering from COVID-19, she is not sitting idly at home. Whitsett and her husband receive donated mini refrigerators and convection ovens that will then be distributed along with $450,000 worth of  food, cleaning supplies, PPE and other vital resources with help from Mercury One.

Whitsett also partnered with Apple to purchase laptops needed for doing homework for local children in charter schools in danger of falling through the cracks.

Whitsett’s story of courageous recovery, not being afraid to speak out and her signature message of “people over politics” has resonated with Americans all over the country as evidenced in the public comment section of her laptop donation site:

“Karen is a true leader who puts the needs of people she represents above anything else. I gladly support,”

“I want to help Karen, a good, brave, non-partisan woman who survived Covid to get laptops for needy kids.”

“Karen Whitsett is a wonderful example and more in the political arena need to follow her example.”

“I donated to this cause because I believe it is a great way to use stimulus money (even though I don’t have any yet)!”

“Born in Detroit, love this city and want to see these beautiful children succeed! Thank you Rep Whitsett, stay strong we are behind you!”

As Michigan continues to battle COVID-19, residents living in Whitsett’s district know they have a dedicated and compassionate public servant on the ground fighting for them and truly putting people over politics.

Monica Romano
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Monica is a nurse and freelance health and culture writer.

After working in nursing homes for many years, Monica witnessed first hand how government red tape suffocated her patient’s quality of care. The influence of big pharma and health insurance industries on vulnerable seniors was an eye-opener. She strives to help others understand the effects of government policies on their daily lives.

Monica’s work advocating for PTSD survivors led her to write and co-produce the short film “Shell Shock.” The screenplay was honored as a finalist in the Page International Screenwriting Awards in 2009.