U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., hosted a telephone town hall Wednesday evening regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. The town hall featured Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, Dr. Anurag Malani of St. Joseph Mercy Health and Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, communications and health promotion administrator for Washtenaw County. The speakers provided both health care and economic perspectives and addressed the questions of the many constituents participating in the town hall. 

Dingell started the meeting by emphasizing the importance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order. 

“Stay home means stay home,” Dingell said. “The reality is we need to mitigate this virus. If we don’t abide by the governor’s executive order and we continue going out and mingling, people are going to die. It is pure and simple.” 

Dingell also addressed attempts to scam residents during the crisis through unfair pricing.

“This is a time of crisis and unfortunately unscrupulous people are trying to take financial advantage of Michiganders,” Dingell added. “It’s wrong and it is illegal, and our attorney general and her dedicated staff have been dogged.” 

Nessel spoke about the economic issue of price gouging and how her office is working to stop the unlawful practice. 

“We are doing a lot of work in the price gouging space, and we have enforced the Consumer Protection Act, but we’ve never seen anything like this before,” Nessel said. “Normally we get about 80 price gouging complaints in a year and just since March 16, we have received more than 3,500.”

According to Nessel, price gouging is defined as raising the price of an item by more than 20 percent of what it was at the beginning of the pandemic. She discussed how Whitmer’s order heightens the repercussions of price gouging for Michigan residents. 

“It’s not just a civil infraction in Michigan anymore, it is actually a crime in the state of Michigan now under Gov. Whitmer’s executive order,” Nessel said. “We have issued dozens and dozens of cease-and-desist orders and we have investigators who are investigating this all over the place. At no time is it more important for people to be able to affordably purchase products like face masks, hand sanitizers … and we can’t be pricing people out of the market.” 

Ringler-Cerniglia gave an update about the COVID-19 cases in the county, noting that Washtenaw may be starting to see the effects of social distancing. 

“In Washtenaw County, we have had over 800 cases and 226 hospitalizations, and also we have, unfortunately, 23 deaths,” Ringler-Cerniglia said. “In brighter news, we have seen 297 recovered (and) we have had a few days recently where we have had some lower numbers come in … We have had a lot of questions about how excited should we be about that and I would say we’re cautiously optimistic that we’re seeing the positive impact of all of the hard work that we have been doing to social distance.”

Malani provided an update from the St. Joseph Mercy hospital system, where the staff has cared for hundreds of patients with coronavirus. 

“Most cases of COVID are actually not hospitalized and, actually, most (cases) are not tested,” Malani said. “The good news is (that) over the last few weeks, we have seen many discharges and successful expeditions from patients who are coming off the ventilators.” 

Malani also discussed the evolution of testing for the virus and emphasized the importance of testing in community efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“Testing evolution has really been rapid,” Malani said. “We are continuing to see rapid change and right now we really do have significant testing capacity. Up until now, we have really prioritized testing for those who were critically ill, or those most at risk for being hospitalized, including health care workers, but I think what you will see in the coming weeks is trying to open that up more to include those with less pronounced symptoms.”

Malani responded to a constituent who called in regarding a potential second wave of the coronavirus that may come if social distancing is not continued.

“We can’t stay locked down forever,” Malani said. “We’re going to mitigate this and we’re going to get over this … (but) what is normal is probably going to be a new, different type of normal.” 

One constituent called in response to the recent backlash from Michigan residents about Whitmer’s orders and restrictions on purchasing certain items such as gardening supplies. 

“There is misinformation out there,” Dingell said. “What the governor is trying to do with her executive order is to minimize the mingling of people. Mitigation occurs by that physically distancing and what she is trying to do is to dramatically stop the physical contact between people.” 

Dingell again emphasized the importance of the governor's order and staying home to help stop the spread of the virus. 

“We are not going to get rid of this virus until we mitigate it and the only way to mitigate it until we have a vaccine is to stay home and not spread it,” Dingell said. 

Nessel added to Dingell’s response on the backlash against Whitmer this week, discussing the risks of having additional people in stores for nonessential items. 

“I know it seems draconian and I know it seems overly harsh,” Nessel said. “But at the end of the day, if it’s not something that you absolutely have to have, people shouldn’t have to risk their lives in order to obtain those products for you.”

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu.

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