U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., hosted her weekly telephone town hall on Wednesday evening to talk about the coronavirus outbreak and answer questions from constituents. She spoke alongside health care professional Kimberly Wisdom, senior vice president of Community Health & Equity and chief wellness and diversity officer at Henry Ford Health System, and Jeff Donofrio, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Dingell began the town hall by sharing personal losses from the coronavirus and emphasizing the importance of the governor’s Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order

“I’ve lost 12 people that I’ve known in the last 10 days,” Dingell said. “Gov. Whitmer ordered the Stay Home, Stay Safe Order for the next three weeks and as you know, the president extended it through April 30. It is a tough decision, but it is the right one.”

Donofrio said the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity would enforce the governor’s order. 

“The department is charged with three things,” Donofrio said. “It’s charged with helping save lives by getting people to execute that ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ Order, to try and flatten that curve of transmission because we know the only tool we have is the social distancing. Second is providing emergency assistance to people and businesses. And third, we’re planning for the recovery and restart of our economy.” 

Donofrio emphasized the large number of people applying for the department’s services and the importance of patience as they work through their high volume of cases.

“We are going to make sure that every single person gets their benefits, and we really appreciate your patience,” Donofrio said.

A Washtenaw County resident who identified herself as a senior citizen called in to ask about what she should do to stay healthy given that she is in a higher risk age group for contracting the coronavirus. Wisdom said following the stay-at-home orders is crucial.

“Follow the stay-at-home orders to protect yourself from the exposure until the shedding of the virus is arrested completely,” Wisdom said. “What is very different with the virus from what we have experienced before is that people can be asymptomatic … they can be shedding the virus unknowingly and they can be harming people who are older or who are immunocompromised.” 

Constituents who were denied unemployment benefits also called in to ask about whether the most recent bill from Congress would make them eligible. 

“You are eligible and (if) you have applied and have been denied, you do not have to reapply,” Donofrio said. “We are going through all of the denied applications to make sure we can contact you and (let) you know how you can get your benefits and we will be in touch as soon as we can.” 

A constituent called to ask how the governor determined what types of businesses are considered “essential” and are required to remain open during the Stay Home, Stay Safe Order. 

“They are really cracking down on what is essential and what is not essential,” Dingell said. “We are a hot spot, that is a reality right now, and people need to understand that the only way we are going to mitigate this is if we stay home.”

Constituents asked Wisdom if and when they should expect a vaccine to become available to the public for the coronavirus. 

“This is a new virus for us,” Wisdom said. “Vaccines are being worked on immediately, but sometimes it takes 9 to 18 months to actually develop a vaccine … Trust me, people are working around the clock for a vaccine and trying to understand the pathogenesis and how this virus behaves.” 

Dingell also discussed what Congress is doing to handle decreased revenue in hospitals as a result of having to cancel non-essential procedures and her work across the aisle with Republican colleague U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to address these issues quickly for Michigan hospitals. 

“We know it is a real issue,” Dingell said. “Our delegation is working in a very bipartisan way … We are working to ensure that hospitals get the money that they need to operate right now.” 

Dingell ended the town hall by reminding those listening to thank health care workers who are on the front lines of this pandemic. 

“To the doctors and the nurses, we really do want you to know how much we appreciate you,” Dingell said. “We can clap on our front porches tonight. They are making us safe and they are out there protecting us, and we really need to thank them.”

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

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