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Examining Dearborn’s Disproportionately High Number of COVID-19 Cases

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Ford Headquarters, Dearborn, Michigan with Detroit in Background by Ken Lund is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
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Wayne County’s COVID case count is fairly low right now, compared to other counties across the nation. Yet when you look at COVID case numbers within Wayne County, officials say one city in particular stands out for having a disproportionately high caseload.

Dr. Mouhanad Hammami is the Chief Health Strategist for Wayne County. The county’s COVID-19 case count is fairly low right now compared to other counties across the nation. Yet Hammami says when it comes to COVID-19 numbers in the county, he and other officials have noticed a glaring trend.

“Every week, we look at the top 10 municipalities that have 10 or more cases,” says Hammami. “Dearborn is always number one.”

Dearborn is one of the largest cities in Michigan, with about 94,000 residents. But the city’s size doesn’t account for why it has the highest number of cases in the county outside of Detroit. Comparably sized cities like Livonia and Canton have had about half as many cases as Dearborn and when you look at the number of cases per 1,000 residents – Dearborn has about 91, roughly twice Detroit’s infection rate.

Back in August, case numbers rose so high in Dearborn that Wayne County Commissioner Sam Baydoun called a virtual town hall to discuss the issue with the Dearborn mayor, police chief, two Wayne County officials and a doctor. Throughout the town hall, the officials speculated the spike in cases might be due to a number of factors, including large weddings, businesses potentially failing to follow the rules and information being lost through language barriers. There was also another factor the conversation kept coming back to: Young people.

“When we look at all the cases in the last 30 days in the City of Dearborn, the most commonly seen age was 18,” says Wayne County Deputy Health Officer Jennifer Floyd about the town hall. “It’s the younger individuals who are driving some of these increases in new cases.”

Infection rates in teens and young adults between July 17 - August 16 were growing in many places across the country, including Michigan. It was during this time that a bar in Lansing was tied to more than 180 COVID cases so adolescents in Dearborn certainly weren’t the only young people hanging out and spreading the virus. But many of the young people in Dearborn found themselves in living situations not ideal for a pandemic. As Floyd explains, multigenerational housing is common in the city.

“So, you may have someone who’s young and they feel if they are to contract COVID they’ll be just fine, but they may live with an older parent or even a grandparent,” says Floyd.

After the town hall, officials from Dearborn and Wayne County ramped up efforts to get residents – young and old – to do a better job of following recommended safety guidelines. Ads and billboards featuring seniors were created using slogans such as “Grandma says you should wear your mask.” A social media campaign was launched with the hashtag #MaskUpDearborn”. In December, every single home in the city received a package of 10 masks.

Months later, the work continues. Flash forward to February 1 and Dearborn Police officers are distributing fliers to restaurants that outline the latest in-person dining guidelines. Two officers – Corporals Abe Dakhlallah and Ray Essa – are headed into a Buffalo Wild Wings when one of them spots something on an exterior door that looks familiar.

“So, this is one of our COVID-19 flyers from the police department telling people to mask up in our town,” says Essa, pointing to a flier with mask-wearing and hand-washing graphics. The flier, posted back in July, is printed in English, Spanish and Arabic. Corporal Dakhlallah says that’s common in the city, where according to the U.S. Census, about 20% of residents say they don’t speak English well.

“We do have a wide array of people that live in Dearborn and we want to make sure every one of those certain citizens are able to read and convey the message,” says Dakhlallah.

“And if anyone has any questions,” Essa says, “Abe speaks fluent Arabic, I speak fluent Arabic as well.”

The officers stop by about ten different businesses in a couple of hours – a Coney Island, a pizza place, a couple of middle eastern spots – and all of the workers are wearing masks. Almost all of the businesses already have new social distancing measures in place, like marking certain tables as off-limits or offering menus using QR code readers.

Corporal Essa says he doesn’t understand why Dearborn has a high number of COVID cases. The residents and business owners he interacts with are masking up.

“On a day-to-day basis for us, going out there hitting the streets and talking to the people, going to these places and educating them, people are following the rules,” says Essa.

But some frontline workers don’t see it the same way. Cashier Basel Kobaia works cordoned off inside a little plastic room in a gas station at the corner of Warren Avenue and Greenfield Road. Despite being separated, Kobaia says he feels more comfortable when his customers wear their masks. And he says every day, he has to remind some of them to do so.

“A lot of people, I think they still did not get the message,” Kobaia says through the plastic barrier. “They did not probably understand the severity of the pandemic. Some people think it’s just something somebody made it up.”

One of his customers, Hice Elor, admits he came down with COVID after not taking it seriously.

“I think maybe I was a little bit careless. I did wear masks but not everywhere,” says Elor.

While he’s wearing a mask now, Elor says he has doubts about the need for a vaccine. He thinks people should just wear personal protective equipment rather than get a shot.

These days, misinformation about the COVID-19 virus has spread into conspiracy theories and falsehoods about the vaccines, as well. These inaccuracies are being circulated around the globe, and Dearborn is not immune. Wayne County Chief Health Strategist Doctor Hammami says Arab Americans like himself are being exposed to misinformation while using “WhatsApp,” the popular global messaging app.

“There are a lot of videos that are circulating that come from the Arab World — some are happening here — of so-called experts that are, not as much lying, but they are spreading misinformation,” says Hammami. “And that misinformation is very dangerous.”

It’s dangerous, he says, because right now it’s crucial that people mask up and get vaccinated. Otherwise, the virus will continue to spread and potentially mutate, increasing the chances the United States will end up with a new variant of COVID-19 that could infect people who’ve already been vaccinated.

Since spiking after Thanksgiving, COVID cases have been declining in Wayne County overall and in Dearborn. Yet most days, the city still has the highest number of cases in the county, outside of Detroit.