By Jeff Zeleny, Senior Washington Correspondent
Updated 3:52 PM ET, Thu April 16, 2020
Lansing, Michigan (CNN)Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was listening, slowly nodding her head, as she conducted one of her daily conversations with doctors and nurses on the front lines of the state's fight against coronavirus.
"How are you taking care of yourself?" Whitmer asked an intensive care nurse, who said that in more than 30 years of practice she has never seen such an unrelenting barrage of patients and pain. "I can't imagine the stress that you're under."
But just outside the governor's second-floor office, the front lines of another fight were building, with protesters surrounding the Capitol in a drive-by demonstration to defy the strict stay-at-home orders Whitmer, a Democrat, has imposed in hopes of slowing the deadly outbreak.
The collision between a public health battle and a political one, which played out for more than five hours here on Wednesday, underscores the boiling tensions of a restless nation struggling with the wisdom of reopening the economy before the deadly pandemic subsides, even as President Donald Trump moves closer to easing national guidelines for social distancing.
Whitmer could hardly ignore the scene, considering the honking horns, raucous jeers and blaring music became background noise for her video conference call with health care workers.
"Right outside my office right now, people have come to town who are not wearing masks, they are not observing the six-foot distance," Whitmer said. "Give me some advice. How can I magnify what you're seeing and what you're experiencing?"
Karen Kazyak, the intensive care nurse from Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, who has spent the last month treating Covid-19 patients in what she described as a period of unrelenting grief and exhaustion, did not mince words as she responded to the governor's plea.
"Watching all of these people pass away, all by themselves, or with somebody in gloves holding their hands, shouldn't be happening," Kazyak said, her voice rising in anger. "If you could get that message out, maybe they'll think about their grandmothers and their grandfathers and their aunts and uncles. How it would feel if they die alone?"
Whitmer, sitting alone at a long conference table, listened to the grim message -- a stark juxtaposition from the protests outside organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition. Many people waved blue Trump flags, while others held signs calling for the governor to be recalled.
"This is clearly a political demonstration out here, but you know what? I don't wish them ill will. I'm trying to protect all the people of this state, no matter if they voted for me or not," Whitmer told CNN. "And I would love it if the White House would weigh in and help."
On the job for only 15 months, Whitmer is front-and-center in the battle between governors and the White House. She's become one of the most visible Democratic governors in the country, but only after Trump dismissively referred to her late last month as "the woman in Michigan."