Lansing — Michigan health officials are appealing to residents to voluntarily change their behaviors to combat COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations that have been rising for more than five weeks in the state.
As of Thursday — Michigan’s second day atop national rankings for per-capita new cases over the previous week — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration had opted against issuing new statewide restrictions to limit gatherings or businesses to stem the spread of the virus. Likewise, county officials in some of the hardest hit areas are avoiding imposing new local requirements a year into the pandemic that continues to test the dedication to mask wearing and social distancing.
“This is community-wide infection not targeting any one industry,” said Ann Hepfer, the health officer for Huron and Tuscola counties. “It is all our responsibilities to stop the spread of this community-wide infection. Shutting one industry down will not stop the spread.”
The Thumb region of Michigan appears to be experiencing the largest jump in cases within Michigan. Dr. Mark Hamed, who serves as a medical director in the region, said the area is getting hit harder now than it did at any other point in the past year.
Public health experts are tying the increases in spread in Michigan to residents dropping their guards early and COVID variants that spread more quickly from person to person.
Last week, the state reported 27,758 new coronavirus cases, a 14-week high, and an 11.3% positivity rate — the rate of tests bringing positive results — a 15-week high. The number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan reached 2,526 on Thursday, a 128% increase from the total two weeks earlier.
When Michigan experienced similar jumps in cases and hospitalizations in November, Whitmer’s health officials suspended indoor dining at restaurants and in-person instruction at high schools on Nov. 18.
Over January and early February, Michigan’s numbers declined and the Whitmer administration eased restrictions on restaurants and gatherings. The Democratic governor was asked during a Wednesday appearance on CNN whether she would consider re-instating limits that had been lifted. She responded that there are “robust conversations” occurring.
“There is a lot of push and pull,” Whitmer said. “What we need to do is double down on masking and get more people vaccinated.”
That was also the message from local health officials Thursday in counties experiencing the largest increases in cases.
Hepfer is the health officer in Huron County, the top county for new cases per population over the last 15 days in Michigan, and Tuscola County, which ranks eighth. Huron County has reported 458 new cases in 15 days, one new infection for each 68 residents.
Huron and Tuscola are experiencing spread in schools, businesses and even units of government, Hepfer said. Social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing and vaccinations are the only way to improve the infection rates, she said.
As of Wednesday, 2.7 million Michigan residents, 34% of the adult population, had received at least one does of vaccine, and 1.7 million residents, 21% of the adult population, had received their full vaccination. On Monday, all individuals over the age of 16 in the state become eligible for vaccines.
Hamed, director of the emergency department at the McKenzie Health System hospital in Sandusky, said he’s seeing younger people between the ages of 30 and 60 at his hospital with COVID-19 cases but also older people who haven’t gotten their vaccines yet.
Sandusky is in Sanilac County, which ranks second for new cases per population over the last 15 days.
“I think it’s serious, very serious,” Hamed said when asked about the level of the problem the virus is presenting in Michigan.
Hamed also serves as the medical director for eight counties, including Huron and Tuscola. There are few intensive care beds in the area, he said, and often patients needing that type of care are transported to facilities in Saginaw, Flint or Metro Detroit, he said. If Metro Detroit cases go up and that region hits hospitalization levels that restrict capacity, it will become an issue for counties in the Thumb, Hamed said.
Hamed said people are beginning to improve their behaviors, including mask use, which he’s optimistic will reverse the current trends.
“I think that’s our saving grace that we still have that compassion for each other,” the doctor said.
Likewise, Alyse Nichols, health educator at the St. Clair County Health Department, said officials in her county are “deeply concerned.” St. Clair ranks third in Michigan for new cases per population over the last 15 days.
Factors in the rise in infections include inconsistent adherence to mitigation strategies, a vaccine hesitant community and more contagious variants, Nichols said.
“(W)e need our community to rally together and comply with the proven mitigation strategies that have been laid out for months, which include masking, social distancing and staying home if you are sick or in quarantine,” Nichols added.
Nearly 13 months after confirming its first cases, Michigan is facing both positive and negative developments amid the climbing case rates. Many people in vulnerable populations have been vaccinated, and hospitals know how to care for people with the virus, said Joseph Eisenberg, chairman and professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan.
But there’s also fatigue spurred by the long fight against COVID-19, he said.
“They’re battling a very resistant group of people. It’s not just fatigue,” Eisenberg said of health officials in the state. “There’s active resistance happening.”
Eisenberg acknowledged that there’s uncertainty about what will happen with Michigan’s hospitalization, case and death numbers in the coming weeks.
“Anybody who pretends to know is not quite the telling the truth,” he said.
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