Michigan's COVID-19 rates, hospitalizations trending in wrong direction
It's a trio of statistics no one wants to see again in Michigan, yet state health officials warned Wednesday that COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests are rising once more as highly contagious variants of the virus spread.
"We're seeing a very different picture than we did a couple weeks ago," said Sarah Lyon-Callo, the director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health at the state health department.
"Michigan definitely stands out in terms of having an increase in our hospitalizations and case rates" compared with other states in the Midwest.
The statewide COVID-19 case rate is up 50% from the February low, and now stands at 144 cases per million people, Lyon-Callo said during a Wednesday news briefing. That comes as the percentage of positive tests in Michigan has climbed above 5% in Michigan again, up from 3.3% on Feb. 19, even as the number of people being tested has plateaued.
And as of March 15, 949 people were hospitalized in Michigan with COVID-19, she said. That's a 14% rise in one week's time and marks the third consecutive week of increases. In half of the regions in the state, hospitals are reporting more than 10% of their intensive care unit beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.
"Our hospitals are experiencing increased pressure from COVID-19," Lyon-Callo said.
Public health restrictions tied to the pandemic have relaxed in recent weeks as restaurants statewide have reopened to 50% capacity, shops and businesses are allowed to have more customers, schools have been urged to return to face-to-face learning, and contact sports have resumed.
"This is all a balancing act," Lyon-Callo said.
"We have reopened and the variant is here, so we need to push harder on masking and social distancing. ... We want to make sure that people are doubling down on that, we want to make sure that people are moving activities outdoors whenever possible, and we want to promote the use of antigen testing.
"While we're getting more and more vaccine on board, which will reduce the spread of COVID-19 cases, it's important that we push the seesaw toward those things that are ... reducing the spread of COVID-19."
Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said health officials are closely watching case rates, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive tests, but didn't say whether other public health restrictions might be tightened again to slow the spread of the virus.
"We continue to monitor the trends outlined here," Hertel said. "Our hope is that this is not the beginning of a severe increase in cases across the state. But we will continue to monitor that as we move forward and posting that information publicly on our website, so people can also keep track of that."
Since the start of the pandemic, Michigan has reported 615,792 coronavirus cases and 15,810 COVID-19 deaths. On Wednesday, the state reported 3,164 new confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the seven-day average of new daily cases to 2,073, the highest seven-day average since Jan. 18, according to a Free Press analysis of state data.
Henry Ford Health System leaders are following the trends, too, said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer.
"We are watching this growth," he said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference, and suggested that the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus, also known as the United Kingdom variant, and other more contagious strains could be playing a role.
"We do believe that these variants might be contributing to the increase in the number that we are seeing at the present time," Munkarah said.
More than 725 known cases of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant have been identified in the state. That accounts for 15% of the known cases of that strain in the U.S., Lyon-Callo said, noting that it is now spreading in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Michigan also has reported one case of the B.1.351 variant, also known as the South African strain.
"We must continue to be vigilant as we see the new variants ... spread around the globe and in our communities," Munkarah said. "And while we see the light at the end of the tunnel, we should not lower our guard. We should continue to follow these protective measures until we have enough people who have been vaccinated in order for us to gain the herd immunity that is necessary for us to control the disease."
Hertel said that herd immunity threshold could be as high as 90% to 95% with the variants circulating.
Since December, more than 3.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered so far in the state, Lyon-Callo said, and about one-quarter of residents 16 and older have had at least their first dose of vaccine.
The total number of COVID-19 outbreaks statewide rose this week by 9% over last week to 645. The biggest proportion of outbreaks are tied to the K-12 school setting, Lyon-Callo said.
Children ages 10-19 now have the highest COVID-19 case rate in Michigan, a rate that "is increasing faster than that of other age groups" she said. School-related outbreaks, she explained, aren't all tied to the classroom setting. Many are linked to sports and other gatherings among students.
“We knew that we would see cases that are associated with schools,” she said. “It is very important that children are in school, able to return to some more normalcy and receive education in an in-person manner, if that's what the family has made for a choice for their child.
“So it is important, again, that we are ensuring mask use and ensuring use of quarantine if someone has been exposed, and that we're getting people tested. ... Everything that we do with COVID-19 is about risk reduction."
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.