Michigan Officials Alarmed by Spike in Covid Cases

A surge of Covid-19 cases in the Wolverine State has authorities scrambling to give more vaccinations and begging people to take safety precautions as the virus expands its reach with potent variants.

People wait 15 minutes after receiving the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine at Ford Field in Detroit to rule out any severe medical reaction. (Courthouse News photo/Andy Olesko)

DETROIT (CN) — Michigan is reeling from a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases driven by a potpourri of foreign variants that have infiltrated the state as the governor ponders new restrictions and pleads with the federal government for more vaccines, to no avail.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, announced last Friday that the Wolverine State had just surpassed 5 million administered doses of Covid-19 vaccines, but still asked the Biden administration to send more to help curb the rising numbers.

“Right now our numbers are alarming,” she said at a press conference. “That’s why I’m renewing my call on the federal government to surge additional vaccines to our state.”

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in response that it would be more effective if the state simply shut down again as it did last spring to flatten the curve.

Professor Florence J. Dallo, director of wellness and health promotion at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, agreed.

“In my opinion, the best approach to deal with the spike is to shut down the places that are highly associated with transmission of the virus,” she wrote in an email.

Whitmer asked, but did not order, high schools to shift back to remote learning and suspend in-person activities for youth sports for the next two weeks. She also encouraged restaurants to suspend indoor seating.

Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, concurred.   

“Parents and athletes need to understand the risk involved with youth sports if they choose to participate,” she said in a statement last week.

Dallo believes relaxed restrictions and the push to reopen businesses was a mistake that had grave consequences.

 “I think the state opened too quickly,” the professor wrote. “We have enough research to suggest that states that opened too early saw a rise in Covid-19 positive cases.”

A month ago, Michigan marked the grim one-year anniversary of the first cases of Covid-19 detected in the state. Since then, more than 756,000 Michiganders have caught the virus and over 16,000 have perished.

An Oakland County resident and Wayne County resident, who both reported traveling internationally, were the first in the state to contract the respiratory disease on March 10, 2020. Cases continued to rise with a peak of around 2,000 new cases a day in early April 2020 but flatlined over the summer at about 1,000 cases a day, until October when a massive increase began. The new daily reported cases exploded to around 7,000 per day by November while deaths averaged about 120 a day.

A slow but steady decrease followed through the winter months, but the new spring surge associated with highly contagious new strains has plunged the state back into uncertainty as the numbers approach and surpass November highs.

The area of Michigan affectionately known as the “thumb” of the mitten-shaped state is now a raging hot spot with climbing case numbers.

According to a report from the Huron Daily Tribune, there was a statewide test positivity rate of 14.7% on April 11. However, counties in the “thumb” region, like Huron County, reported a 24% positivity rate, while Tuscola County had a rate of 22% and Sanilac County was worst in the region with a 35% positivity rate.

Bryant Wilke, public health director for Sanilac County, lamented how some citizens have brazenly disregarded recommendations.

“There’s been a defiance towards masks, and I think it was because it got so political at the beginning of the pandemic,” he told MLive. “People said, ‘we don’t trust this. we never had to do it before,’ even though it’s been proven that it is a protective factor…and now we’re seeing the causation of not doing it.”

On April 1, the P.1 or Brazilian variant was discovered in Bay County in northern Michigan. The strain was first identified in travelers from Brazil during routine airport screening in Tokyo in early January. There are concerns it might affect both vaccine-induced and natural immunity.

Dallo said the variants and Covid fatigue are the main reason for the latest massive surge.

“Based on the data I have seen from the past year, the coronavirus is really good at using any opportunity to infect its host. Therefore, any minor relaxation of the rules (masking, social distancing) will result in a serious spike of cases,” she wrote.

Joel Strasz, a public health officer of the Bay County Health Department, said the appearance of new strains is a step backward. “The rise of these new variants definitely impacts the progress we have made this year with vaccinations,” he said.  

When the South African variant known as B1351 appeared in Jackson County last month, Matthew Budd, personal and preventative health service director of the Jackson County Health Department, posted a video on Facebook warning about the danger.

“All viruses mutate after time. It’s like playing a game of telephone, where the message ends up being different each time it passes to the next person,” he said.

Dr. Debra Furr-Holden, associate dean for public health integration at Michigan State University, predicted the sharp rise in cases in an interview with Courthouse News last month.

“Cases will increase if something doesn’t shift,” she said at the time in a telephone interview. “With everything starting to open it’s going to be hard to keep pace with the spread.”

The U.K. variant B117 was first detected on March 8 in Livingston County. Juan Marquez, medical director at the Livingston County Health Department, put out a statement that urged vigilance.

Last month, a mass vaccination site was set up at Ford Field in downtown Detroit, home to the NFL’s Detroit Lions. The 65,000-seat stadium was opened on March 24 with the capability to administer 6,000 doses a day, according to a statement released by Henry Ford Hospital, the health system chosen to direct the operation.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan acknowledged last week that communities in the surrounding affluent suburbs were more effective with vaccine distribution.

“The wealthier the community, the higher the vaccination rate. That’s just the case,” Duggan said. “We need to do what our wealthier communities are, which is taking advantage of the vaccine.”

Furr-Holden thinks a local focus needs to be put on vaccines. “It needs to be in the communities where people can readily get to it,” she said.

The mayor recently announced a plan in that vein that targets smaller sites in the city to convince those who have put off getting the vaccine.

The sites will vary by day and by council district, with one or two sites open at a time through this week. The sites had planned to offer the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine but based on recommendations from the CDC and Food and Drug Administration, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said use of the vaccine would be suspended due to blood clots found in some people who received it.

“More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the U.S., and these adverse events appear to be extremely rare. However…we are following recommendations from FDA and CDC and pausing the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Dr. Khaldun said in a statement Tuesday.

Dallo is concerned the pause could sow some doubt over the vaccine’s safety. “Apprehension from some of getting the vaccine hurts all of us,” the professor said.

On Tuesday, Michigan’s health department confirmed 8,867 new coronavirus cases and 74 deaths.

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