Michigan now has the fastest growing COVID-19 case rate in the country, to the alarm of health officials across the state.
The state ranks second behind New Jersey in average new cases per capita. The Thumb region, as well as Macomb and Jackson counties, are among the highest transmission rates in the country.
The statewide average of seven new case dates has doubled since March 15 and is at its highest in 2021. Friday’s positivity rate was 10.6% for coronavirus diagnostic test results.
Even more worrisome is the increase in hospitalizations. As of Friday, 1,940 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, a number that has doubled in less than three weeks.
“What we are seeing now is very concerning,” said Jim Lee, vice president for policy and data analysis for the Michigan Hospitals and Health Association.
“Michigan is the hot potato in America right now,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. “Why, it’s a good question. I have asked myself, because there are many other states much more open than we are. “
So what’s going on?
No one knows for sure, but it’s likely a combination of factors, experts say.
Below are the various theories and probable factors.
Reopening of schools and resumption of high school sports.
Younger people are leading the increase in cases, a point emphasized by experts.
“The outbreaks among high school kids are just dramatic across the state,” Sullivan said.
In the past three weeks, people under the age of 20 have accounted for 22% of new cases compared to 13% during the first year of the pandemic. Average daily case rates since March 5 increased 131% for children under the age of 10 and 147% for ages 10 to 19 compared to the previous year’s average.
“It’s something we expected to happen” when schools resume face-to-face classes, said Ryan Malosh, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “Now that the children are back in touch, they are susceptible. The virus is still here; not gone. So we’re seeing an increase in that age group, and I don’t think that’s surprising.
“That could also explain part of the speed (of spread) because there are so many susceptible people of that age” who are not vaccinated and have not yet been exposed to the virus, Malosh said. Furthermore, children and adolescents tend to come into contact with more people than adults through school and social activities.
And the classrooms themselves may not necessarily be the problem, he added. “When I drive through my daughter’s school, it looks good. Everyone is masked and only one class goes out onto the playground at a time. But by the time the school day is over, everyone goes to the park and plays without their masks, so that’s it. “
The same goes for sports, it may not be the competition itself where the children are exposed, but the events around the sports activity. “There are definitely outbreaks of things like youth sports where people gather to eat afterwards,” said Emily Toth Martin, another UM epidemiologist.
Ann Arbor Public Schools pauses spring sports after spike in COVID-19 cases
While most young people have mild cases of coronavirus, this is not always the case, health experts warn. Some children become seriously ill and require hospitalizations. Currently, 18 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized in pediatric wards across the state.
During January and February, Michigan was one of the lowest states in the country in terms of mobility, based on cell phone data. People stayed home, reducing the chances of people being exposed to the virus or exposing others.
That changed in March, Martin said, and in some areas, mobility has returned to near-pandemic levels.
“If you look at the data from cell phones and other sources of mobility data that we have, you will see that people are moving close to the levels we saw before the pandemic for certain types of travel,” he said. “So there is definitely a lot more movement going on. And some of these outbreaks we’ve heard of are pretty big, ”involving large social gatherings.
Reopening of the indoor dining room in the restaurants
Among the 50 states, Michigan had one of the lowest transmission rates through January and most of February, and experts say a big reason for that was more restrictions.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer eased restrictions on gyms and cinemas in January and allowed restaurants to resume in-person dining on February 1. The number of coronavirus cases and the positivity rate began to rise around the third week of February.
The lifting of restaurant restrictions generally results in an increase in case rates, a recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control concluded. This is because the coronavirus spreads more easily in indoor settings where people do not wear masks.
“When we started allowing people to return to restaurants, we expected an increase in cases,” Malosh said. “Just by putting more people in contact with each other, we know it’s going to be a small increase. However, this is more than that. It’s a pretty big increase ”, which indicates that there are other factors at play.
Martin said that eating with other people or around other people tends to be a common denominator of outbreaks.
“Honestly, a lot comes down to food, because food is such an essential component of our meetings,” and people have to remove their masks to do that, he said.
“Masks make a big difference,” he said. In reviewing the data from the outbreaks, “I remain impressed by the difference between the situations where people are masked and when people remove their masks.”
Variants of COVID-19
Clearly, one factor is the emergence of new variants of COVID-19, which are more contagious than the dominant strain of coronavirus.
What is unclear is exactly how large the variants of a factor are at the moment.
Along with Florida, Michigan has one of the highest numbers of identified cases of the B.1.1.7 strain that first emerged in the UK. That variant has been identified in more than 1,000 cases in 41 Michigan counties.
However, Malosh and Martin, the UM epidemiologists, caution that Michigan is much more aggressive than most states about variant testing, so it’s hard to know if the higher number of cases here is simply due to that .
“We know it’s here, and the last time I checked it in mid-March, there seemed to be between 10% and 20% of the cases,” Martin said. “So it is not the conventional strain yet, but it is increasing.
“I think what we are seeing now is the variant that is happening plus a big change in behavior at the same time,” he said.
Lee, the MHA data analyst, believes that the spread of variant strains in Michigan explains both the increase in the rate of the case and a worrying increase in hospitalizations among COVID-19 patients in their 30s and 40s.
“The reason I think the variant (B.1.1.7.) Is affecting our hospitalization rates is the fact that there were younger people coming into our hospitals,” Lee said. “And we know that the variant causes more serious diseases and is more communicable, especially in the younger population. And we also see a faster increase in our hospitalization rates than I would expect. “
Sullivan, the Grand Rapids infectious disease physician, agreed.
“I think this is kind of the perfect storm for that variant, and it’s taking advantage of the situation,” he said. “I have to believe, with how fast the numbers are increasing, that a lot of these cases are probably B.1.1.7. variant cases “.
Certainly an important factor is that after a year of COVID-related restrictions and the hope offered by coronavirus vaccines, many are ignoring coronavirus mitigation strategies, such as wearing a mask, avoiding crowds, and distancing themselves. social, especially indoors.
“A lot of people are sick of COVID,” Sullivan said. “They’re saying, ‘I’m done with this.’ They are tired of it. Also, there is a feeling that things are going very well now that we have vaccines and we no longer have to worry about COVID. “
Martin offers a similar perspective.
“There is this innate feeling among many people of, ‘Vaccines are here. They are about to become widely available. Let’s go ahead and start behaving like we’ve already been vaccinated, ‘”he said. “There is such a strong desire to start getting together that people will do it, whether or not they are vaccinated.”
The good news
The very good news is that the vaccines are proving to be a great success for those who have been immunized thus far.
MHA officials say they have not heard reports of hospitalizations among people who are fully or partially vaccinated.
In fact, COVID-19 cases among residents of Michigan skilled nursing facilities have decreased 96% since the start of the federal vaccination program for long-term care facilities in late December, according to the Association of Michigan Health Care.
That’s especially significant because long-term care residents have accounted for a third of the COVID-19 deaths in Michigan.
COVID-19 Cases in Michigan Nursing Homes Drop 96%, Deaths Drop 99% Since End of December
Coronavirus cases among older people in the general population are also plummeting, the data shows. Even as the number of cases skyrockets among other age groups, the average number of new cases per day per capita is down 54% this month for people 80 and older and 26% less for those 70 years in comparison. with the average rate for the first year of the pandemic.
And Lee said the increases in COVID hospitalizations among the elderly are a fraction of what they were during the last increase.
On the other hand, 70% of Michigan adults and 100% of children are not yet vaccinated, leaving many, many people vulnerable in this increase.
The rise in hospitalizations is particularly worrisome, Lee and others said. It seems that the big wave of infections among children has now spread to a wave of COVID cases among their parents and others around them.
So while children and teens are rarely hospitalized for coronavirus, Lee said the number of recent hospitalizations of people under the age of 60 is of great concern.
Michigan COVID-19 Hospitalizations Among Younger Adults Reaching the Same Levels as Previous Peak
Given the encouraging trend lines among older people, it appears that vaccines offer the best way out of the current surge, experts agree. But right now a race between the vaccine and the variant.
Martin said the variant is one more reason why people should double down on coronavirus mitigation strategies until they get vaccinated.
“It’s like you’re running a race and the other runner starts running 50% faster,” he said. “You want to catch him while you still have a chance.”
Read more about MLive:
6 Reasons Michigan’s COVID-19 Numbers Are Rising
How to find an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination in Michigan
Pharmacies Help Increase Coronavirus Vaccines in Michigan