GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Thursday will mark two years since Michigan’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19. In that time, Michiganders have experienced more than 2 million cases and lost more than 31,000 people to complications with the virus.

From a national perspective, the United States has worked through four surges. Michigan, however, has only seen three. Michigan went into a strict lockdown in the spring of 2020, limiting cases and hospitalizations and mostly avoiding the first spike. Spectrum Health peaked at 60 virus patients on May 28, 2020, and numbers dropped heading into the summer.

Michigan’s first major spike was in the fall of 2020. Spectrum Health peaked at 365 COVID-19 patients on Nov. 25. That was the highest number on record until the delta/omicron spike in late 2021.

With vaccines becoming available and warming weather, you could almost hear a sigh of relief across Michigan. As our cases and hospitalizations dropped, more restrictions were lifted; perhaps a little too soon. Michigan’s cases shot up that April. Spectrum reported 54 hospitalizations on March 19, 2021. By April 19, Spectrum was up to 268 patients.

(Illustration by Matt Jaworowski/WOOD TV8)

Michigan’s third, and the nation’s fourth, spike can be attributed to two virus variants: delta and omicron. Delta got the surge going in late August, right as many schools opened for the year, many without mask mandates in place. Spectrum Health went from 50 patients on Aug. 15, 2021, to 310 on Nov. 15.

The case count took off with the omicron variant, allowing the COVID-19 spike to continue to overwhelm our hospitals. Even though Michigan had cracked the heralded 70% threshold for vaccinations, omicron still spread wildly in our state. Enough variations on the virus allowed it to beat our antibodies at a higher rate than delta or the original strain. Our hospitalization rate only went up slightly, enough to set a new record at Spectrum Health when they reported 421 COVID-19 patients on Dec. 13, 2021.

Now on the other side of the spike, Michigan’s hospitalizations have dropped dramatically. After peaking in mid-December, Spectrum reported fewer than 300 patients for most of February and are now down to 113 as of March 1.

“There’s a feeling of relief that’s very palpable in our hospitals,” said Chad Tuttle, the senior vice president of hospital operations for Spectrum Health. “It gives us a lot of hope and optimism for the future. People truly feel energized by the fact that in many ways we are seeing COVID recede in our communities.”

Despite the lull in COVID-19 cases, hospitals are still busy. Tuttle says they are now playing catch up on the elective surgeries and other appointments that were delayed by the surge.

“While the COVID surge subsides, we’re actually seeing surges in other areas,” Tuttle said. “We’re seeing a surge in our surgery area where we’re catching up on different cases. Throughout the course of the fall and winter COVID surge, we differed 2,000 surgeries. Now, we have since rescheduled, caught up and performed over 1,300 of those, but it’s going to take us several more weeks to get through the remaining 700 surgeries.”

“We have learned a ton throughout the entire pandemic, through multiple surges, and we’re not losing that knowledge,” Tuttle said. “We were providing care in areas of the hospital we don’t normally do that. Some of those areas have been turned off, but the equipment is preserved and those units are really on standby.”

NEW FOCUS ON HOSPITALIZATIONS

With vaccines and antibody treatments, we’re closer than ever to ending the pandemic, and health officials are shifting the emphasis of which data dictates our future policy. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced changes in late February. Now, people who live in communities with low hospitalization rates, not low case rates, can enter public spaces without a mask. CDC officials say their emphasis, at least in this stage, is focused on the number of severe cases and the strain on our health care systems.

“We reviewed all data sources and really assess them against several criteria, including do they measure severe disease or health care strain? How well do they provide data that is available at the local level where it can really inform local decisions?” Dr. Greta Massetti said during a CDC press conference on Feb. 25. “Based on that thorough review, we refined the list and came up with these indicators.”

Under the new CDC guideline, masking is no longer strongly recommended across West Michigan. The grades for Berrien, Cass and Van Buren Counties was downgraded from high to medium on Friday.

In Kent County, the case average dropped more than 1,400% from the end of January to the end of February, and the hospitalization trend is following a slower but similar trend. Brian Hartl, an epidemiologist with the Kent County Health Department, says he wasn’t surprised by the CDC changes.

“I think we saw in this last wave with omicron, the number of cases in our community was just overwhelming from what we’ve seen in the past, but we weren’t seeing the hospitalization numbers as high as we would have expected,” Hartl told News 8. “Even though our hospitals were filled to the brink, as a proportion to the cases in the community, we weren’t seeing that.”

With a low or medium risk for community spread, the CDC says masks aren’t needed in indoor settings. However, they are still recommended in high-risk areas: places with poor ventilation, places that can serve as a hot spot, or places that house people who have a high-risk for complications.

“There’s still some settings where masks are recommended: health care settings, long-term care facilities, corrections facilities, jails, things like that, and public transit, as well. Those are places where we’d want people to continue to mask, just because of the high-risk conditions in those spaces,” Hartl said.

Hartl says people who are at a high risk for complications or live with someone who is at high-risk should still consider masking or talk to their doctor about it. He also says it’s important not to pretend that the pandemic is over.

“We still want to do all the same things that we have in the past,” Hartl said. “Continue to vaccinate people, continue to get tested, continue to isolate and quarantine.”