MDHHS promotes vaccines, masks as case rates rise again

Coronavirus

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Coronavirus case and positivity rates are rising around Michigan, with most regions now at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s highest risk level designation for virus spread, health officials say.

“Michigan is in a high level of community transmission. Our positivity and case rates, inpatient bed us and mortality metrics are all increasing, and the delta variant of concern is now the predominant variant in the state of Michigan,” Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, the chief epidemiologist for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, summed up the situation during a virtual briefing Wednesday morning.

The state’s average case rate is up to more than 100 cases per million people per day, having climbed some 600% since hitting a low on June 26, Lyon-Callo said, and all age groups are seeing higher case rates. Those age 20 to 49 are seeing the highest rates. The state is averaging a positive test rate of 7.7% — community spread is considered controlled when that rate is below 3%.

Models show case and hospitalizations are expected to increase for the next four to six weeks, or perhaps longer, Lyon-Callo said.

“More than half of the counties in the state are at ‘high’ transmission level (by CDC standards) and most others are at substantial,” Lyon-Callo said. “And just a reminder, this is the standard where CDC recommends mask wearing by all individuals regardless of vaccination status when in indoor public spaces.”

The CDC on Wednesday raised Kent County from substantial to high risk, the worst rating.

Still, state data shows the average case rate is lower now than it was last August. And while hospitalizations have increasing over the last two months — with 4% of all inpatient beds in the state now treating COVID-19 patients — and deaths have started to tick up in the last two weeks, those numbers remain relatively low, especially compared to other hard-hit states like Florida, Nevada and Louisiana, Lyon-Callo qualified.

Lyon-Callo’s presentation focused on recent trends. On Wednesday afternoon, the state released case and death counts for the last two days. It said it 2,690 new cases had been confirmed and 46 additional deaths reported, including 15 that were discovered in a check of death certificates to find any that hadn’t already been reported. The test positivity rate Monday was 9.41%, more than three times the 3% threshold, and it was 8.8% Tuesday.

SPECTRUM HEALTH CAPACITY

Hospitals statewide are seeing more COVID-19 patients, and Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health is no exception.

“We’re seeing more COVID-19 activity not only in our in-patient spaces, but also in our emergency departments and our doctor’s offices. We’re seeing testing demand rising,” Brian Brasser, the chief operating officer for Spectrum, said Wednesday. “Of our 76 hospitalized patients, only 10 of them have been vaccinated; 66 of them have not.”

The number of breakthrough cases — that is, cases among people considered fully vaccinated — is even lower for the most severe patients.

“In the ICU, 19 patients total and of those three are vaccinated,” Brasser said.

Spectrum says while breakthrough cases are possible, the vaccine is reducing the severity of symptoms and the likelihood of being hospitalized.

While capacity remains a concern in parts of the U.S., that is not the case in West Michigan.

“We’re running at about 90% capacity across our Grand Rapids hospitals,” Brasser said.

THE DELTA VARIANT

“Delta is a large part for why this increase is happening,” Lyon-Callo said.

The delta variant is twice as transmissible as the alpha variant, which drove Michigan’s spring surge, experts say. Drawing data from previous surges and extrapolating based on what we’re seeing now, health officials expect to see hospitalizations peak in late September or early October. They say some 4,000 people could die this fall and winter.

Since kids younger than 12 cannot get vaccinated yet and delta will make the spread among them worse, Lyon-Callo reminded people that children can contract and get very ill from COVID-19.

“The proportion of all cases that are made up of all children has been increasing in the last month,” Lyon-Callo said. “Children can also be sources of outbreak, and this was true even before the delta variant.”

She said other states hit hard by delta have seen large spikes in children being hospitalized with the virus. Children are also at risk for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, more commonly known as MIS-C. While that’s rare, it can make children very sick — nearly 71% of children who develop it end up in intensive care — and can be fatal.

There is still hope to flatten the curve somewhat if more people get vaccinated more quickly and if people return to more strict physical distancing.

“Prevention strategies should be strengthened or added if transmission worsens,” the state said.

MDHHS is promoting a “layered” mitigation approach; that is, stacking up a number of tools on top of each other to limit the spread as much as possible — particularly in schools. Those tools include vaccination, physical distancing, frequent hand washing and the universal wearing of masks. Mask mandates, Lyon-Callo said, have been shown to slow the spread of the virus in places where delta had a firm hold.

“Layered mitigation is still needed to limit a surge in cases and to reduce any missing of class time,” Lyon-Callo said.

While MDHHS has strongly recommended universal masking in schools, it has so far not ordered districts to do so. On Wednesday, however, the Allegan and Kalamazoo county health departments ordered masks for all K-6 schools within their jurisdictions.

The rising case rate and concerns about delta specifically have prompted the Annual Eastown Streetfair in Grand Rapids to be canceled.

VACCINES

“The large majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are occurring among those individuals who are not yet fully vaccinated,” Lyon-Callo said.

As of Tuesday, 64.8% of all Michigan residents age 16 and up had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The goal is 70%, which the state is slowly clawing its way toward at a rate of a tenth of a percentage point or two every day or two.

“Recently, we saw an 18-day sustained increase in first doses, which is very encouraging,” Lyon-Callo said.

The coverage rate among older people is higher, around 82%.

Lyon-Callo said the state has identified about 12,100 breakthrough cases since Jan. 1. While that number may seem large, it accounts for less than 1% of all fully vaccinated people in Michigan — and vaccinated people who contract the virus get less sick and are less likely to require hospitalization or die.

Federal health officials are now advising a booster dose for everyone eight months after finishing their initial vaccine course. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive, says Michigan has enough doses on hand to accommodate that third shot and is prepared to administer them.

Even those who caught the virus before a vaccine was available are urged to get vaccinated because the shots provide stronger protection against contracting it again.

—News 8 reporter Kyle Mitchell

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