A sign at a downtown Lansing business during the early days of the pandemic on April 2, 2020 | Susan J. Demas
The state’s decision in November to temporarily ban indoor dining, prohibit in-person classes at high schools and colleges, and implement a variety of other social distancing measures may have saved about 2,800 lives and prevented more than 100,000 COVID-19 cases, University of Michigan School of Public Health researchers announced Thursday.
“Our modeling suggests that the state’s social distancing measures, although challenging for Michiganders, prevented illness and deaths, providing some relief to our already stretched health care system,” University of Michigan associate professor Marisa Eisenberg said in a press release.
As COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths climbed in Michigan in the fall, significantly stressing the state’s fractured health care infrastructure, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued its “Pause to Save Lives” emergency order on Nov. 15. In addition to temporarily shutting down indoor dining at restaurants and bars and prohibiting in-person classes at high schools and colleges, the order closed casinos, movie theaters and group exercise classes and stopped some organized sports. In-person classes have since resumed, and movie theaters, casinos and gyms have reopened following a drop in the state’s COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.
Indoor dining will resume with restrictions on Monday.
The state’s decision may have prevented about 109,000 COVID-19 cases between Nov. 15 and Jan. 8, U of M researchers said. Based on Michigan’s COVID-19 fatality rate of 2.6%, that translates to about 2,800 lives being saved, according to the researchers.
Researchers reached this conclusion using University of Michigan COVID-19 modeling data, as well as data from the Michigan Disease Surveillance System, the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, and the John Hopkins University Coronavirus database.
Essentially, Eisenberg explained in an interview with the Michigan Advance, researchers compared what the data could have looked like if social distancing did not get any better than it was on Nov. 15 compared to what actually happened.
“We can see from this that those measures had an impact over the holidays,” Eisenberg said, referring to the DHHS order. “It’s been tough for Michiganders, but it is working.”
The University of Michigan numbers were welcomed with open arms by DHHS.
“We are pleased that the pause, based on science and designed to limit indoor, unmasked activities, has helped bring COVID-19 under control in Michigan,” DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin wrote in an email. “Public health protections instituted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services were designed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have led to decreased case counts and fewer hospitalizations, and ultimately saved lives of Michiganders across the state.”
Michigan has more than 156,000 cases and almost 14,500 deaths as of Thursday, DHHS reports.
Since November, Michigan has gone from having the sixth-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country to currently being ranked 47th out of 50 in new cases per day per capita, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Following the Nov. 15 DHHS executive order, Michigan fared better than all of its neighboring states in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases over the holiday season, University of Michigan researchers noted.
“Michiganders have been doing their part in terms of maintaining social distancing and staying home, and those efforts have prevented illnesses and deaths across the state,” Eisenberg said.
Michigan is now averaging 1,727 cases and 72 deaths per day over the past week, which represents a continued drop in both cases and deaths. Two weeks ago, the state had an average of 2,461 cases and 91 deaths, according to the CDC.
Hospital capacity used for COVID-19 patients has declined for about two months and now stands at 9.9%, according to the DHHS. It peaked at 19.6% on Dec. 4.
Overall hospital capacity has also improved, though it remains strained: two hospitals in the state, McLaren Bay Special Care in Bangor Township and Mercy Health in Muskegon, are operating at 100% capacity. That is a drop from the end of November and beginning of December, when six hospitals were at 100% capacity. Seventeen hospitals in the state continue to operate at 90% capacity or higher, down from 20 at the end of November.
All of which is to say: while the COVID-19 trends are improving, the public must remain vigilant about social distancing and wearing masks, Sutfin emphasized.
“Although we have made progress and a safe and effective vaccine is now being distributed as quickly as possible, we need Michiganders to continue minimizing their risk by avoiding gatherings, wearing masks properly, social distancing and making a plan to get their vaccine when it is their turn,” Sutfin wrote.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health at DHHS, said during a Friday press conference that these measures are particularly crucial as a more contagious variant of COVID-19 spreads across the country, including in Michigan.
“This is not the time to let our guard down,” Khaldun said.
“We’re really in a race; we need to prevent and stop as many cases as we can now so we can get vaccines to as many people as possible and build up immunity in the population,” she said. “It’s important to keep up those public health measures now so we can end the pandemic.”
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