The spring surge: Michigan’s COVID case rates, hospitalizations soar

By: - March 26, 2021 11:56 am

DHHS photo

Updated, 3:05 p.m., 3/26/21 with comments from DHHS

While the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel may be getting closer as more vaccines are doled out across Michigan, the pandemic is still far from over. And the public cannot pretend otherwise unless it wants to prolong the disease’s grip on the state, health officials said as Michigan’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are soaring. 

Michigan now has the second-highest case rate per capita in the country, with New Jersey taking the top spot. Hospitalizations among unvaccinated Michiganders ages 40 to 49 have skyrocketed 800% as more contagious variants of the virus spread across the state and people increasingly don’t follow social distancing protocols, health officials said.

“Michigan is making progress at ultimately defeating the COVID-19 pandemic through increasing vaccination rates, but the war is not over year,” Dr. Gary Roth, the chief medical officer at Michigan Health and Hospital Association (MHA), said in a March 24 press release announcing the alarming increase in hospitalizations.

“Now is not the time to let our guard down and risk contracting COVID-19 with more contagious variants emerging and vaccines becoming widely available,” Roth continued. “My prescription to all Michiganders is to wear your mask, wash your hands, avoid crowds and, when it is your turn, get your vaccine.”

March 2021 Hospitalizations vs Vaccination Rates

Michigan’s COVID-19 case rate has skyrocketed 103% from the state’s mid-February low, and the state is now seeing rates similar to what it was experiencing this past fall, according to a March 23 report from the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). State health officials reported 5,224 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, March 25, the highest number of cases since the 5,937 reported on Dec. 10 during the second wave of the virus.

While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she is not planning to immediately implement renewed COVID-19 restrictions, she has not ruled them out entirely if cases and hospitalizations continue to rise. 

“Perhaps that’s a tool that we might need to use,” Whitmer said at the Michigan Chronicle’s annual Pancakes and Politics event. “But I’m hoping that it’s not, and that’s why we’re reiterating everyone has a personal responsibility to do what we need to do to keep ourselves safe and our community and our families safe as well.”

DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said the department “continues to make decisions that protect public health based on the best available science and data. Michigan has made great progress since the late fall peak; however, community spread of the virus continues across the state, which means that protections such as restrictions on the size of gatherings and consistent masking and social distancing remain necessary to protect frontline workers and Michiganders everywhere from COVID-19.”

All regions of the state have experienced an increase of cases in March, as have most age groups, though those ages 10 to 19 have the highest case rate, the DHHS reported. Michiganders 10 to 19 also have a case rate that’s increasing faster than any other age group in the state. K-12 schools, which recently reopened for in-person learning, are currently the largest source of the state’s COVID-19 outbreaks, followed by assisted living facilities, manufacturing/construction sites and childcare/youth programs, state health officials said.

Statewide hospitalization rates | DHHS graphic

State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo cautioned people to take the outbreak numbers with a grain of salt.

“Something that is really important that is really important to how we interpret this outbreak data is … in schools, assisted living facilities, we’re conducting testing in these environments and it’s easier to identify outbreaks in those environments,” she said during a March 16 presentation. “They’re also required to report outbreaks to us in ways other facilities are not.”

Michigan had 263 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past seven days; New Jersey, at 327 cases per 100,000 residents, was the only state to have more, according to information released Thursday, March 25 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other Midwest states have lower case rates; Illinois, for example, had 110 cases per 100,000 people, Indiana reported 83, Ohio totaled 94, and Wisconsin had 72. Cities with some of the highest case rates in Michigan include Traverse City, Detroit, Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to the DHHS.

Hospitalizations in Michigan are also on the rise. The MHA reported Wednesday that from March 1 to March 23, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state increased by 800% for unvaccinated adults aged 40 to 49 and 633% for unvaccinated adults aged 30 to 39. The MHA noted that hospitalization growth rates decline as the vaccination rates per age group increases, with hospitalizations increasing by 37% for adults who are 80 or older. About 44% of that age group are fully vaccinated in Michigan.

COVID-19 outbreak sites | DHHS graphic

Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan have increased for four consecutive weeks and are up about 50% since last week, the DHHS said in its March 23 report. COVID-19 deaths have continued to decline for the past 13 weeks; state health officials noted that the death rate typically lags behind case rate and hospitalization increases. 

In other words, the current increase in cases and hospitalizations may translate to an increase in the death rate in the future.

In her March 16 presentation, Lyon-Callo said the increase in cases and hospitalizations comes at a time when more contagious strains of COVID-19, such as the B.1.1.7, first identified in the United Kingdom, are spreading throughout much of Michigan. As of mid-March, Michigan accounted for 15% of all known cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in the United States; only Florida had more, according to state health officials.

The rise could also be linked to increased travel and pandemic fatigue that’s leading to more social gatherings and less adherence to COVID-19 preventative measures, according to information presented by Lyon-Callo. 

Sutfin said that more infectious variants, like B 1.1.7 “threatens our progress in control of the epidemic and MDHHS will be monitoring data closely. Our goal is to reengage while reducing public health risk which is why we move slowly to maintain progress and momentum with thoughtful public health measures.

She said that DHHS will continue to monitor the data to make decisions including three key metrics: case rates, percent positivity, and hospitalizations.

We urge Michiganders to be more cautious when around those they don’t live with, whether it’s for school-based activities, church, social events or otherwise,” MHA Communications Director John Karasinski wrote in an email. “We must continue to be vigilant about mask wearing and distancing, especially when indoors. As vaccine eligibility expands, we urge everyone to get the vaccine as soon as it is available to them – and not to let their guard down once they receive it.”

K-12 school outbreaks | DHHS graphic

MHA CEO Brian Peters emphasized that continuing to wear masks and social distance translates to both a support for frontline workers and a faster return to normalcy.

“While much of our health care workforce is vaccinated, caring for a third surge of COVID-19 patients is mentally and physically draining for all frontline caregivers,” Peters said. “Failing to follow proven preventative measures is not only dangerous to our health but hurts our economy and delays when in-person activities, such as returning to work, can occur with minimal restriction. It will still take a few more months to vaccinate everyone, which is why we have to do everything in our power to slow the current growth.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Michigan has had 637,645 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 15,935 deaths, according to the DHHS. As of Friday, a little more than 3.8 million vaccine doses have been administered to about 2.45 million Michiganders, or about 30% of the state’s population, according to the DHHS.

Those 75 and older have the highest vaccine coverage in Michigan so far; 65% have received at least one vaccine shot and about 45% are fully vaccinated. Close behind are those between 65 and 74; 64.5% have gotten at least one shot and 41.3% are fully vaccinated. 

A little more than one-third of Michiganders between 50 and 64 have received at least one shot, close to 20% of individuals between 40 and 49 have, as well. Meanwhile, 16.7% of those between 30 and 39 have gotten at least one vaccine shot, as have 10.5% of those between 20 and 29 and 3% of people between the ages of 16 and 19, the DHHS reported.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.