DHHS: This fall could ‘look a lot like last spring’ for COVID-19 spread, hospitalizations

Khaldun recommends mask mandate for schools

By: - August 18, 2021 4:00 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun at a press conference | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Michigan is experiencing a COVID-19 surge comparable to spring 2020 based on current trends, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) director of the Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health.

Although the number of vaccinated Michiganders is slowly growing, the increase in all COVID-19 metrics is growing much faster.

“The Delta [variant] is a large part of why this is happening,” said Lyon-Callo during a virtual press conference Wednesday, noting that the variant is two times more transmissible as the original (“Alpha”) strain of COVID-19.

Michigan’s COVID-19 transmission level, Aug. 18, 2021 | DHHS chart

“We’re now [at] over 100 cases per million people, which is 600% more than we were when we were at our June 26 low. More than half of the counties in the state are at high transmission level and most others are at substantial,” Lyon-Callo said.

One model, Lyon-Callo said, indicates that “this fall would look a lot like last spring, with more than 4,000 deaths potentially occurring during the fall and winter.”

That curve could be potentially blunted by vaccination rates increasing to where they were in April, in addition to social distancing and other mitigation strategies like masks.

DHHS reported Wednesday that a total of 925,377 Michiganders have tested positive and 20,076 have died from the virus — an additional 2,690 cases and 46 deaths since Monday.

DHHS Michigan COVID-19 vaccine tracker, Aug. 16, 2021

The new numbers combine both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s recorded cases and deaths with an average of 1,345 new confirmed cases per day. DHHS publishes COVID-19 data three times weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Fifteen of the deaths announced Wednesday come from the most recent review of vital records and testing data, which the DHHS conducts two times per week.

Along with case rates and transmission levels, Michigan as a whole is experiencing increases in positivity rates, hospitalizations and mortality rates due to the virus.

Lyon-Callo said that DHHS projects hospitalizations growing through September, with a peak in late September or early October.

“We could have 12,000 or more hospitalizations between August and November, based on the modeling that we’re seeing,” she said.

COVID-19 trends are also increasing across all age groups, with the largest increases being seen in those 40 to 49 years of age.

But a large takeaway from Wednesday’s call was the growing risk to children, particularly younger children who are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

The Kalamazoo region currently holds the highest case rate for children, followed by Saginaw and Lansing. 

Michigan’s COVID-19 cases per capita, Aug. 18, 2021 | DHHS chart

“Delta will increase the transmission of the virus between children. …  Children can be infected with COVID-19, and the proportion of all cases that are made up of children has been increasing in the last month, compared to our cumulative pattern,” Lyon-Callo said.

Although most children experience milder infections than adults, they can also spread the virus faster to others due to not being vaccinated. Minority and low-income children also generally experience more severe outcomes of COVID-19.

Given this increased risk to children as school starts back up, reporters pressed Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical officer and chief deputy director for health at DHHS, on Wednesday’s call about whether she has specifically recommended that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer implement a mask mandate for schools.

“I have recommended that, if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” Khaldun said, after giving several indirect responses to the same question.

“We do understand that there currently is a law that would allow us to be able to implement that mandate, but at this time, the governor and the [DHHS] director have not made that determination,” she added.

I have recommended that, if a mask mandate were in place and it were followed, it would likely decrease the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

– Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, DHHS chief medical officer

On Wednesday, DHHS also reports that an additional 110,450 Michiganders have been identified as “probable” cases for COVID-19, as well as 1,277 probable deaths. The department began tracking probable cases on April 5, 2020.

Combining the state’s confirmed positive cases with probable cases brings the total up to 1,035,827 statewide cases and 21,353 deaths.

The virus has been detected in all of Michigan’s 83 counties. The state’s COVID-19 fatality rate is currently at 2.2%.

As of Friday, 875,719 people have recovered from COVID-19, according to the state.

The first two cases of COVID-19 were reported in the state on March 10, 2020. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency that day.

Johns Hopkins University reports that there are more than 209 million confirmed cases worldwide and 4.3 million deaths. The United States makes up a significant portion of those, as more than 37 million confirmed cases and 623,847 deaths have been recorded nationally.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.