As Michigan battles skyrocketing COVID numbers, health officials brace for Thanksgiving impact

To curb cases and hospitalizations, experts plead with public to get vaccinated, wear masks

By: - November 24, 2021 6:41 am

Cafeteria staff serve Thanksgiving meals to hospital personnel at Harborview Medical Center on November 26, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Healthcare workers on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic continued their work on the Thanksgiving holiday. | David Ryder/Getty Images

As Michigan’s COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations continue to soar, leaving emergency rooms bursting at the seams with unvaccinated patients, health experts across the state are pleading with the public to mitigate the spread of the virus with vaccinations, masks and other health precautions this Thanksgiving and over the winter holidays.

“I know many of us are thrilled at the prospect of being with family and loved ones again,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. “We understand that this past year and a half has been very trying. We also want us to be safe and to make sure we are not contributing to further spread of the COVID infection, especially in light of these numbers that are very worrisome.” 

While COVID vaccines are available this Thanksgiving, unlike last year, the fact that cases and hospitalizations are surging in Michigan, close to half the state’s population — about 45% — remains unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, and the presence of the fast-spreading Delta variant is causing deep concern for health experts who said they’re bracing for the impact of indoor holiday gatherings on the state’s already strained hospital system. 

Michigan is currently leading the country in COVID-19 case numbers, according to state and federal data. The state reported 53,575 new COVID cases over the past seven days — the highest weekly caseload recorded since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“With holidays around the corner, this is especially concerning,” Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said of the state’s increasing case rates at a Friday press conference.

I know many of us are thrilled at the prospect of being with family and loved ones again. We understand that this past year and a half has been very trying. We also want us to be safe and to make sure we are not contributing to further spread of the COVID infection, especially in light of these numbers that are very worrisome.

– Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit

Hospitalizations also are skyrocketing.

“For the 2021 holiday season, we are already approaching the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan since the pandemic began,” the Michigan Health and Hospital Association (MHA) said in a Tuesday press release.

As of Sunday, there were 3,785 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state, including 784 in intensive care units, the MHA reported this week. The greatest number of COVID hospitalizations recorded in Michigan was 4,158 last April. The vast majority of the state’s current COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths are unvaccinated, health officials said.

That there’s a spike in cases and increasing hospitalizations even before the expected onslaught of indoor holiday gatherings is alarming, health experts said. Health officials said Thanksgiving gatherings, winter holiday parties and people traveling for the holidays combined with the fourth surge of the pandemic and the onset of flu season could be disastrous for struggling hospitals and burnt out health care workers. About 1.6 million Michiganders are expected to travel for Thanksgiving this year, which is higher than last year but about 7% less than pre-pandemic numbers, according to AAA.

“Across the state, resilient and dedicated healthcare workers in hospitals stand ready to care for emergency medical needs, but the reality is most hospitals throughout the state have more patients in their emergency departments than they do available rooms and staff to care for them,” the MHA said. “This results in long wait times, patients being placed in hallways or conference rooms, and diverting patients away from a hospital because there is no physical room or medical staff available to accept more patients.”

To curb cases, particularly in light of holiday gatherings, health experts are asking the public to get vaccinated against both COVID and the flu, receive COVID booster shots if you’re already vaccinated, wear masks, and get tested for COVID if you’re experiencing symptoms, have been around someone with the virus or are planning on attending indoor gatherings with individuals over the age of 65. Those 65 and older, including those who are vaccinated, can be particularly susceptible to serious cases of COVID. 

On Friday, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced it was issuing a mask “advisory” that encourages all Michiganders over the age of two to wear face coverings at indoor gatherings, regardless of vaccination status. 

“The increases in case counts, percent positivity and hospitalizations have us very concerned,” DHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a Friday press release. “We are issuing the face mask advisory and are looking to Michiganders to do their part to help protect their friends, their families and their communities by wearing a mask in indoor settings and getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and flu as soon as possible if they have not already done so.”

Health measures like vaccinations and masking will be instrumental in fighting a pandemic that is causing “a crisis for all of us who live and work in Kent County,” Kent County Health Department director Dr. Adam London said Tuesday.

London said that Kent County’s COVID-19 statistics are higher than at any previous point in the pandemic, including a test positivity rate of 22.8% — meaning nearly one-quarter of all COVID tests taken in the county are positive. Hospitals in Kent County, like those across the state, are struggling, London noted. The Grand Rapids-based Spectrum Health System, for example, reported last week that it now has more COVID patients than at any other point during the pandemic.

The capacity for hospitals to provide care, which is exasperated by staffing shortages, is at a tipping point. We should all expect increased wait times for emergency, urgent, and primary care as well as delays in ambulance transfers and some surgical procedures until we control the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

– Kent County Health Department director Adam London

“The capacity for hospitals to provide care, which is exasperated by staffing shortages, is at a tipping point,” London said. “We should all expect increased wait times for emergency, urgent, and primary care as well as  delays in ambulance transfers and some surgical procedures until we control the spread of COVID-19 in the community.” 

Munkarah, of Henry Ford Health System, said it’s crucial that those gathering indoors for the holidays all be vaccinated to best prevent the spread of both COVID and the flu — which reemerged this year after being largely dormant last year due to pandemic restrictions. Ideally, Munkarah said, people should avoid large indoor gatherings and “poorly ventilated areas” altogether to prevent spreading the virus.

“If you’re hosting a gathering at your home, open some of your windows so air can circulate because we know stagnant air can definitely contribute to the transmission,” Munkarah said.

“And, by all means, if you’re not feeling well, if you’re running a fever, are short of breath or are tired and suspect you might have either the flu or COVID, please stay at home so you can protect your loved ones and those around you,” he added.

Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, said in an interview last week that Michiganders need to be mindful of the various risks that come with different gathering spaces.

“People need to realize that while outdoors is safer, outdoors is not safe,” he said. “If you’re outdoors at a dinner party with 10 people, that’s safer, but if you’re outdoors at a sporting event crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, that’s not safe. You’re breathing in each other’s faces. That’s not safe, even though it’s outdoors.”

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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. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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