Is this ‘the beginning of the end’ of Michigan’s 4th COVID surge?

Hospitalizations have dipped, experts say omicron is set to peak within weeks

By: - January 20, 2022 12:15 pm

Dr. Russell Lampen, the division chief of infectious disease at Spectrum Health in West Michigan | Photo courtesy of Spectrum Health

Updated 5:21 p.m., 1/20/22 with additional information about the omicron variant’s peak

Every day, Dr. Russell Lampen braces himself for a report that comes to the infectious disease expert: the people who have died from COVID-19 at Spectrum Health in West Michigan.

“It’s five to seven people every day,” said Lampen, the division chief of infectious disease at Spectrum Health. “There are people in the prime of their life who are getting severe infections and are dying of COVID. From a health care worker perspective … to see the ripple effect of these losses is tough.”

The death toll has been difficult to face throughout the pandemic that has claimed the lives of 28,980 Michiganders and 853,230 Americans. But, now with the COVID-19 vaccines available, it’s especially upsetting, the Spectrum infectious disease expert said. The people dying are, in large part, individuals who could have lived.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Lampen said. “We have people in their 30s, 40s, 50s without significant medical conditions — people who are married, people who were working, people who had active lives — who are in the hospital. Had they gotten vaccinated, they wouldn’t be here. It’s really tough.” 

At Spectrum, which is based in Grand Rapids, 76% of the 382 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Of the 91 COVID patients in the intensive care unit, 80% are unvaccinated; 90% of COVID patients on ventilators are unvaccinated.

Lampen and health care workers across the state and country are hoping the number of people hospitalized with, and dying from, COVID-19 will begin to permanently fall as the omicron variant peaks — something that medical experts believe will happen in Michigan this month or in February. 

It’s really heartbreaking. We have people in their 30s, 40s, 50s without significant medical conditions — people who are married, people who were working, people who had active lives — who are in the hospital. Had they gotten vaccinated, they wouldn’t be here. It’s really tough.

– Dr. Russell Lampen, division chief of infectious disease at Spectrum Health in West Michigan

Free tests and masks

Hospitalizations and deaths could also decline as more people are vaccinated and boosted, access free at-home tests through the federal government, and begin to wear masks that better protect them from the omicron variant, like N95 or KN95 masks, health experts told the Advance.

As of Tuesday, Americans have been able to order free at-home COVID-19 tests through covidtests.gov. President Joe Biden’s administration said they expect to give out as many as 1 billion rapid COVID-19 tests — four of which are now available to every household in the country. 

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will also provide 400 million free N95 masks to Americans through pharmacies and community health centers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last week that N95 and KN95 masks provide the best protection against the omicron variant. Cloth masks are far less effective at preventing transmission of the virus, health experts said.

“People should get on the website and get the tests; having the tests on hand will be extremely important for people,” Lampen said. “… They can result in people having the availability of those tests and not going to work or staying away from school [if they have COVID-19]. Right now, the tests are somewhat expensive and not especially accessible, and people are continuing on with normal activities of life without testing.”

Image courtesy of Spectrum Health

While health experts said there are limits to the at-home tests and have provided more false negatives in the wake of the omicron variant, they remain an important tool for people being able to quickly determine whether to attend gatherings, see individuals who are at high risk of serious COVID-19 cases, and go to school or work. 

Still, Sims emphasized that “antigen tests are not as good as PCR tests in general,” and, if individuals are experiencing symptoms of COVID, or any virus, they should remain at home and avoid interacting with other people. 

PCR tests, which are typically given by medical professionals, tend to be more accurate than antigen tests because they can detect smaller amounts of the COVID-19 virus in an individual and are able to determine whether someone has contracted the virus sooner than an antigen test. 

“There’s been a lot of discussion that a lot of people who had gatherings [over the holidays] were trying to be responsible, and they’d get a test but they’d get rapid tests and those aren’t as accurate,” Sims said. “So a couple days after gatherings people would get tested and found they were positive and it had spread through the gathering. They were trying to be responsible, but it’s not always that simple. When I’ve gotten together with family, we’ve all worn masks even though we’re all vaccinated and asymptomatic.”

Still, a major influx of tests in households combined with omicron expected to peak soon and people being vaccinated, boosted and wearing tight-fitting masks could bring about a major milestone in the pandemic, health experts said.

01182022 COVID Trend Table Daily

Signs of hope

While medical professionals said the months-long COVID-19 surge is ongoing in Michigan, there have been signs in recent days that give health workers some hope.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID at Spectrum, for example, has dipped, Lampen said. Dr. Matthew Sims, the director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, also said the number of people hospitalized with COVID at Beaumont Health in Southeast Michigan has “plateaued” at about 700 patients in recent days — down from this surge’s peak of about 850. 

At the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System, hospitalizations are also down from 551 COVID-19 patients on Monday to 499 on Wednesday. Among those 499 people hospitalized are two people under the age of 17, Riney noted.

“After weeks and weeks of giving you really sobering news, I’m really happy to report that we are starting, and I emphasize starting, to see a trend that we hope will continue of decreased hospitalization,” Henry Ford Health System Chief Operating Officer Bob Riney said during a Wednesday press conference.

Riney explained that while he’s pleased to see these numbers decreasing, 499 people in the system is “still a staggering number.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan overall have slightly dropped this week, going from 4,696 people hospitalized with the virus this past Friday to 4,567 on Wednesday, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

COVID In Hospital Infographic (15)

 

Cases, however, continue to soar. DHHS reported Wednesday that the average of new daily cases in the state increased to 17,589 — a pandemic high. DHHS reported Tuesday that cases have been increasing “exponentially” among most age groups and are expected to continue to do so. All age groups are seeing their highest case rates of the entire pandemic, DHHS said Tuesday. A DHHS spokesperson said those increases are expected to likely end around the end of January, or, at the latest, by the end of February.

“The reality is the water is still well over our heads,” Lampen said. “We’re down from our peak, but we’re still at a very, very high level. The ICU census is extremely high. We’re still having to delay surgical cases; emergency room waits are higher than expected; staffing has been impacted. Yes, we’re a bit better than we were at the peak of our delta [variant] wave, but we’re still in a position of high stress and burden due to COVID in the hospital.”

While Lampen said he expects COVID-19 to forever circulate — as influenza now does — the pandemic will, ultimately, subside. He, Sims and health experts across the country and world are continuing to emphasize that such an end to the pandemic will happen far more quickly with an increase in people getting vaccinated and boosted. 

“Everybody should be vaccinated and boosted,” Sims said. “That gives more protection against delta, against omicron. It’s important.” 

In addition to being vaccinated and boosted, individuals should try to have rapid tests at home and use higher-quality masks, Sims and Lampen emphasized. 

“My hope is that as omicron continues to circulate, we will continue to see less and severe illness, not have the degree of deaths we’re been having, and our health system won’t be overrun with cases,” Lampen said.

“Whether this is the beginning of the end, I don’t know,” he continued. “As we come out of this omicron surge, my hope is we have enough community immunity that we stop seeing these astronomically high hospitalization rates. Whether this is the beginning of the end we’ll probably have a better answer to in about two months.”

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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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