‘COVID hasn’t gone anywhere’: After brief respite, cases and hospitalizations climb

By: - May 9, 2022 10:14 am

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After months of near silence, Nicole Kessler once again hears the ambulance sirens blaring outside her Beverly Hills bedroom window as they rush to the hospital.

“I live close to Beaumont, and I can hear the ambulances — so every time [COVID-19] cases increase, I can hear the frequency of ambulances going to the hospital increase,” said Kessler, who lives in the Detroit suburb. “That’s surreal. The last few nights it’s back to a surge again. I heard three or four last night in the middle of the night.”

While Michigan’s numbers are nowhere near where they were during the omicron surge that hospital officials said left them at a “breaking point” this past fall and winter, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are again rising across the state.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported Wednesday that a total of 2,444,891 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 39,064 have died from the virus — an additional 18,945 cases and 62 deaths since last week. That’s an increase from the previous week, when the state reported 14,482 new COVID-19 cases. Over the past week, the state reported an average of 2,706 new COVID-19 cases each day, a 33% increase over the prior week. 

The state’s COVID-19 case numbers have jumped by more than 30% in each of the last four weeks.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 remains low but is also on the rise, DHHS reported. As of Wednesday, there were 708 people hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, with 94 of those in the intensive care unit (ICU). That’s an increase from the prior week, when the state reported a total of 604 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 85 COVID-19 patients in the ICU. 

About one month ago, there were about 487 people hospitalized with the virus. A DHHS spokesperson noted that this data includes people who went to the hospital for another illness or trauma, such as a car accident or heart attack, and then tested positive for COVID-19 while in the hospital but aren’t experiencing symptoms.

COVID-19 deaths, which typically lag behind case and hospitalization increases, have dropped over the past week from 67 deaths last week to 62 deaths this week.

The biggest driver (of the increase) is, quite frankly, human behavior. We’ve rolled back a lot of restrictions in the country, we aren’t masking anymore, and there are really no restrictions on activities — no masking on public transportation, on airplanes, etc. We’re gathering more; we’re going to concerts; we’re going to restaurants. Human behavior is really the big driver of the pandemic.

– Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in West Michigan

Outbreaks of the virus in schools have also risen. The state reported Monday that there were 81 new COVID outbreaks over the past week, including 35 at K-12 schools. That represents a 62% increase over the 50 new outbreaks the week before, 15 of which involved K-12 schools.

In other words: The pandemic is still here and going strong, said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in West Michigan.

“These subvariants of omicron are making their way through the population,” Sullivan said. “The major thing omicron is doing is it’s finding easier ways to infect people. It’s adapting to our nasal passages and upper respiratory tract. People who are getting infected with these subvariants have higher levels of virus in their nasal passages, which is why they’re more contagious.”

State health officials said they are tracking Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers closely and will keep the public updated on changes in the pandemic.

“What happens next depends on the severity of cases during this uptick and who is getting infected,” DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin wrote in an email. “If cases are among those who [are] unvaccinated and/or older or who have other health issues, then we could see additional hospitalizations. If cases are among those who are vaccinated, or previously infected, or generally younger/healthier, it’s possible hospitalizations and deaths will not be as dramatic of an increase as what we saw during the winter delta/omicron surge.”

Sutfin added that Michiganders should consider the rise in COVID-19 cases “as they go about their daily lives and make personal decisions on masking and other strategies to protect themselves from the virus.”

These kinds of decisions — whether or not to mask, get tested for the virus and socially distance when necessary — are playing a major role in the rise of cases and hospitalizations, Sullivan said.

Rally to support health care workers and a statewide school mask order in Royal Oak, Oct. 4, 2021 | Ken Coleman

“The biggest driver [of the increase] is, quite frankly, human behavior,” Sullivan said. “We’ve rolled back a lot of restrictions in the country, we aren’t masking anymore, and there are really no restrictions on activities — no masking on public transportation, on airplanes, etc. We’re gathering more; we’re going to concerts; we’re going to restaurants. Human behavior is really the big driver of the pandemic.”

Sullivan and other public health experts said that while mask mandates seem to be a thing of the past — Michigan hasn’t had a statewide one since June 2021 and no county in the state currently has one — it’s crucial to continue to wear masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Spectrum doctor said N95 and KN95 masks are especially effective, even if you are one of the few people masked.

“We have a lot of people getting symptoms — whether they’re taking measures [to decrease exposure to other people] is open to question,” Sullivan said. “COVID hasn’t gone anywhere. People who are vaccinated don’t spread it as long as other people do — their contagiousness is for a shorter period of time — but for the first few days, they spread the virus like others do.”

In addition to wearing masks and socially distancing, Sullivan said it’s important that people, especially older individuals and people with underlying health conditions, are not only vaccinated but get their booster shots. That, he explained, significantly cuts down on the likelihood someone will end up in the hospital with a serious case of COVID-19.

“We still have a substantial proportion of people who’ve never been vaccinated, and they’re still vulnerable to getting pretty sick and getting hospitalized,” Sullivan said. “And there’s waning immunity among people who are vaccinated and didn’t get a third [COVID-19 vaccine] shot. They’ll be more vulnerable as their immunity wanes, particularly if they’re elderly. Everybody should get a third shot. It will help.”

Michigan currently has an overall vaccination rate (one or more doses) of 67%, putting it in the bottom third of state vaccination rates. About 60% of the state’s population has been fully vaccinated, while 32.6% has received at least one booster.

About 78% of the entire United States population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Kessler, whose 11-year-old son attends Birmingham Public Schools, said she hopes public health officials will attempt to increase vaccination rates among students, as well as provide more extensive and timely data on COVID-19 outbreaks in schools.

It’s a tragedy; that’s a million people who are husbands, wives, parents, aunts, uncles, close friends. It’s a human tragedy I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. And I think, when you look at the United States, we’re supposed to be a world leader and yet we’re one of the world leaders in the number of deaths in this virus.

– Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health in West Michigan

“The vaccination rate for kids is abysmally low,” Kessler said. “There was a lot of pro-vaccine messaging for a long time, and we need to look at some other ways we can move the vaccination needle.” 

About 25.6% of 5 to 11-year-olds in Michigan have received two shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to DHHS.

As Michigan navigates the latest rise in cases, Sullivan said he doesn’t “think we’re going to see dramatic, skyrocketing hospitalizations.” 

Still, there will be more cases, hospitalizations and deaths, he said. 

In the United States, the pandemic has now caused more than 1 million deaths and the World Health Organization reported last week that COVID-19 led to nearly 15 million excess deaths worldwide.

“It’s a tragedy; that’s a million people who are husbands, wives, parents, aunts, uncles, close friends,” Sullivan said of the United States reaching 1 million deaths. “It’s a human tragedy I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. And I think, when you look at the United States, we’re supposed to be a world leader and yet we’re one of the world leaders in the number of deaths in this virus.

“On the flip side, one thing I’ll always be grateful for: I don’t want to imagine what the toll would be if we didn’t have vaccinations,” Sullivan continued. “I don’t even want to imagine where we’d be today.”

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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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