Hopes hang on COVID-19 vaccines as virus threatens Michigan surge
It’s too soon to start celebrating — even though 2.2 million Michiganders have already gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, more than one-quarter of the state’s population 16 and older.
Even though the state has reopened restaurants to 50% capacity and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced 8,200 fans can attend Tigers Opening Day in person at Comerica Park.
Even though Ford Field is poised to open Wednesday as the state’s first federally operated mass vaccine clinic and eligibility expands Monday to allow hundreds of thousands more Michiganders access to shots.
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That’s because after seeing encouraging declines in case numbers and COVID-19 hospitalizations in January and February, Michigan’s coronavirus curve is rocketing skyward yet again as COVID-19 restrictions have relaxed, mirroring the trajectory it took in the fall.
“COVID-19 is not yet behind us,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Friday. “We may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel.”
The goal is to immunize 70% of Michiganders 16 and older with the hope that vaccines, will lift the state out of the cycle of peaks and valleys in coronavirus cases we’ve seen in the last year.
Though the state is on its way, and more than 62% of people ages 65 and older in Michigan have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the question is whether there have been enough shots in the arms of the most vulnerable to temper the curve and reduce hospitalizations and deaths this time.
“I am quite worried that we’re entering another surge,” said Dawn Misra, department chair and professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. “If you’ve been watching the numbers the last couple of weeks … you could just see it all coming.”
She has some hope, though, that the curve might not result in as much sickness and loss as previous spikes.
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“It is possible that the deaths within this group will not be as bad … since we did reach them with some vaccines,” Misra said. “And we do have slightly better treatments available.”
Vaccine supply in the state is getting a boost next week as eligibility expands to include anyone 50 and older and people 16 and older with an underlying health condition that puts them at risk for severe disease or death from COVID-19.
Michigan health officials anticipate nearly a half a million total doses of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to be delivered next week, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the state health department.
Johnson & Johnson vaccines are expected to arrive on top of the Moderna and Pfizer allotment, though there was still no estimate Friday of exactly how many doses, Sutfin said.
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While the boost in vaccine supply holds promise for brighter months ahead, when Whitmer said people might be able to “get back the pieces of our lives that we miss and treasure most,” such as graduation parties and barbecues, the sharp rise in cases, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests make her “wary.”
In the last four weeks, the Michigan’s COVID-19 case rate jumped 77% to 172.9 cases per million people, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive. The percentage of positive coronavirus tests climbed 177% in the last four weeks, and now tops 6.2%.
On Friday, Michigan tallied 3,730 new COVID-19 cases — the most since Jan. 8. And hospitals are beginning to see the effects.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 rose 66% from Feb. 25 to Friday, state data shows — growing from 709 patients hospitalized in late February to 1,189 on Friday.
Michigan has the fourth highest COVID-19 case rate in the nation — behind only New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the state also has the second-highest number of known cases of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant strain that originated in the United Kingdom, with 756, Whitmer said.
The variant is 50% more transmissible than the earlier strain, and is expected to become the dominant type of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in the U.S. in the coming weeks.
Dr. Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan, said the combination of more contagious variants, pandemic fatigue and an easing of public health restrictions is likely driving the spread of the virus in the state this time.
“People are frustrated with the restrictions and are also hearing that we have won the battle,” Monto said. “The battle is not yet won. We need to continue to be careful as we go forward because this virus just takes every opportunity to take off again.
“It’s very clear that that when we shut down, it goes down. And when we open up, it goes up. I just don’t think we’re there yet in terms of the amount of vaccines we have in our population.”
With variant forms of the virus spreading and the level of community transmission in Michigan, Misra said people should consider wearing an N95 or KN95 mask or double masking when they must go out in public and once again consider staying home as much as possible or choosing outings in places that are well-ventilated or outdoors.
“This is way too high of a level of community spread, and it starts to make you question some of the things you have been starting to feel are safe,” she said. “I really think we have to be concerned about these variants,” including the B.1.351 variant, also known as the South African strain, which also has been identified in Michigan.
“Just because we open something doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Misra said. “You know that you still need to be cautious and limit your exposure.”
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She gets takeout food, but still doesn’t eat in restaurants right now. Nor does she work out in gyms, which also have reopened statewide to 30% capacity.
“It’s simply too high risk with people breathing that hard and being indoors,” she said.
If the curve in the state continues to climb, Misra suggested choices might have to be made about school-age children: Do we want them to be able to play contact sports or do we want them to be able to go to school in person? With this much virus spreading in the community, she said we might not be able to have both.
“We’re really depending on the community to understand that we’re letting you do this, but we still don’t think it’s actually safe to do,” Misra said. “And that’s a really confusing message for people, I think.”
Monto had hoped that when the numbers in Michigan began to trend upward again that it might be a temporary shift, a blip.
“We do see blips that are meaningless,” he said. “But now, it seems that the case numbers … are really going up.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN last week that he’d urge Whitmer to slow down on relaxing COVID-19 restrictions any further.
“I am telling them, ‘Just hold off for a bit.’ When you get the overwhelming majority of your population vaccinated, the chances of there being a surge are minuscule,” he said. “Pull back gradually, not all at once.”
On Friday, Whitmer announced increased COVID-19 testing protocols for youth athletes ages 13-19, who she said are driving outbreaks in the state, but said she wasn’t prepared to tighten pandemic restrictions to stanch a surge.
“We don’t have plans to do that at this juncture,” she said. “I do need to say, though, we know we’ve got the tools needed to fight this virus: a mask, social distancing, hand-washing, vaccinations. These are the tools that will help us be successful.
“I know it feels like universally people want to reengage in a lot of the things that have come online in the last few weeks. We also knew when we did that, we would increase the risk of spread and … that’s what we’re seeing.
“The difference is, right now, we know a lot more about this virus, and we are ramping up our vaccinations. But we are going to watch it closely because these variants are very concerning.”
As vaccine supply begins to improve in the state, the next public health challenge will not be in finding a place to get a shot, but in convincing the hesitant to get vaccinated at all.
That’s especially a concern among communities of color, which have been hit disproportionately hard by the virus and are more likely to be skeptical about the COVID-19 vaccines for wide range of reasons, including historic mistreatment. Black people have been exploited for centuries in this country for medical experimentation, ranging from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study to forced sterilizations.
As of Friday, state data showed that of all the people for whom race is known who’ve gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Michigan, 5.4% are African American even though Black Michiganders make up about 13.7% of the state population.
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who leads the state’s Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, said at an event Thursday at Ford Field that it’s an issue he’s working hard to resolve.
“I continue to have conversations with family, with friends, with neighbors about the vaccine about its safety and about its effectiveness,” Gilchrist said. “People have questions. It’s OK to have questions. You must also recognize that those questions have answers.
“We are doing everything we can to get people those answers, from resources, from people they trust.”
Gilchrist said he has lost 27 friends and relatives to the virus and urged people to not only get a vaccine, but to become ambassadors for vaccination in their neighborhoods.
“You are the best messenger for the people in your life to get them to make the choice to get vaccinated,” he said. “Because when we see obstacles, we overcome them. When we see challenges, we overcome them. We invent. We innovate. We partner, and we overcome. This vaccination program is a testament that when we all come together for the common good and with a common purpose, we can make things happen.”
Monto said it really is a matter of life and death, and that the vaccine-hesitant — including COVID-19 deniers — need to know the pandemic is not a hoax and that the only way out is through vaccines.
“The message should be the same for everybody,” said Monto, who is acting chair of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, which recommended all three COVID-19 vaccines now on the market. “These are safe and effective vaccines. The speed really had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with the need.
“The risk of COVID is still there. And part of the message about what’s been going on the last week needs to be: Get your vaccine when it’s available.”
For the people who refuse to get a shot because they don’t believe the virus is a threat, Monto said this: “You can’t deny a coffin.”
Contact Kristen Shamus: [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.