Michigan Losing Covid Race as Cases Outstrip Vaccines’ Reach

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Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who once enacted some of the toughest restrictions in the U.S. to slow the spread of Covid-19, is letting restaurants, bars and school activities remain open even as the virus grows faster in her state than any other.

Whitmer has sped up vaccinations, but a variant-driven spread is putting pressure on her to reinstate the kind of restrictions that last year prompted lawsuits -- some successful -- to curb the governor’s powers. It also led to armed protesters swarming the State Capitol in Lansing and a foiled attempt to kidnap her.

Michigan Losing Covid Race as Cases Outstrip Vaccines’ Reach

At a Friday news briefing, Whitmer asked schools and businesses to voluntarily shut down indoor activities. With the governor reluctant to mandate closings, Covid is spreading rapidly through teens and college campuses. More contagious variants have been discovered in more than 50 counties in the state, while in rural jurisdictions, some residents oppose vaccination.

“At the rate the cases are surging, we could be in a serious situation very soon,” said Emily Toth Martin, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

The state has reported more than 49,000 cases in the past week, more than any other U.S. state, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has had 492.1 cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, also the nation’s highest rate.

A month ago, Michigan’s case rate was 108 per 100,000.

Variant Concerns

Whitmer said the new, more contagious variants as well as fatigue with prevention measures have let the virus spread. Michigan has 2,262 B.1.1.7 variant cases, according to CDC data. Only Florida has more.

Still, she is sticking to her mantra that a rapid surge in vaccinations will fix the problem.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the data shows that we are still in the tunnel,” Whitmer said. “We’re going to have some tough weeks ahead, so I’m asking everyone to please take this seriously. The numbers show young people are not impervious to this virus as we see more cases with teens.”

Medical professionals in the state are skeptical that vaccination alone will stop the spread quickly. At the same briefing, Tina Freese Decker, chief executive officer of Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, said the case load has doubled in the past two weeks and is putting increased pressure on her staff.

Surge Help

The state has administered more than 1 million doses in less than two weeks, for a total of more than 5 million. Whitmer called on the Biden administration to send more doses to states like hers that are experiencing surges. But White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said it would continue to allocate doses based on population, not surges.

“Now is not the time to change course on vaccine allocation,” Zients said. Instead, he said more federal personnel will be sent to Michigan to help speed up doses administered.

Vaccination is the answer to end the pandemic, but it won’t stop the current surge quickly, Toth Martin said in an interview.

“If you vaccinate everyone today, it will take two weeks for them to work,” she said. “It’s a good long-term strategy, but it’s not going to help in the short term.”

In a memo sent to staff on April 7, University of Michigan Health System said it is reducing surgical volumes to 90% of normal to accommodate bed availability, and may further reduce it in the coming days. The memo also said that its doctors are seeing more patients ages 30 to 50s with comorbidities who are not vaccinated.

For vaccination, Michigan also has a long way to go. As of April 9, Michigan has administered enough doses for 26.3% of its population, just below the U.S. average, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

Meanwhile, the spread in cases is happening fastest among young people, and Michigan just started making vaccines available to residents 16 and over on April 4.

“There is no question that we are seeing the impact of the variants,” Adnan Munkarah, chief clinical officer of Henry Ford Health Systems, said at an April 8 briefing. “We are seeing the surge in people who have not been vaccinated. The youth, these people have not been given even their first vaccination and this is where we’re seeing the higher rate of infection.”

Early in the pandemic, young people rarely caught Covid and cases were mild. That, too, is changing, said Henry Ford Chief Operating Officer Robert Riney.

“We are seeing patients 20, 25, 35 who are quite ill with Covid,” Riney said. “The good news is the mortality rates are lower. But these are not light cases.”

Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, warned Friday that cases and emergency room cases are rising in younger adults. The trends are magnified in regions including the Upper Midwest, she said.

In Michigan and Minnesota, there are increases tied to the B.1.1.7 variant, which is more transmissible and possibly more harmful, and in both states there are concerns about outbreaks in youth sports, Walensky said. She urged schools to stick to CDC advice.

“We have not yet seen evidence of significant transmission of Covid-19 within schools when schools have fully implemented CDC’s mitigation guidance,” she said.

Riney, of Henry Ford, stopped short of asking Whitmer for a change in policy, but said the state needs a change in behavior to stop the surge.

“None of us expected what we are seeing today,” he said. “Our health-care workers are exhausted. Day after day, night after night throughout this pandemic, they have given their absolute all under conditions that we have never seen in our lifetime. People’s noncompliance with the safety measures that have protected us for months now are giving this virus new life.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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