In this graph, you can see how Michigan's COVID-19 spikes correlate to milestone events in reopening. (Graphic by Desiree Tapia)
In this graph, you can see how Michigan's COVID-19 spikes correlate to milestone events in reopening. (Graphic by Desiree Tapia)

Policy and preparation: What Michigan learned in time to manage a second COVID-19 spike stemming from open bars to boat parties

MICHIGAN — Michiganders took a giant leap forward flattening the curve when COVID-19 hit residents harder in the state than most other places in the U.S. earlier this year. But Michigan is seeing itself start to slide backwards. 

And new cases are stemming from unlikely places. 

 A state of emergency was first declared in Michigan March 10 following the original confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. 

Recent superspreader events The ’Gander has reported on have contributed to a resurgence of the virus, which in turn has resulted in bars and restaurants closing inside service once again, less than a month after reopening.

Superspreader events are situations during a pandemic where transmission of a disease is significantly higher than normal daily activities. These tend to occur in high-risk environments for transmission, and bars certainly qualify as high-risk, BBC explained.

Spikes are also coming out of Michigan’s strip clubs, funerals, and boating parties

In the latest issue of Lake Effect, Public Policy Polling found that slightly more Michiganders favor a return to more decisive stay-at-home orders to combat the resurgence, with 46% supporting a return to stay-at-home orders and 41% opposing. 

Fine-Tuning the Dial for July

But while the dial is turned slightly backward, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told reporters Thursday that there are no hard-set threshold numbers for when things either reclose or reopen. 

“The reason we can’t give you a magic number for turning that dial one direction or another is because context matters,” said Gov. Whitmer. “140 cases associated with Harper’s in East Lansing where we can trace and isolate people is a scenario that is much different from 140 cases that are totally random, where you don’t know what’s happening and it’s community spread that is unchecked and untraceable and thus hard to isolate. That’s why that context overlay is really important.”

Gov. Whitmer referred  to Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub in East Lansing, a single venue which accounts for 170 coronavirus cases over the past several weeks. Harper’s closed back down days after reopening, but cases born from the bar traveled to other parts of the state. Harper’s was cited by BBC as one of America’s major superspreader events.

And there’s the problem of resistance to wearing face coverings, which has rapidly become emblematic of the pandemic. Masks, Gov. Whitmer argued, are the best way to protect Michigan families from the virus until vaccines and treatments become available. She also argued they were the best tool to protect the economy. 

“Make a mask,” Gov. Whitmer urged Michiganders. “Make a mask with a political statement saying ‘I hate masks’ if you want, but just wear it. That’s all I ask.”

Paulette Larson Pepin of Escanaba told The ’Gander that her city was rife with those not using masks, saying Escanabans used them as “chin guards” instead of pandemic protection at every restaurant and bar. Unlike most of Lower Michigan, the Upper Peninsula still has indoor service at those businesses. 

Friday, Gov. Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-147, which instructs businesses to deny entry to customers not wearing masks. Refusing to do so now comes with a $500 fine. 

“There’s so much uncertainty. There’s so much anxiety. There’s so much unknown with this novel virus,” Gov. Whitmer said. “We are in daily assessment of where our numbers are. We know that what is going on in other parts of this country is incredibly concerning.” Tania Lili

The Numbers Behind Michigan’s Second COVID Spike

This resurgence has set Michigan back dramatically in a short time. June 18, Michigan was one of only three states on track to manage the virus effectively, but by July 8 Michigan had been reclassified as “high risk” for the coronavirus based on data from Covid Act Now. That is a step down two full categories. 

Wednesday’s update from Covid Act Now reports a spread of 1.21, meaning that the average coronavirus patient in Michigan infects 1.21 other people. That positive growth rate means daily new case trends are likely to continue to rise. This rate of spread was below 1 just a week earlier at 0.88, which indicates downward trends in new case growth. 

A state is considered on track if its spread is below 0.9, considered to be experiencing controlled growth if the rate is under 1.1, considered to be high risk for an outbreak if the rate is under 1.4 and considered to be experiencing an outbreak at 1.4 or greater. 

Covid Act Now also reports that Michigan is engaged in contact tracing for only 42% of new cases within two days of infection, which is not sufficient to combat a resurgence. Experts recommend 90% of cases be traced in that time. 

“Per best available data, Michigan has 1,050 contact tracers. With an average of 495 new daily cases, we estimate Michigan needs 2,475 contact tracing staff to trace all new cases in 48 hours, before too many other people are infected,” read the report. “At these lower levels of tracing, it is unlikely Michigan will be able to successfully identify and isolate sources of disease spread fast enough to prevent new outbreaks.”

Signs of Hope, If Michiganders Take This Seriously

The bright spot in Covid Act Now’s data is that Michigan hospitals appear positioned well to handle the current resurgence, with the exception of Alpena, St. Clair, Lapeer, Livingston, and Ionia counties. Thanks to aggressive testing, Michigan’s test positivity rate is also low, at just 2.5%.

Also, while still far higher than the national average, Michigan’s Case Fatality Rate (the number of confirmed cases resulting in deaths) is finally below 9%, at 8.9% as of Thursday based on data provided by the state. Based on numbers published by NPR, the national fatality rate is only 4.3%.

Gov. Whitmer was optimistic about the state’s ability to handle the resurgence, however, pointing out past successes in May. She set reopening in-person instruction in eight weeks as a major goal post for Michigan’s progress combatting the pandemic. 

“Human behavior is the thing that is going to determine the direction we’re going to be headed in,” Gov. Whitmer said. “If we want to be in a position eight weeks from now where we can get our kids back in in-person education this trend can’t continue. That’s why masking up will be so important.”