The situation is growing dire in Michigan, but simple coronavirus safety measures could change the course, experts say.
LANSING, Mich.—The novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 is running rampant in Michigan like never before.
Michigan is approaching the eight-month anniversary of the state-of-emergency declaration in response to the pandemic. And this is the worst the pandemic has ever been in the state.
For most of the preceding seven months, the worst day for the diagnosis of new cases was April 3, while cases contracted before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s pandemic protections went into place were being diagnosed. On April 3, just under 2,000 cases were confirmed.
The past several weeks, that record has been broken time and again. This week alone, the record for new confirmed cases has been set twice. The day after the presidential election, Michigan set its record new cases at 4,101, more than twice what it was in April. But that record only lasted one day before it was also shattered by Thursday’s daily confirmed cases reaching 5,710.
Friday, cases broke 200,000.
One of those cases, the Detroit Free Press reported Friday, was Michigan Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), who is the sixth legislator in Lansing to announce testing positive.
“I wanted to update you all that I have tested positive for Covid. I am feeling OK and am currently recovering at home,” Ananich said. “I haven’t been at the Senate since exposure and I’m following my doctor’s advice and all (state health department) protocols. Thank you for your well wishes.”
Unflattening the Curve
In 22 Michigan counties, 1 out of every 10 people tested for the coronavirus tests positive. Those counties are Macomb, Kent, Ottawa, Kalamazoo, Berrien, Muskegon, Calhoun, Allegan, Barry, Van Buren, Cass, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale, Mecosta, Emmet, Iosco, Dickinson, Delta, Luce, Gogebic, and Ontonagon. The latter five are in the Upper Peninsula.
Since Oct. 29, Michigan has been in Imminent or Active Outbreak as determined by the watchdog group Covid Act Now. Rather than following new confirmed cases, Covid Act Now bases its determinations on the infectivity rate—that is, the number of people the average infected person in Michigan is infecting. This means that their determination is focused not on what numbers a state is currently seeing, but what the trend in that state is.
And they’ve determined the trend in Michigan isn’t good.
That’s a determination shared by Michigan’s top health official, Dr. Joenigh Khaldun. Based on models the state is using, Khaldun is concerned that the daily death rate will rise to 100 again, she told reporters Thursday.
“We have models that estimate that at the rate we’re going—if we don’t do anything else, if we don’t change our behaviors—we could be seeing up to 100 deaths a day by the end of December,” she told reporters.
The state hasn’t reported a daily death total above 100 since April 30. Daily deaths peaked April 10 at just over 200. Khaldun cited the current weekly average death rate being up to 19, double what it was at the end of September.
Not only does Michigan have an alarming daily case rate and infectivity rate, Covid Act Now also notes the state simply doesn’t have the robust contact tracing system it needs to quickly identify new cases. That’s something Michigan is working to fix, however, with a new contact tracing app being tested in Lansing. But those aren’t the most worrying factors.
A major source of concern is rising hospitalizations. Since August, the rate of coronavirus-related hospitalizations has quadrupled, Khaldun said, to 1,900.
The hospitalization rate is directly linked to the death rate. The point of flattening the curve, the early-pandemic strategy that needs to be employed again to keep daily deaths low, was to slow the spread of the pandemic so that hospitals weren’t overburdened and were capable of treating the patients that came through their doors. Though the hospitalization rate hasn’t reached where it was in the early days of the pandemic, the trajectory shown both by Khaldun’s models and by Covid Act Now is one bending toward that comparatively bumpy curve.
The reason the curve is getting bumpier has a lot to do with pandemic fatigue. Pandemic fatigue is the exhaustion people are feeling with the changes to daily life prompted by the novel coronavirus, which remains highly communicable, effectively untreatable, and for which there is no proven vaccine. All the same, people want life as it was last year to return.
Khaldun has advocated for resisting this fatigue and returning to the policies and best practices that allowed Michigan to mitigate the virus over the summer.
“We are tired of the virus,” said Michigan’s Director of Health and Human Services Robert Gordon, “but the virus isn’t tired of us.”
What a Lasting Pandemic Looks Like
Despite President Donald Trump’s false assertions that people would never hear of the virus following the election, Michigan’s cases have continued to burn across the state. In Kent County alone, WOOD reports, the rise has been dramatic.
“I think over the past week, we’ve seen 2,800 cases reported to the Kent County Health Department,” Brian Hartl with the Department said. “Averaging about 400 cases per day, and that’s something we’ve not seen before.”
Hartl said the average new cases in Kent have been on a steady rise week-over-week and that rise needs to serve as a wake-up call to Michiganders.
“Now more than ever, it’s critically important to wear masks because we know it can protect yourself and others,” Hartl said.
The idea that the pandemic would end on election night is one of many times Trump, who is projected to lose Michigan by 150,000 votes, pledged the nation was just around the bend from total recovery. He said it would be gone by April. As Michigan’s spike was growing worse, he declared defeating the pandemic among his accomplishments. False promises about the end of the pandemic were so common from Trump that the Washington Post created a supercut of 40 times it happened.
Months ago, Michigan unveiled a tracking system called MI Safe Start that monitored the rate of infection and state of the virus in eight geographical regions to help with determinations of safety procedures. That system had a six-level warning scale with “Low” as the lowest, followed by A through E in ascending order of risk. The highest level of risk, E, is currently assigned to the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and Upper Peninsula regions.
Every other region of the state is currently classified as D.
That resurgence has cost the long-term health of tens of thousands of Michiganders and beloved local businesses, like Kalamazoo’s Union Cabaret and Grille.
“I’ve seen 20 years of students come in and out of there get used to that,” Bob Lewis told MLive. “In some aspects, it has served as a stage where parents can see what a real, live venue will look like when their kid graduates with that degree and moves out into the world. A lot of those kids have moved on and gone to New York, Chicago, and then come back and call me to play at the Union.”
Lewis is co-founder of the Millennium Restaurant Group, which owned the Union. He said they attempted to reopen when allowed to under coronavirus protections, but given how easily crowds get out of hand and how central live music was to the mission of the Union, there was no way to make the core premise of the Union work during a pandemic.
The Union Cabaret and Grille is now closed permanently.
Lewis knows the Kalamazoo community will deeply miss the Union, but closing it was really the only option to keep the community safe in light of the pandemic.
“The support we’ve gotten, you know, I could go on with people and bands who came to play there,” he said. “It just became this epicenter for live music in Kalamazoo, and I think that’s probably the one thing that’s really going to be missed by the people who knew they could just come into the Union on any given day and hear some great music.”
To prevent the spiral of the virus from claiming more lives and livelihoods, Hartl advocates for simple, everyday action.
“Now, more than ever, it’s critically important to wear masks because we know it can protect yourself and others,” he said.