‘Still Killing People Every Day’: As COVID Numbers Rise Again, Health Experts Urge Caution

By Michigan Advance

August 10, 2023

Despite increase, hospitalization and death rates remain at historic lows in Michigan

BY ANNA GUSTAFSON, MICHIGAN ADVANCE

MICHIGAN—Dr. Russ Lampen can easily recall the date: Dec. 13, 2021. On that day, Spectrum Health in West Michigan had its highest-ever number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized during the omicron variant wave – 421. 

This week, there are eight people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Grand Rapids’ Corewell Health, the new name for Spectrum Health.

“It’s almost unimaginable that we had that,” Lampen, an infectious disease physician and medical director for infection prevention at Corewell Health in Grand Rapids, said of the hundreds of COVID patients that once flooded his hospital. 

Three-and-a-half years into a pandemic that has killed 1.1 million Americans and 43,229 Michiganders, vaccines, widespread immunity and a better understanding of how to treat COVID has sent hospitalization and death numbers plummeting to some of the lowest levels experienced during the pandemic. 

Now, however, there’s an uptick in COVID hospitalizations throughout the country, which health experts said may be attributed in part to summer travel and soaring temperatures sending people to the air-conditioned indoors.

“There is a trend that’s moving in the wrong direction, and that’s worth paying attention to,” Lampen said.

There were 9,056 COVID-19 hospital admissions in the U.S. during the week ending July 29, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is a jump of about 12% over the prior week. That, however, is far lower than past peaks. During the omicron surge that left Michigan hospitals at a “breaking point” in late 2021 and early 2022, there were about 150,000 COVID hospital admissions every week in the United States.

Since June, about 500 to 600 people in the U.S. have died from COVID each week; that number has not recently risen but typically lags behind hospitalization increases.

In Michigan, the state Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHS) reported on Tuesday that there were 1,864 new COVID-19 cases over the past week – which is more than twice the 761 cases from the previous week. However, health officials emphasized that about 620 of the recorded new cases are actually cases from January through June that had not previously been reported. 

Any increase in case numbers is also not the best way to gauge what’s happening with COVID spread because of a proliferation of home testing – which is then not reported to state and federal health officials – and a drop in testing overall, medical experts said. 

Instead, they pointed to hospitalization rates as giving a more complete picture when it comes to any concerning trends. 

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan has recently plateaued, state health officials reported. As of Monday, there were 169 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Michigan – one of the lowest hospitalization numbers seen during the pandemic, according to DHHS. At this time last year, there were 991 people hospitalized with COVID in Michigan.

State health officials also reported five COVID-19 deaths in the past week, which is the fewest number of weekly deaths reported since March 2020.

“We’re still at low levels of hospitalizations, but it is increasing,” Marisa Eisenberg, an associate professor of epidemiology and complex systems at the University of Michigan, said of nationwide trends. “It differs by region; there are parts of the U.S. where it’s starting to increase, less so in Michigan right now.”

Still, health experts noted that, historically, COVID trends in other parts of the country tend to eventually play out in Michigan – which means they expect COVID numbers to increase as the weather turns colder and children return to school. To protect themselves, Michiganders need to make sure they’re vaccinated and boosted, experts said. For those who do feel sick, it’s important they get tested in order to be able to access medicine, like Paxlovid, that helps reduce the COVID case’s severity and often keeps people out of the hospital, health care professionals said.

“I would urge people to not get totally complacent,” Eisenberg said. “The deaths have gone down a ton, but it’s still killing people every day.”

State health officials urged individuals to get vaccinated if they have not done so and to stay current on boosters. An updated booster that targets the most recent COVID variants is expected to be available by the end of September.

“Right now, Michigan is at historical lows, but we know COVID-19 is still a real threat,” DHHS spokesperson Chelsea Wuth wrote in an email. “It’s important for people to use the tools at their disposal, like vaccines and boosters, to keep themselves safe and understand their individual risk. We continue to urge Michiganders to get up to date with their COVID-19 vaccination as the vaccine remains our best defense against serious illness and hospitalization.”

Currently, about 60% of Michiganders are vaccinated against COVID-19, but only 38.9% have received any of the recommended COVID vaccine boosters, which protect against COVID’s variants, according to the DHHS.

While COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths remain low, the recent increase in hospitalizations is not something to dismiss, medical experts said. They noted it’s especially important to consider the impact of any increased COVID spread on individuals who are at risk of getting more serious cases, including people who are 65 and older and those who are immunocompromised.

“Also, there’s long COVID,” said Dr. Peter Guluck, an infectious disease expert and a professor of medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who also works with HIV patients through the Ingham County Health Department. “For people who think, ‘Big deal, COVID is COVID,’ you can get long COVID, which is a real thing and causes people to be debilitated. That worries me. People think it’s like the flu; it’s no big deal. You get it, and it’s over with – but it may not be over with. Young people get long COVID; healthy people get long COVID.”

Long COVID is a chronic illness that leaves individuals, including children, living with a wide variety of often debilitating COVID symptoms for months, or even longer, past their original COVID diagnosis. 

As COVID numbers climb, health experts said it’s extremely unlikely there will ever be a surge akin to those of previous years.

“I don’t see us ever getting back to where we were as far as those major peaks and spikes we’ve had in the past,” Lampen said. “I don’t see us climbing back anywhere near where we were.” 

Still, Lampen emphasized, COVID is a new disease that health experts are still learning about. It is not as well understood as, say, the flu. 

“Influenza has likely been with humans since we began domesticating animals around 500 B.C.,” Lampen said. “It’s been with us for millennia. The difficulty with COVID is it’s only been with us for three years.”

That means, Lampen said, it’s not entirely clear when experts will be able to say that COVID has fully transitioned to something that’s less lethal – something that is reminiscent of the flu, for example. (The flu, however, is still deadly – the CDC reported there were between 19,000 and 58,000 flu deaths between October 2022 and April 2023.)

“I don’t think it’s quite the flu yet, but I do think the severity has been reduced a lot,” Eisenberg said. “I don’t think we’re really in flu range quite yet, but we are getting closer.”

This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license. 

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