The number of Michigan counties where risk from COVID-19 is high has grown to 22 this week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a new wave of cases and hospitalizations sweeps the state and the nation.
"There's a lot of infections across America," Dr. Ashish Jha, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said earlier this week. "What's driving that? What is primarily driving that is these incredibly contagious subvariants" of the omicron variant, BA.2 and BA.2.12.1.
"They are more contagious with more immune escape, and they are driving a lot of the increases in infection that we're seeing across the nation right now. And that is ... a huge challenge."
Michigan added six more counties late Thursday to the list of 16 that reached the high-risk threshold a week earlier. Among them, six are the Upper Peninsula counties of Marquette, Delta, Schoolcraft, Luce, Mackinac and Chippewa.
Seven counties in southeastern Michigan are at the high transmission threshold and include Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, Washtenaw, Monroe and St. Clair.
And in the northern Lower Peninsula, the counties of Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Otsego, Crawford, Kalkaska, Antrim, Charlevoix, Grand Traverse, Benzie are seeing high rates of community transmission of coronavirus.
The CDC says people in those high-risk counties should:
Wear a mask in indoor, public places.
Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters if you're eligible.
Get tested if you're symptomatic.
If you are at high risk for severe disease from the virus, the agency recommends considering other precautions, such as avoiding nonessential indoor activities that could lead to exposure.
The CDC's COVID-19 community level assessment is based on a combination of data, including COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and occupied hospital beds in each county.
"There's no question that we're in a surge right now and that if you're at risk for severe COVID disease, you should certainly wear a mask when you go out," said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, director of infection prevention at Henry Ford Health. "Anyone who doesn't want to get sick, wear a mask. That's the easiest way to stop transmission."
Thirty Michigan counties now have moderate levels of coronavirus transmission, according to the CDC.
They are: Keweenaw, Alger, Gogebic, Iron, Dickinson, Menominee, Emmet, Leelanau, Manistee, Wexford, Roscommon, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Montmorency, Alpena, Bay, Midland, Saginaw, Huron, Sanilac, Genesee, Shiawassee, Clinton, Kent, Eaton, Ingham, Jackson, Kalamazoo and Lenawee.
In those counties, the CDC recommends:
Talking to your health care provider about whether to wear a mask or take other precautions if you're at high risk for severe illness with COVID-19.
Staying up to date with COVID-19 vaccines.
Getting tested if you are symptomatic.
On Wednesday, the state health department reported a seven-day average of 4,181 new daily cases. That's nearly six times higher than it was on March 30, when there was a seven-day average of 713 new daily cases, a Free Press analysis of state data shows.
"We know that the number of infections is actually substantially higher than that — hard to know exactly how many, but we know that a lot of people are getting diagnosed using home tests," Jha said.
"Home tests are great ... but what that means is we're clearly undercounting infections, undercounting cases."
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan are rising, too, though not as quickly as the number of infections. There were 992 people admitted to Michigan hospitals with COVID-19 on Friday, state data shows. That's more than double the number of people hospitalized with the virus a month earlier.
Jha said that's likely because COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are reducing the severity of illness among many people and because more Americans are getting treated with the antiviral drug Paxlovid.
In the last month, there has been a "dramatic increase in the use of Paxlovid — about fourfold increase," he said of the pill made by Pfizer that is taken over five days at the start of a coronavirus infection and is shown in clinical trials to reduce the risk of severe illness and death by 89%.
"Our latest estimates are that about 20,000 prescriptions of Paxlovid are being given out every single day. I think that is actually a really important reason why, despite this very substantial increase in infections, we have not seen a commensurate increase in deaths. We have seen hospitalizations rise but, again, not as much as one would have expected at this point, despite the fact that hospitalizations do lag.
"I really think that, beyond the vaccinations and boosting, which are making a very big difference, I think Paxlovid is making a very big difference."
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said the agency's community-level assessments are meant to help people understand risk from coronavirus in their counties and decide what actions to take.
"As we're currently seeing a steady rise of cases in parts of the country, we encourage everyone to use the menu of tools we have today to prevent further infection and severe disease, including wearing a mask, getting tested, accessing treatments early if infected, and getting vaccinated or boosted, especially if you're over 50 and if your last dose was more than five months ago," she said.
Walensky signed off Thursday on recommendations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and a CDC vaccine advisory panel to authorize a booster dose for children ages 5-11 as long it has been at least six months since they completed their primary two-dose series of the vaccine.
The agencies are expected to decide whether to authorize COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 6 months to 5 years old in early June.
Cunningham said he hopes federal authorities also will consider opening eligibility for additional boosters to people younger than 50 in the weeks ahead.
"I'm hoping they're going to talk about booster doses for more people," he said.
Walensky suggested that's a possibility during a news conference Wednesday, saying: "That is going to require action from the FDA. We're in conversations there as well."
She added, however, that there are still many people under age 50 who haven't yet gotten even the first booster dose of the vaccine.
"We know that third dose is really important, especially against omicron," she said. "So, we would encourage those people to get their third dose."
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Masks urged in 22 Michigan counties, CDC warns