Michigan warns of unprecedented COVID-19 surge, urges vaccines and boosters

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Coronavirus continues to rip through Michigan, breaking records for hospitalizations and newly confirmed cases as the extremely contagious omicron variant creates the state's worst yet surge.

"We're now at a point that we have not seen through this pandemic," Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the state's chief medical executive, said Tuesday, noting that metro Detroit has been hardest hit, with the highest hospitalization rate in the state from the virus.

"When we look at our percent positivity, we are up to 33.2%. This is a number that we have not seen since the beginning of the pandemic when tests were very limited. And then, when we look at hospital capacity, we're at 21.9% of our inpatient beds filled with COVID-19 positive individuals."

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, who was named the state's chief medical executive replacing Dr. Joneigh Khaldun as the state's top doctor, speaks with the Detroit Free Press from the Michigan Department Of Health And Human Services in Lansing on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.
Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, who was named the state's chief medical executive replacing Dr. Joneigh Khaldun as the state's top doctor, speaks with the Detroit Free Press from the Michigan Department Of Health And Human Services in Lansing on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021.

It's likely to get worse before it gets better, she said. Models suggest that Michigan's omicron surge could peak in late January or early February.

"We have a choice to make: Do we want to work on bringing that peak down or do we just want to let this omicron surge explode? ... This is a very dangerous time for us and this is not what we want to see with cases exploding the way they are."

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state health department, urged Michiganders to get coronavirus vaccines and boosters when eligible, to upgrade to a well-fitting KN95 mask or double up on masks if a KN95 is not available, and to follow isolation and quarantine guidelines.

"To lessen your risk of getting COVID and the potential for severe infection, to avoid disruptions to in-person learning and the economic ramifications that come with so many people getting sick and needing to stay home or quarantine, and to try to ensure that our health and hospital systems have the capacity to treat you quickly when you walk through their doors for an emergency, including non-COVID conditions, it is critical that every person in this state continues to take steps to stay safe," Hertel said Tuesday.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel speaks during a news conference before the opening of a drive-thru vaccination clinic at the former Sears Auto Center site at the Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel speaks during a news conference before the opening of a drive-thru vaccination clinic at the former Sears Auto Center site at the Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

The surge has led many hospitals across the state to postpone nonemergency tests, procedures and surgeries as the flood of sick people taxes their ability to care for all who need help.

"We've canceled or postponed more than 250 surgeries since this surge began in December because we've needed the hospital beds for kids and adults who are coming down with serious cases of COVID-19," Dr. David Miller, president of University of Michigan Health, said Tuesday afternoon.

"What this means is that many people are not receiving potentially lifesaving care because Michigan Medicine and other hospitals are full. ... We're also greatly limited in our ability to accept patients and transfer from other hospitals across the state, again reducing access to highly specialized services available at Michigan Medicine.

"Our emergency department also continues to run at full capacity almost constantly. And this is not how we or anyone else wants to receive or deliver health care."

He urged people whose symptoms are not severe to seek treatment at urgent care centers or through their primary care doctors rather than going to hospital emergency rooms.

Mercy Health Muskegon is using a climate-controlled tent outside the west Michigan hospital to serve as a waiting room for the emergency department, which has been converted into clinical space to treat more patients.

Even as hospitals are seeing record numbers of patients, they're also grappling with medical workers who are contracting the virus. Thousands of health care workers statewide were off the job last week because they were infected or exposed to the virus.

"We've had 739 employees test positive for COVID-19 since Jan. 1," Miller said of Ann Arbor-based Michigan Medicine. "We're concerned about the impacts of staffing shortages for the well-being of both our patients and our team members."

Five federal medical relief teams have come to help hospitals in Dearborn, Wyandotte, Grand Rapids, Saginaw, and Muskegon to help manage the crush of COVID-19 patients, Hertel said, adding that the state is now distributing 200 ventilators from the National Strategic Stockpile while it also ramps up efforts to improve access to coronavirus tests.

Already some K-12 school districts are sending tests home with students, and soon, the state health department will distribute tests at public libraries.

"This surge is not like previous surges," Bagdasarian said. "We're expecting to see many, many more cases and what we want to prevent are many, many more hospitalizations and deaths."

The majority of patients hospitalized and those being treated in intensive care units with COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have yet to get a booster dose, she said.

"The people who are sickest with COVID, the people who are in ICUs (intensive care units) and on ventilators, it's much more likely that they are either unvaccinated or unboosted," she said. "So the role of vaccines and boosters is more important than ever to keep individuals from developing those severe complications."

The seven-day average of new daily cases topped 16,000 Monday, a pandemic record. The percentage of positive tests has topped 30% since New Year's Eve, and 4,674 people were admitted to hospitals statewide Monday with confirmed cases of the virus, another record. Of them, 94 were children.

"Hospitalizations of children have increased after last week's all-time highs," Hertel said.

While the majority of children who contract the virus fully recover and don't need hospitalization, "in this current COVID surge, we are experiencing the highest number of COVID-positive admissions to the hospital and the pediatric ICU," Dr. Lauren Yagiela, a pediatric critical care physician at Children’s Hospital of Michigan said Tuesday.

The sickest kids generally are hospitalized for treatment of three COVID-19-related conditions: life-threatening pneumonia, heart inflammation known as myocarditis and for the post-COVID complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome - children, Yagiela said.

"The children we have cared for with COVID pneumonia, COVID myocarditis and multi-system organ syndrome have often required a variety of medical treatments to help support their hearts and lungs when they are sick," Yagiela said.

Some children are so severely ill, they need ventilators or treatment with a heart-lung bypass machine, she said.

"My greatest wish is that a child or family never needs the medical care that I provide in the pediatric ICU," Yagiela said. "Vaccinating children 5 and older will help us achieve this."

Hertel said it's vital to keep kids in classrooms for in-person learning, despite the rapid spread of coronavirus among children and the state's population.

"If we can continue to make sure these kids are vaccinated as well as teachers, they are masking and following the protocols that have been laid out, then I think schools should safely remain in person if they can," Hertel said.

To keep schools open, the state health department recommends all K-12 schools adopt mask requirements for students and staff. Though state health leaders haven't issued a statewide school mask mandate, they updated quarantine and isolation guidelines Monday.

Those guidelines now mirror recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and include shorter quarantine and isolation periods, allowing students and school staff to return to classrooms sooner after an exposure to a person with the virus or a positive test.

Thirkell Elementary-Middle School students walk past students playing drums and a cheer team as they are released at the end of the day at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, before Detroit Public Schools pauses in-person learning due to the spike in COVID_19 cases.
Thirkell Elementary-Middle School students walk past students playing drums and a cheer team as they are released at the end of the day at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, before Detroit Public Schools pauses in-person learning due to the spike in COVID_19 cases.

The following are details of the new recommendations for K-12 students, teachers and school staff:

If you test positive but are asymptomatic: Isolate for five days, even if you do not have symptoms and regardless of your vaccination status to separate yourself from people who are not infected. Monitor for symptoms from the day of exposure through day 10. Return to school for days six to 10 with a mask.

If you are positive and symptomatic: Isolate at home for five days. If your symptoms have improved and you've been fever-free without the use of fever-reducing medications for at least 24 hours, you can return to school for days six to 10 with a mask.

Day “0” is day symptoms begin or day test was taken for students, teachers & staff who do not have symptoms.

If you are unwilling/unable to wear a mask and test positive: Stay home for 10 days and isolate from others.

If you were exposed to a person with COVID-19: You do not need to quarantine at home if you:

  • Had a confirmed case of COVID-19 within the last 90 days and/or

  • Are up to date on all the recommended COVID-19 vaccines. Being current on the vaccination series means having the second dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine in the last six months or a booster dose or a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine within the last two months.

However, people who were in close contact with a person with COVID should still monitor for symptoms and wear a mask around others for 10 days from the date of last exposure.

If symptoms develop, get tested immediately and isolate until receiving test results. If the test is positive, then follow isolation recommendations.

If symptoms do not develop, get tested at least five days after last exposed.

If possible, stay away from others in the home, especially people who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. And for the full 10 days after last exposure, avoid people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease, including those who live in nursing homes and other high-risk settings.

If you were exposed and are not current on vaccinations and have not had a coronavirus infection in the last 90 days: Quarantine for five days, and, if possible, test on day five. Wear a mask for 10 days.

Monitor for symptoms, and if symptoms develop, get tested immediately. Isolate until receiving test results. If test is positive, then follow isolation recommendations.

If symptoms do not develop, get tested at least five days after last exposed.

If possible, stay away from others in the home, especially people who are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. And for the full 10 days after last exposure, avoid people who are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe disease, including those who live in nursing homes and other high-risk settings.

Thirkell Elementary-Middle School principal Stephanie Gaines adjusts a student's mask as they are released at the end of the day at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, as Detroit Public Schools pause in-person learning due to the spike in COVID_19 cases.
Thirkell Elementary-Middle School principal Stephanie Gaines adjusts a student's mask as they are released at the end of the day at Thirkell Elementary-Middle School in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, as Detroit Public Schools pause in-person learning due to the spike in COVID_19 cases.

If you've been exposed to someone with the virus but are unwilling/unable to wear a mask: Quarantine for 10 days and watch for symptoms.

Another option for those who've been exposed to the virus is to called "Test to Stay," which involves testing every other day for six days following exposure and wearing a well-fitted mask around others for 10 days.

More: Outdoor tent serves as waiting room at Mercy Health Muskegon during COVID-19 surge

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The shorter isolation/quarantine guidelines for K-12 schools were met with opposition from Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools, a group of that has advocated for months for stricter pandemic regulations.

The organizers pointed to the state's own findings on the current surge and its impact on kids, along with the litany of K-12 school districts and universities that recently switched to virtual lessons.

“Our state is on fire because too many of those in power have not used that power to keep us from getting to this point,” said Kathleen Lucas, an Ottawa County parent, in a statement. “Our children and educators and our health care workers and those who need their care are suffering needlessly due to this dereliction of duty.”

The Whitmer administration has said K-12 mask requirements should be decided by local health departments and school districts, but confusion over seemingly threatening language in the state budget pushed at least some local authorities to rescind school mask mandates. Others have faced pushback from vocal parents and opponents of mask wearing who dispute the widely held scientific belief that masks prevent the spread of the virus.

“Stronger mitigation measures should be in place so that in-person school can be safely prioritized whenever possible. But, when too many staff are out sick it becomes impossible to keep students in an effective and safe learning environment," said Oakland County parent Nicole Kessler in a statement.

"A short-term pivot to distance learning is less disruptive than multiple substitutes in one day and last-minute cancellations.”

At no point during Tuesday's news conference did Hertel or Bagdasarian suggest statewide pandemic regulations, such as a K-12 school mask mandate, are being considered to slow the spread of the virus.

Instead, the health leaders relied on the same rhetoric used frequently in recent months by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration: asking people to use the tools available to slow the spread of COVID-19.

During a December media roundtable, Whitmer ridiculed the idea that politics or fear are driving her pandemic decisions. She said it was "total baloney" that an alleged kidnapping plot made her decide against future pandemic mandates — the health department issued sweeping rules in 2020 after indictments were announced — and added she's not making any of her decisions based on political fallout.

More: Michigan's top doctor talks COVID-19 disruptions, mask mandates, quarantine controversy

More: 'We are really at a breaking point,' Beaumont Health doctor says of COVID-19 surge

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the media about COVID-19 in Michigan after she joins a roundtable with local and federal leaders including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 to discuss the CHIPS Act at the UAW Region 1A Stephen P. Yokich Auditorium in Taylor.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the media about COVID-19 in Michigan after she joins a roundtable with local and federal leaders including U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 to discuss the CHIPS Act at the UAW Region 1A Stephen P. Yokich Auditorium in Taylor.

She also again suggested restrictions won't be effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

"Using blunt tools like closing sectors of our economy — I really, there's no evidence that that is going to dramatically change the decision of this small but still serious group of people that have not yet been vaccinated. That's who's filling up our hospitals. That's who continues to be a host to a virus that will continue to mutate. And that's where our focus has to be — getting people vaccinated and boosted," Whitmer said.

With such high transmission levels, it has been "challenging" for public health departments to contact every person who tests positive or who may have been exposed, said Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the state health department.

So public health departments are instead targeting the most vulnerable populations for contact tracing and outbreak identification. That includes people who live in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, group homes, jails and prisons, shelters and dormitories as well as schoolchildren.

The state health department plans a public education campaign related to help people understand the guidelines for isolation and quarantine so they know what to do if they are exposed, when they should seek testing, and when to seek medical care/therapeutics.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 1.68 million confirmed cases of the virus in Michigan and 27,878 deaths.

Eleven hospitals were at 100% capacity Monday with both COVID-19 patients and people with other medical conditions. They were: Ascension Borgess, Ascension St. Mary's, Beaumont Troy, Beaumont Trenton, Beaumont Wayne, Bronson South Haven, Holland Community Hospital, Promedica Coldwater, Sparrow, St. Joseph Mercy Hospital and Sturgis Hospital.

And additional 18 more were at 90% capacity or higher.

Staff writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: kshamus@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan's COVID-19 surge intensifies, could peak in late January

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