While COVID numbers level, experts cite rising C. auris concerns

·5 min read

Mar. 25—TRAVERSE CITY — COVID-19 numbers appear steady in Michigan, including in the northwest corner of the mitten.

Meanwhile, the fungus Candida auris is a growing point of concern in some parts of the country. The pathogen, which some have called a "superbug," has spread rapidly in the years since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, according to researchers. Hospital settings are particularly susceptible, experts say, although Munson Medical Center hasn't reported any cases of infection yet, said Dr. Walt Noble, chief medical officer at the medical center.

Still, trends seem promising on the coronavirus front, he said, especially as the year enters into spring, when respiratory illness rates tend to decline.

"People don't seem to be quite as ill," he said. "There aren't as many in the intensive care unit as we saw when we had the big surges back in fall of 2021. Now it's more that they are stabilized, they require some treatment, and most get better."

The entire Munson Healthcare system tends to see 10-15 patients per day in recent months, rather than the 20-30 seen earlier in the pandemic, he said.

In the seven-day period ending Tuesday, there were 25 new cases of COVID-19 in Grand Traverse County, according to data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The department reported 121 new cases over the past week in the state's Emergency Preparedness Region 7, which contains Grand Traverse and surrounding county. The entirety of that region runs from Manistee to Roscommon counties northward to Cheboygan and Emmet counties, plus Presque Isle, Montmorency and Alpena counties on the Lake Huron side. It was hovering at about that same rate one week prior, at 124, and was only slightly more elevated three weeks ago, when there were 139 new cases.

Those figures represent both confirmed and suspected cases.

As of Tuesday, weekly COVID cases were at 4,191 statewide. That's two-thirds what they were a week prior, and the lowest they've been since July 2021.

Noble attributed the leveling off to several factors.

The current variants are less virulent than previous mutations of the virus, including the omicron variant from late 2021. Most people in the community are more resistant to infection now, as well. A majority of people in the region have received at least one dose of the vaccination. Those who haven't still have some built-up immunity as a result of prior infections, he said.

Plus, as the weather warms up, people are likely to spend more of their time outside, meaning less exposure to the indoor viruses that commonly cause respiratory infections, Noble said.

Northern Michigan saw a slight escalation in transmission rates late fall and early winter. One week in mid-December, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported 14,323 new cases of COVID-19, nearly double what it had been in November. At that time, Munson Healthcare reported roughly 25 patients throughout their system with COVID.

Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, saw bumps in the late fall and winter, but those have now leveled off, too, Noble said.

"That's all good news," he said.

That doesn't mean the risk is completely mitigated, and COVID deaths still occur, he added.

Currently, the highest risk counties in Michigan are up north. According to the MDHHS, Alcona, Delta, Luce, Monroe, Montmorency, Presque Isle and Schoolcraft counties were all at medium-risk level at the start of this week. Alger, Alpena and Marquette counties are at "high" risk.

And health officials throughout the nation are now watching for the spread of C. auris.

The Centers for Disease Control says cases of the fungus have risen each year since it was identified in 2016. The most rapid increase has occurred following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with clinical cases tripling nationally from 476 to 1,471 between 2019 and 2021. As of the start of this week, there were a total of 3,270 clinical cases and 7,413 screening cases reported.

Screening cases occur when doctors identify that a patient is carrying the fungus, but has not become infected, according to the CDC.

"The rapid rise and geographic spread of cases is concerning and emphasizes the need for continued surveillance, expanded lab capacity, quicker diagnostic tests, and adherence to proven infection prevention and control," said CDC epidemiologist Dr. Meghan Lyman, in a press release.

The timing could suggest that the recent increase could be attributed, in part, to the strain on healthcare and public health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC.

So far, there have been 35 cases in Michigan, the CDC reports.

The fungus doesn't pose a major threat to healthy people, but it's potentially life-threatening to those with weakened immune systems — especially those in the hospital.

"Our most vulnerable patients are the ones that you worry about the most," Noble said.

That's due in large part to the fact that fungal pathogens, like those in the Candida genus, are quick to develop multi-drug resistance, he said.

"We're always careful with (vulnerable patients) to do everything we can — always following our universal precautions — to prevent any spread of those infections," Noble said. "(We're) just fortunate we haven't seen it yet in our communities."

Report for America corps member and data journalist William T. Perkins' reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Record-Eagle and Report for America, a journalism service project founded by the nonprofit Ground Truth Project. Generous community support helps fund a local share of the Record-Eagle/RFA partnership. To support RFA reporters in Traverse City, go to www.record-eagle.com/rfa.