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Michigan reports uptick in new COVID-19 cases, 5 deaths

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan reported five coronavirus deaths and its largest single-day case tally since May, with 323 cases of COVID-19 confirmed Wednesday.

The state has seen an uptick in known cases of COVID-19 during the past week, with the average number of new cases growing to 223 a day, up from an average of 145 a day for the previous seven days, according to state data. 

The plateau of new cases comes amid spikes of new infections in over two dozen states around the country. Over 34,000 new cases were reported nationally Tuesday, which was the highest daily total since April 23, according to tracking by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services attributed the bump in Michigan infections to increases in coronavirus testing and to clusters of outbreaks in different parts of the state.

The trends in Michigan prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to pump the brakes on plans to move Michigan to the next step of reopening this week, telling WWJ-AM (950) that cases emerging in some areas of the state are worrying.

"Right now, the numbers in most parts of the state have continued to look strong. But there are a few blips that we are keeping our eye very close on," Whitmer told the radio station in an interview broadcast Tuesday.

"My hope was to move the rest of the state into Phase 5 by 4th of July. My hope was to do it this week. We're not going to do it this week. … We're not in a position to do that yet. We've got to get more data. Because we are concerned.”

A Whitmer spokeswoman said Wednesday that the governor was simply saying the move to Phase 5 isn’t happening this week.

"She didn’t rule out a move by July 4, as she has previously said. We will continue to watch the data," spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

Epidemiologist Stephen E. Hawes suspects the governor is aware of patterns of ”greatly increased” COVID-19 cases occurring in a number of states that correlate strongly with policies of reopening, which have resulted in a reduction in social distancing, and hence an increased potential for COVID-19 transmission.  

Hawes, who chairs the epidemiology department at the University of Washington, notes that more than 10 states have experienced record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases in the last week.  

“From a public health perspective, it's best to be cautious with reopening and to learn from the experiences of other states, and to be proactive by slowing reopening plans as opposed to being reactive to new outbreaks, which would be predicted to occur as a result of relaxing policies,” he said.

The number of new cases had been dropping for four straight weeks in Michigan, but the increase in recent days halted that trend. Wednesday's daily caseload was the first confirmed count above 300 since June 3.

In addition to the 323 new cases confirmed Wednesday, the state health department also reported 35 presumptive cases of COVID-19. 

"The state as a whole looks like it is hitting a plateau with the decrease slowing down. This is reflecting the fact that there are a number of smaller outbreaks in individual counties that have happened this week," said Emily Toth Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

"Luckily, these are all situations that were identified early. I'm hopeful that we can still keep the state as a whole from increasing by continuing to find and contain these individual outbreaks."

The state Department of Health and Human Services highlighted 34 cases tied to Harper's Restaurant in East Lansing in Ingham County, as well as outbreaks at farms in Barry and Lapeer counties.

Department spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin also said Bay City saw a recent jump in cases related to contractors from out of state who came to work on flood restoration in Midland, she said. 

"We do know that there are several locations in the state where there have been clusters of illness in defined groups of people with common exposures (East Lansing, Bay County, Barry County) and there has also been increases in testing. Both of these can contribute to increased reports," Sutfin said.

"We continue to work with our local health department colleagues to identify cases of infection and their contacts in an effort to break existing chains of transmission."

Public health officials in St. Joseph County in southwest Michigan have flagged a rise in cases, which are up 29% in the last two weeks to 229 cases as of Wednesday and 13 probable cases.

"Folks, we are losing to this virus right now," St. Joseph Health Officer Rebecca Burns said in a message to community leaders, urging people to wear masks in public and to avoid congregating in groups.

"The last thing we want St. Joseph County to be known for is as the new hot spot in Michigan."

State health officials are reminding Michiganians to "remain vigilant" in washing their hands, covering coughs and sneezes appropriately, wearing a mask, social distancing and staying home if they are ill.

"All of these actions will help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our state," Sutfin added. 

To date, the state has tallied 68,555 known cases of COVID-19, including 6,602 probable cases, since the disease was first detected in Michigan in March. 

Testing was up 52% Tuesday over Monday to 16,161 from 10,616 diagnostic tests. The bump is due to increased testing in nursing homes and to the pop-up drive-thru testing sites that have been held each week in different locations, Sutfin said.

Hospitalizations statewide in Michigan due to COVID-19 are flat, as is the percentage of those testing positive for the virus (about 2%). 

Hospitals reported 345 inpatients with COVID as of Tuesday, including 197 in critical care and 124 on ventilators. That's compared with 343 inpatients a week ago, including 210 in critical care and 131 on ventilators. 

The state's death toll from the disease now stands at 6,114, including 246 probable deaths.

Wednesday's new deaths included four confirmed deaths and one probable death, which is an individual who never tested positive but whose death certificate listed COVID-19 as a cause of death.

COVID Act Now, a website tracking the spread of the coronavirus, had said last week that Michigan was among the three states nationally "on track to contain" the virus, in addition to New York and New Jersey. The three states were among the hardest hit this spring.

The site this week revised Michigan's rating down to "controlled disease growth," citing "insufficient" contact tracing staff to trace all new cases within 48 hours before too many other people are infected.

But the team of epidemiologists and public health experts leading the site still consider the total number of cases to be shrinking in Michigan, where the data show that each person with COVID-19 is infecting fewer than one (0.78) other person. 

mburke@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.