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Michigan reaches 100,000 COVID-19 cases, a 'disheartening' milestone

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Michigan has now confirmed more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19, a milestone that points to the wide-ranging and continued reach of a virus that's taken lives and disrupted livelihoods over the past six months.

The state reported 741 new cases on Friday, bringing the overall total of confirmed infections to 100,699, about 170 days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the first instances of the virus in Oakland and Wayne counties on March 10. There were six deaths to bring the six-month total to 6,446 fatalities.

The virus has since moved across the state, reaching from bustling Metro Detroit to the most western portions of the rural Upper Peninsula. Outbreaks have hit college towns and nursing homes. The spread could have been limited if residents more closely followed the guidance of health officials, medical experts said this week.

"It is a very disappointing milestone," said Dr. Teena Chopra, an infectious disease professor at Wayne State University. "It only goes to show that despite repeated warnings and the higher mortality that we saw in Detroit, we still put our guard down."

COVID-19 testing takes place at a Sparrow drive-thru location in Lansing on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020.

In interviews this week, Chopra and other public health experts said the 100,000 case total could have been avoided if residents had universally followed recommendations on social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing.

But they also emphasized the continued threat of the virus this fall as temperatures drop, people move more gatherings indoors and schools reopen.

Chopra said she's still seeing patients who are battling the ravaging effects of COVID-19, which often attacks the lungs and damages kidneys. She referenced one patient in their 40s and another in their 50s who have had long stays in the intensive care unit.

"This virus is very unforgiving," she said.

Since March 10, Michigan has reported more than 6,445 deaths linked to COVID-19. But the spread of the virus has resulted in an economic recession as government restrictions forced businesses to close and laid-off employees to file record unemployment claims.

While hospitalizations and deaths have dropped in recent months, the virus is still moving across Michigan as hundreds of new cases are confirmed each day. One health official described it as a slowly spreading wave.

It's hit large cities such as Detroit, which was viewed as the early epicenter, and rural communities like Oceana County, a 26,000-person area along Lake Michigan that has the highest number of cases per 1,000 residents.

Michigan is doing "far better" than other states on new COVID-19 new cases and deaths, Whitmer said in a Friday statement.

"Michigan has shown the rest of the country what it means to take aggressive action against COVID-19, but our work is far from over. The COVID-19 pandemic is still a very real threat to our families, our brave frontline workers, and our economy."

The path of the virus

Whitmer announced Michigan's first cases of the coronavirus on March 10, the night of the state's presidential primary election.

"The coronavirus has the potential to impact our lives in nearly every aspect of our lives," the governor said on March 10, speaking from Michigan State Police headquarters.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces the state's first two cases of coronavirus, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Michigan State Police headquarters in Windsor Township, Mich.

The state's first cases were in Oakland and Wayne counties, Michigan's two largest counties and the ones that were hit hardest by the virus in the early weeks of its spread.

As of April 10 — a month after the first cases were announced — 79% of Michigan's 22,783 cases and 85% of the 1,281 deaths were in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne counties.

But the virus has since hit regions outside of Metro Detroit. Through this week, 45% of the state's cases were outside of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties with counties in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula experiencing among the largest rates of growth compared to population.

There have been outbreaks tied to farms, nursing homes and bars, like Harper's near Michigan State University in Ingham County, to which health officials linked about 200 COVID-19 cases in July.

An 'avoidable' milestone?

The rural western Upper Peninsula experienced surges in cases in late July and early August as the virus spread across the state line with Wisconsin and into Michigan.

The three counties that have experienced the most new cases per 1,000 residents in Michigan during August are all near the border with Wisconsin: Gogebic, Menominee and Ontonagon.

Cases in Gogebic and Ontonagon have peaked and declined, while cases in Menominee are plateauing, said Robert Van Howe, medical director for the Western U.P. Health Department.

Van Howe described the crawl of COVID-19 across Michigan as a "a wave that's spreading slowly but surely."

"It’s unfortunate that we had to get there," Van Howe said of reaching the 100,000-case milestone.

Asked about Dr. Chopra's belief that the 100,000-case milestone was "avoidable," Van Howe said he agreed "completely."

In the western Upper Peninsula, there are still people who don't believe in wearing masks and who won't cooperate with contact-tracing efforts to identify individuals who might have come in contact with someone with COVID-19, he said.

"I don’t know why some people just don’t want to pull together," Van Howe added.

Changing demographics

As testing for COVID-19 has expanded and the virus' geographic path has changed so have the demographics of the infected.

As of May 10, about 42% of the state's confirmed cases were individuals under the age of 50. As of Tuesday, about 55% of the confirmed cases were those younger than 50.

The Saginaw County Health Department has been touting the "3 Ws": washing your hands, wearing a mask and watching your distance.

Individuals under 30 now comprise 38% of Macomb County's cases, said William Ridella, director of the Macomb County Health Department. Early on in the spring, that age group comprised 24% of the county's cases, he said.

"Based on our case investigations and contact tracing efforts, many of these cases are the result of events and gatherings where people fail to take appropriate precautions to help stop the spread of COVID-19," Ridella said. "We need everyone to make informed decisions on the type of events or gatherings they attend, and socialize responsibly by wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and washing their hands frequently. 

"Currently, these are the critical tools we have to break the chain of transmission.”

Christina Harrington, health officer for the Saginaw County Health Department, has noticed the trend in her county of about 190,000 residents, where there's been a higher percentage of cases among people in their 20s.

In August, Macomb County has had the fourth most new cases per population in Michigan, and Saginaw County has had the fifth most.

Saginaw County saw its rate of new cases begin to increase about two weeks after the Fourth of July holiday as social events and gatherings took place, Harrington said.

The county has launched a campaign focused on the "three W's": "Wear your mask, watch your distance and wash your hands."

"Those interventions can break the transmission cycle," Harrington said. "If I’ve got it and I don’t leave the house, then I can’t give it to anybody else."

It's "disheartening" to see the state's case total hit 100,000, she said.

Fears of what's ahead

Among public health officials, disappointment about the 100,000-case milestone was coupled this week with concern for what's coming as the season changes.

Respiratory illnesses tend to circulate more in the winter, Harrington noted. The seasonal flu soon will begin showing up in the state as well.

Whitmer and Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, announced a campaign Tuesday to encourage Michiganians to get their flu shots.  They said a greater vaccination rate would be needed to avoid a merger of flu and COVID-19 cases at hospitals later this year.

"There is a need for us to preserve our hospital resources," Khaldun said. 

The fall and winter bring together the challenges of people spending more time gathering indoors and schools reopening, said Chopra, the Wayne State professor.

"We have to expect that there will be outbreaks," she said.

cmauger@detroitnews.com