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Upper Peninsula moves to forefront in Michigan's COVID-19 fight

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The seven counties in Michigan with the most new COVID-19 cases per population over the last three weeks are all located in the Upper Peninsula, a rural region that's become the new focal point in the state's battle against the virus.

The Upper Peninsula has about 3% of the state's population, but over the last three weeks, it's been home to about 10% of the state's newly confirmed coronavirus cases, according to a Detroit News analysis.

"We’ve got a lot of cases, and they keep going up," said Dr. Robert Van Howe, who serves as the interim medical director for the Western U.P. Health Department.

Michigan Technological University

Over the three last weeks, the Upper Peninsula has reported 54 new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, according to state data. In comparison, the nine-county Detroit region established by state officials has reported 13 new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents.

The Upper Peninsula counties leading Michigan in cases per population over the last three weeks are Iron, Delta, Houghton, Menominee, Dickinson, Keweenaw and Baraga.

The seven Upper Peninsula counties experiencing large jumps in cases per population have also reported 24 new deaths linked to the virus over the last three weeks, according to state data. They had reported eight total as of Sept. 15.

Hospitals in the region are seeing increases in bed occupancy, and some are cutting back on elective procedures to help with capacity, Van Howe said in an interview Monday.

A combination of factors appears to be at play in the spread of virus in the Upper Peninsula, including cases at Michigan Technological University in Houghton and a surge across the state line in Wisconsin that's reaching into Michigan.

State officials have voiced concerns because it would take a smaller uptick in the region than others to cause hospital capacity problems.

Michigan Technological University, which has about 7,200 students, reported 50 positive tests in the previous 14 days, according to its tracking. It's located in Houghton County, which has gone from 183 confirmed cases on Sept. 15 to 583 confirmed cases on Tuesday, according to state data.

Houghton County, which has a population of about 36,200, ranks third among Michigan's 83 counties for new cases per population over the last three weeks.

The top county, Iron, borders Wisconsin. On Tuesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers issued an emergency order to limit public gatherings to no more than 25% of a room or building’s total occupancy.

In the press release announcing the move, Evers said his state is "in a crisis right now" and needed to "immediately change our behavior to save lives." The number of confirmed cases in Iron County has gone from 49 on Sept. 15 to 254 on Tuesday, meaning the total quintupled in three weeks, according to state data.

Wisconsin reported an increase of 2,020 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and a seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases of 2,346, up from 836 one month ago, according to the governor's office in the state. In comparison, Michigan, which has a larger population, added 903 new cases Tuesday.

"We are continuing to experience a surge in cases and many of our hospitals are overwhelmed, and I believe limiting indoor public gatherings will help slow the spread of this virus," Evers said in a statement.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer referenced the situation in Wisconsin on Tuesday, saying state officials can't let their guard down.

"They did that in Wisconsin," Whitmer said. "Wisconsin is now a national hot spot. And you can see what's happening in the Upper Peninsula. Some of it could be because of what's going on in Wisconsin."

Some of the spread in the Upper Peninsula also could be because people "dropped their guard," Whitmer said.

The trends in the Upper Peninsula have already spurred actions to try to stem the spread. Michigan Technological University moved in-person, lecture-based classes online for two weeks on Sept. 27. 

"This transition is a targeted effort to mitigate further spread among our community at large by temporarily reducing the density of people on campus,” President Rick Koubek said.

Likewise, on Friday — before the Michigan Supreme Court struck down her emergency powers — Whitmer signed an executive order to move the Upper Peninsula back to Phase 4 of the state's reopening plan, which would require people who can perform work remotely to do so and schools to enforce mask-wearing in classrooms. The region had been in Phase 5 since June 10.

Michigan is seeing an increase in the number of people going to emergency departments with coronavirus-like symptoms in the Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Jackson and Upper Peninsula regions, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, said Monday. But the highest number of emergency department visits for coronavirus-like symptoms is occurring in the Upper Peninsula, she said.

As of Tuesday, the state reported 28 adults hospitalized in the Upper Peninsula with COVID-19. A month ago, in early September, there were fewer than 10.

The Michigan Health and Hospital Association is monitoring data to see if statewide data showing an increase in hospitalizations is temporary or "a sign of another sustained COVID-19 patient surge," said John Karasinski, spokesman for the association.

"The biggest concern right now is the significant growth in cases in northern Michigan, which seem largely tied to university-related spread," he said. "That region has fewer hospitals and beds available, and we urge the public in those areas to be extra vigilant in preventing COVID-19."

Most hospitals have capacity and intensive care unit beds available as of Tuesday, Karasinski said.

The top county outside the region for new cases per population is Ingham, where there's been an outbreak of cases among Michigan State University students.

Michigan's known caseload now stands at 129,826 since the virus was first detected in March. The death tally stands at 6,838, according to tracking by the state Department of Health and Human Services. When probable cases are included, Michigan's total rises to 142,726 cases and 7,239 deaths.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Associated Press contributed.