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Michigan shatters weekly COVID-19 case record for 5th week in a row

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

For the fifth consecutive week, Michigan shattered its weekly COVID-19 case record with a total of 44,019, as a major surge of coronavirus infections spread across the country.

The state added 7,072 cases and 65 deaths from the novel virus Saturday.

A chunk of the record was added Friday when the state saw 118 virus-related deaths and a new daily record of 8,516 new cases of COVID-19. 

Friday and Saturday's death count included 119 older deaths that were confirmed as COVID-related during a review of vital records, state health officials said. These deaths might have occurred days or weeks ago.

Tyler Spencer administers a COVID-19 test at the Booker Dozier Recreation Complex as part of a partnership with the Wayne County Health Department in Inkster on Saturday, November 14, 2020.

Michigan's new cases have been doubling every two- to two-and-a-half weeks. The previous weekly high of confirmed cases was set last week at 29,614.

Single-day spikes in COVID cases have sometimes been attributed to a backlog in labs processing tests, but the state was not aware of any backlog that resulted in Friday's large number of new cases being reported.

"Unfortunately, this is a continuation of the very concerning spike in cases, deaths and hospitalizations," Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan health department, said Friday.

"We continue to ask people to wear masks, physically distance, wash their hands frequently and avoid indoor gatherings with people from outside their households."

The new additions bring the state's total of confirmed cases to251,813 since the virus was first detected in Michigan in March, according to tracking by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The state's seven-day average for daily cases is 5,526 through Friday.

The death toll stands at 7,929 but rises to 8,376 when probable deaths are counted. Michigan’s daily record for deaths was reached onApril 16 with 164.

Deaths stayed near single digits each day from July through September but spiked again with 10 to 18 per day in early October. Deaths have been trending upward this month, with 43 on Nov. 3, 65 Saturday, 84 Tuesday and 118 on Friday.

Hospitalizations of virus patients in Michigan are up more than five-fold over six weeks, officials say. Health care leaders are projecting that the state will exceed the spring hospitalization peak late this month.

About 3,220 adults were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 Friday, including over 660 in critical care, compared with 999 COVID inpatients a month ago on Oct. 13, according to state data.

Across the state, Michigan has just under 24,000 hospital inpatient beds. Over 78%, or 18,470, of those beds were filled as of Thursday, according to data reported to the state by 88% of hospital systems. Intensive care beds were at 81% capacity, according to the reporting hospitals.

Unlike the spring surge, which was concentrated in southeast Michigan, this escalation is spread across the state. Nearly 11% of COVID tests run in the state are coming back positive. A positivity rate above 3% is concerning to public health officials.

"There's no area of the state that is spared," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical officer, on Thursday. 

The surge in cases extends beyond Michigan to the rest of the nation, and in most geographies, the spikes are due to more infections, not just more testing, as there are also substantial increases in hospitalizations and deaths, said epidemiologist Stephen E. Hawes.

"In many settings, hospitals are again at or near capacity," said Hawes, who chairs the epidemiology department at the University of Washington.

The causes of the recent surge are most likely multifaceted including fatigue of mask-wearing and social distancing, weather that's restricting outdoor activities and forcing more people inside, as well as non-unified messaging and policies by elected officials at national and local levels, Hawes said. 

He noted many states are instituting new restrictions including New Mexico, New York and Oregon, and recommendations in such places as Washington and California, in addition to urging people to change their behavior.

"The best approaches to prevention remain mask-wearing, social distancing, limiting the number of interactions with others, and hygiene practices like handwashing," Hawes said.

Earlier this week, Pfizer Inc. announced its two-dose COVID-19 vaccine was found 90% effective in partial results of Phase 3 clinical trials.

"The vaccine results from Pfizer are hopeful, and a vaccine is desperately needed, but we are still months away from mass vaccination in our country, even if these preliminary efficacy findings are confirmed," Hawes said.

On Thursday, chief executives of five major hospital systems across Michigan tried to wake up the public to the "exponential" rate of infection spread as patients fill up emergency rooms and hospital beds.

The hospital leaders pleaded with community members to help stem the spread by wearing masks, washing their hands, practicing social distancing and staying away from large social gatherings so medical centers don't become overrun with patients.

"The health care system can capsize if you don't keep it under control," Beaumont Health CEO John Fox said. 

The state was tracking 747 active outbreaks as of Thursday, which is the highest number since health officials started tracking outbreaks and 25% more than a week ago, Khaldun said.

Top categories for outbreaks continue to be long-term care settings, such as nursing homes, manufacturing facilities and schools, but health officials are also seeing increases in the numbers of outbreaks in healthcare settings and in restaurants and bars, she said.

Khaldun cautioned the state's contact-tracing system is "strained" right now due to the sheer volume of cases.

"While our local health departments are doing their best, as they have been doing all year, the system is simply not keeping up. It, too, has limited capacity," Khaldun said.

"Because there are now so many positive cases, and those cases, each have so many contacts, it is taking longer for us to reach all of them. This means that there may be people walking around who are a close contact with a positive case, and they don't even know it."

She said fewer than a third of positive cases the state is investigating were in quarantine at the time of their diagnosis, meaning over two-thirds of positive cases are out and about, potentially spreading the virus to others. 

"I know people are tired of living like this, but we really have to double down. This pandemic will eventually end, but we have to do what it takes to avoid as many infections and deaths as possible," Khaldun said.

"We are potentially looking, looking at some of the deadliest, most grim days of this entire pandemic ahead of us if we do not collectively change our behavior."

srahal@detroitnews.com 

Twitter: @SarahRahal_