Health experts: Stay vigilant despite dip in Michigan's weekly virus cases

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

After six consecutive weeks of record COVID-19 cases, Michigan saw a slight retreat this week, posting 47,316 confirmed cases.

Despite the decrease in cases, epidemiologists are cautioning people to not get comfortable and continue to practice social distancing, mask-wearing and good hygiene and stay inside their household bubble. They are expecting another surge after families and friends gathered for Thanksgiving and are likely to do so heading into Christmas.

"The numbers are lagging," said Teena Chopra, professor of infectious diseases at Wayne State University. "We're not going to start seeing the real picture until next week. I know people have had family over who are outside of their bubble."

Although travel dropped by half, some 3 million people passed through U.S. airport checkpoints ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Meanwhile, there is a roughly 13% positivity rate, Chopra said: "That is really worrisome. We think it will get much, much higher, and there will be a surge heading into Christmas."

Last week the state had 50,892 new cases, the sixth record week in a row for confirmed infections. It had 44,019 new cases the week before.

On Saturday, Michigan also added 103 deaths linked to the virus. The deaths include 70 identified during a vital records review.

The retreat from the weekly case record is good news and may indicate that people are taking more precautions, said Joseph Eisenberg, professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. Testing levels continue to remain high.

"I think we're seeing a lot more consistent messaging ... and people are starting to be a little more careful," he said, noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had called on Americans to not travel for the holiday.

Likewise, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services last week placed new orders to limit the spread of COVID-19, including closing theaters, casinos and indoor dining at restaurants and bars.

"We know it's the indoor activities with large numbers of people that really result in a lot of cases," Eisenberg said. "These tend to be less traceable."

When the more-stringent restrictions were put into place this spring, cases "dropped like a stone," said Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Southfield-based Beaumont Health.

The decrease "might be an early indication the new policy is working," he said, adding it also could be there were fewer tests taken than last week because of the holiday.

"People know what they need to do and should do it," Sims said. "It's nice to be with friends and family, but it's not nice to make them sick."

The state reported 11,511 cases for Sunday and Monday, 6,290 on Tuesday, 4,273 on Wednesday and 17,162 for Thursday and Friday. 

Saturday's additions bring the state's total of confirmed cases to 350,021 and deaths to 9,036 since the virus was first detected in Michigan in March, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Pending regulatory approval, Michigan is slated to receive several hundred thousand doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine that will ship before the end of the year, health officials said Wednesday.

Shipments could be received by Henry Ford as early as Dec. 12, hospital officials said. Five of its hospitals are preparing to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in mid-December as two promising vaccines await approval, the one from Pfizer and another from Moderna.

Michigan has the fifth-highest number of cases and the fourth-highest number of deaths in the nation, in the last seven days, according to the CDC's COVID data tracker.

It also has the seventh-highest hospitalization rate and sixth-highest number of COVID patients in the ICU, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

More than 17.5% of available inpatient beds are filled with COVID patients and state trends for hospitalizations for COVID continue to increase for the past six weeks, according to health department data.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced wide-ranging new restrictions to combat what she described as the "worst moment" yet in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ordered a temporary pause on in-person learning for high schools and colleges, suspension of in-person dining at restaurants and bars, and the closure of bowling alleys, movie theaters and casinos.

Under the order, effective through Dec. 8, indoor residential gatherings are limited to two households at any one time.

Child care centers, hair salons, retail shops and preschool through eighth-grade schools are still be allowed to operate. Parks and outdoor recreation areas will continue to be open, and gatherings of up to 25 people can take place at funerals. Restaurants can offer take-out and outdoor dining, while gyms and pools can be open for individual exercise.

Michigan's new cases have been doubling every two- to two-and-a-half weeks. 

Michigan’s daily record for deaths was reached on April 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 on Nov. 7, 84 on Nov. 10, 118 on Nov. 13 and 145 Tuesday.

The state department is tracking wastewater surveillance is being conducted in 37 counties throughout Michigan, in both the upper and lower peninsulas. There are approximately 270 testing sites, which include wastewater treatment plants and congregate facilities, such as jails, long-term care facilities, K-12 schools, universities, child care facilities and group homes.

The virus can be detected in wastewater for up to seven days. Officials believe monitoring wastewater can provide an early indication for the presence of the disease in the community before critical illnesses occur.

Health care leaders are projecting that the state will exceed the spring hospitalization peak late this month.

About 3,709 adults were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 and another 343 with suspected cases on Tuesday, compared with 999 COVID inpatients a month earlier on Oct. 13, according to state data.

Across the state, Michigan has just under 24,000 hospital inpatient beds. More than 77%, or 18,510, of those beds were filled as of Tuesday, according to data reported to the state by 88% of hospital systems. Intensive care beds were at 80% 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.

"The situation has never been more dire," Whitmer said last week. "We are at the precipice, and we need to take some action."

The surge in cases comes as drugmakers are reporting encouraging results in trials of vaccines.

Moderna Inc. said its vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective, according to preliminary data from an ongoing study. AstraZeneca said Monday that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. 

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble