Michigan sees 'encouraging signs' as COVID-19 rates drop below neighboring states

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan is seeing "encouraging signs" in its battle against COVID-19, the state's top epidemiologist said Wednesday, pointing to improvement in key metrics following a spike in cases last month.

Michigan's new case numbers, percentage of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results and hospitalizations are all trending downward, according to state data. The state's rate of new COVID-19 cases has been declining for 29 days, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the state's Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, during a briefing two days before Christmas.

Michigan had the fifth-lowest rate of new cases per 100,000 residents nationally over the past seven days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday afternoon. Among states in the Midwest, Michigan had the lowest rate.

Sarah Lyon-Callo

Tracking data showed many people in Michigan stayed home and practiced social distancing during Thanksgiving last month, Lyon-Callo said.

"It will be important during this holiday season, as well, and New Year's Eve, to ensure we're maintaining that social distancing. That will be very important," she said. "We're going to be watching these data throughout the holiday season to determine if we're going to see any sort of case resurgence."

In November, Michigan saw a jump in COVID-19 infections that left some hospitals at or near capacity. During the week of Nov. 15-21, the state reported 50,892 new cases of the virus — its largest weekly total so far.

During the week of Nov. 29-Dec. 5, 14% of Michigan's COVID-19 tests brought positive results, the highest weekly positivity rate since the initial wave in the spring. On Dec. 1, hospitalizations of those with the virus reached 3,884.

But the metrics have declined in recent weeks as officials nationally have raised alarms and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration has imposed new restrictions on public gatherings.

On Nov. 18, Whitmer's administration closed movie theaters, casinos and bowling alleys and suspended in-person instruction at high schools and colleges and indoor dining at restaurants to combat the surge.

A slide presented by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services shows a downward trend in hospitalizations of those with COVID-19. The slide was provided on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.

Last week, the state reported its lowest weekly new case total, 28,072, and lowest weekly rate of COVID-19 tests with positive results, about 10%, since the end of October.

This week, 36 of Michigan's 83 counties are seeing positivity rates of 10% or more, down 25 counties from the week before, Lyon-Callo said. As of Tuesday, the state reported 2,830 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of the virus, down 23% from the total two weeks earlier.

Ruthanne Sudderth, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, said medical centers are feeling cautiously optimistic about capacity.

"As we approach Christmas, we are happy to have seen COVID hospitalizations continue to flatten and even decline over the last week," Sudderth said. "While staffing remains a challenge for many hospitals, the current downward trend in daily confirmed cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates are encouraging.

"We urge people to avoid gathering with multiple households this Christmas and New Year and to continue wearing a mask when in public or in the presence of anyone you don’t live with."

Likewise, Lyon-Callo cautioned Wednesday that some countries in Europe brought their case numbers down from a second surge only to see them increase again. Michigan doesn't want to follow that pattern, she said.

While case and hospitalizations rates are dropping in neighboring states, where some Michiganians might travel this holiday, they generally have not fallen as low as Michigan's.

According to CDC data, Michigan has averaged 37.9 new cases per day per 100,000 residents over the past seven days. Indiana's rate is 79. Ohio's is 70.5. Wisconsin's 54.1. And Illinois's 53.9.

During a press briefing Wednesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said his state's infection levels remain "very elevated."

"It’s everywhere," he said. "It’s permeated every single county."

Likewise, in Michigan, there are high rates of new cases in various counties across the state. The Thumb and Great Lakes Bay region is currently experiencing the highest rate of new cases per population.

During December, Huron, Saginaw and Bay counties are among the top 10 counties in Michigan for new cases per population. Three counties that border Indiana are also among the top 10: Cass, Branch and Hillsdale.

Ann Hepfer, the health officer for Huron and Tuscola counties, said infection rates are coming down, but there's concern that people will gather and travel for Christmas, causing another surge in infection rates.

"Many people do not believe in the science of wearing masks, or following the gathering guidelines," Hepfer said. "They believe (the virus) is no more harmful than influenza. The science proves otherwise. We do not normally experience hospitals at 90-95% capacity when influenza outbreaks occur, but we do with COVID-19."

While Whitmer has loosened restrictions on in-person instruction and casinos, bowling alleys and movie theaters, the suspension of in-person dining at restaurants remains in place through Jan. 15.

On Tuesday, the governor said she was "hopeful" that her administration will be able to take "more aggressive steps" to lift restrictions on some Michigan businesses after Jan. 1.

"We're hopeful that Michiganders do what we did over Thanksgiving, didn't travel as much, didn't gather as much, didn't contribute to as much spread," Whitmer said. "And if that's the case, we could take more aggressive steps to reengage right after the first of the year."

Michigan has confirmed 469,928 cases of COVID-19 and 11,775 related deaths since the virus was first detected in March, according to tracking by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

cmauger@detroitnews.com