December brings Michigan's second most COVID-19 deaths

Sarah Rahal Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Michigan recorded the second most deaths attributed to the coronavirus in December, trailing only behind the peak of the pandemic in April.

The state added 4,222 cases and 51 deaths Wednesday, the final update for the year. In terms of the date the state reported deaths, December tallied 3,199 deaths, second only to April, which had 3,530.

As far as the actual date of the deaths, December totaled 2,612 as of Wednesday, second only to April at 3,745. The December tally will likely rise in the coming weeks as officials review more deaths and add them to the count.

Pastor Kiemba Knowlin, of Jackson Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, conducts the grave side service for Freddie Lee Brown, Jr. and his son Freddie Lee Brown, III, in the funeral home parking lot instead of the cemetery due to Coronavirus concerns. Both died from Covid-19.

The latest figures bring the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Michigan to 488,144 and deaths to 12,333 since the virus was first detected in March, according to tracking by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The state recorded 568 deaths last week, a decrease from 799 deaths the previous week, following a record of 808 deaths in mid-December. So far this week, the state recorded 304 deaths.

Cases continue to decrease for the fourth straight week. At the end of November, the state had established the weekly record of 50,892 cases.

Last week, Michigan recorded 18,417 cases last week, with an average of 2,447 new confirmed cases per day. That's compared to 30,587 cases two weeks ago, but it's too early to tell if the downward trend will continue, health officials say.

During the past two weeks of distribution, more than 71,000 people in the state have received the vaccine and nearly 500 clinics are scheduled for distribution in the upcoming weeks, said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Tuesday urged residents not to travel and celebrate the New Year's Day holiday responsibly.

"Studies have shown that these actions work," she said. "I encourage everyone to make a plan for you and your family to get the vaccine."

Lorenzo Seldon's wife Renaye Seldon, says a few words outside of Fisher Funeral Home before family and friends let loose a sky full of balloons in honor of her late husband who passed away due to Covid-19.

'Lowering their guard'

Wayne County Health Department Dr. Mouhanad Hammami said the majority of the county's 1,740 total deaths linked to the coronavirus are seniors older than 65 who had underlying health conditions. The deaths lagged who may have contracted it before December, he said.

"That coincided with the relaxation we saw in early June when people started lowering their guard," he said. "We are not seeing any increase in youth that are dying."

Hammami touted the restrictions set by the state health department saying it has shown "that we are able to manage the disease and it's not as severe in the population that are getting infected because we are seeing lower numbers in the elderly versus the youth."

Although some are experiencing "COVID fatigue," Hammami said, community members should remain as vigilant as if it were the peak of the pandemic.

"These mitigation measures that we know work (washing hands, wearing masks) are still as relevant as it is now," he said. "We now have a glimpse of hope with the new vaccine. People are questioning if they should take it or not, but that is the first line of defense in battling this pandemic."

During the week of Dec. 19, Michigan dropped from the 13-highest number of cases to the 15th-highest in the nation. The state continues to rank as the fifth-highest for the number of deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control's COVID data tracker.

Michigan ranks 24th in the nation for most hospitalizations and ninth for most patients in intensive care units, according to Becker's Hospital Review.

As of Tuesday, 2,881 adults were hospitalized statewide with confirmed or suspected COVID-19, including 649 in critical care and 390 on ventilators, with ICU beds at 73% capacity, according to state data. That's a 24% decrease in total hospitalizations from two weeks ago.

Khaldun said Tuesday she remains cautiously optimistic as the state's positivity rates have declined from 12% to 8.4%. The percentage has been declining for nearly 40 days but is still four times the rate from the beginning of September. A positivity rate above 3% is concerning to public health officials.

Two areas of the state, Saginaw and Jackson counties have a 10% positivity rate, the highest case rates in the state, Khaldun said.

When it comes to COVID-19 deaths in December, the 12-county Saginaw region reported the most per population of the state's eight economic recovery regions. The region reported 373 deaths in December, about 0.6 deaths for each 100,000 residents.

Active cases remain most prevalent in Wayne County, with 56,792 cases and additional 27,109 cases in Detroit. Oakland County has 60,147 cases, and Macomb has 48,885.

The state's case tracker also noted Genesse, Ingham, Kalamazoo, Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa and Washtenaw counties have high case rates.

"What we are seeing in the data, it is not a cause to celebrate... that progress is fragile," Khaldun said. "It only takes one gathering to spread through multiple households and close contacts."

Vaccines rolled out in phases

The vaccines will be rolled out in phases. The first priorities for vaccination in Michigan will be front-line healthcare workers and people living and working in long-term care facilities. 

Vaccine distribution began Monday for skilled nursing home residents and staff. The state health department has also partnered with Walgreen and CVS Pharmacies to widely distribute the virus when it's available, Whitmer said.

Khaldun said the general public should prepare to receive the vaccine by late spring.

"If we get more vaccines, we are going to be getting it into people's arms as quickly as we can," Khaldun said. "We do expect our case numbers and deaths to come down as the vaccine is distributed to the most vulnerable, those in healthcare facilities."

Whitmer has extended indoor dining restrictions through Jan. 15 while allowing reopening of casinos, bowling alleys, stadiums and permitting in-person learning at Michigan high schools as soon as Monday with restrictions. Capacity will be capped at 100 people for businesses, food and drink concessions must remain closed and social distancing must be observed.

Also on Tuesday, Whitmer signed a $106 million supplemental COVID-19 relief bill, but her line-item vetoes slashed more than three-quarters of the $465 million originally approved by the GOP-led Legislature.

The virus is blamed for more than 334,000 deaths and 19 million confirmed infections in the United States.

Officials are tracking at least 1,040 active outbreaks as of Dec. 23. Top categories for outbreaks continue to be long-term care facilities, including nursing homes as well as manufacturing and construction sites, retail and schools.

The state recorded seven additional school outbreaks Monday, adding to a list of 144 school outbreaks.

The state considers 318,389 people recovered from the virus as of Wednesday.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_