Medical exec Khaldun: Michigan still 'at risk' despite vaccinations

Craig Mauger Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan remains "at risk" of spikes in COVID-19 infections despite ballooning vaccination rates, the state's Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun said Wednesday as key metrics paint diverging pictures for the future of the virus. 

On Wednesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services disclosed 0 new deaths in its daily release of coronavirus statistics, the first time since Aug. 7 — 222 days ago — with no deaths tallied in the daily report. Also, the state's vaccination efforts are gaining steam with more than 3.2 million doses administered.

But Michigan reported 3,164 new cases Wednesday, the highest daily infection total in more than two months. Case rates, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests with positive results — measurements that health officials have been watching closely throughout the pandemic — have been increasing for three weeks, spurring concerns among public health experts.

Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun speaks during a Jan. 13, 2021 press conference in Lansing. Khaldun warned the state is still at risk for rising COVID-19 cases during a Wednesday, March 17, 2021 briefing.

Khaldun said Wednesday she's hopeful Michigan can avoid the type of surges it experienced in 2020 when hospitals voiced concerns about their ability to service all of the sick people needing care.

“I still think we are at risk,” the chief medical executive cautioned. “And again, with these variants that are more easily transmitted and potentially, the vaccine is not as effective, still effective but potentially not as effective, for some of them."

Last week, the state reported 11,383 new infections, a seven-week high. The 5.2% positivity rate — the percentage of diagnostic tests bringing positive results — marked a six-week high. Hospitalizations are also increasing with 995 adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

If hospitalizations continue along the current rate, there would be 2,000 in five weeks, said Sarah Lyon-Callo, who leads the Michigan Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health Contact Information.

Michigan now has 10th highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the nation over the past seven days, according to data from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A month ago, the state had the 47th highest rate. Michigan's increases are also outpacing those in neighboring states.

The jumps come a year into the fight against the pandemic and as more than 3 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the state. Top state health officials voiced optimism Wednesday that the vaccinations could help head off a major spike in infections, especially among the most vulnerable.

The zero deaths reported Wednesday were good news that the state is making progress with higher risk groups, especially nursing homes, said Dr. Preeti Malani, the University of Michigan's chief health officer and a professor of infectious disease.

The state continually reviews death records and updates the numbers, so the last date with zero deaths attributed to it is March 17, 2020, one year ago.

About 60% of Michigan's senior population has been vaccinated with at least one dose, which have helped deaths stabilize. But hospitalizations don’t fully capture all the negative aspects of COVID-19, Malani said.

“I hope that zero deaths is going to become more common than not, but it may take a little while and the biggest thing we’re learning from the data is that vaccination is looking better every day,” she said. “I continue to worry about vaccination. As we're getting to younger groups, hopefully, the uptake will continue to be just as good."

Deaths linked to COVID-19 have declined for 12 weeks, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

But Michigan residents must continue to wear masks and practice social distancing, state officials said. Michigan is in a "different place" now than when past surges occurred but is "not near" herd immunity, Khaldun said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's goal has been to vaccinate 70% of the adult population. As of now, about 25% of adult residents have had their first dose, and 14% are completely vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. All Michigan residents age 16 and older will become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on April 5.

COVID-19 variants that are more easily transmitted from person to person are complicating the state's current push to end the pandemic. The state has now tracked 725 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom.

The variant cases could be part of the reason Michigan is experiencing a larger uptick in infections than neighboring states, Lyon-Callo said.

Sarah Callo-Lyon

But she noted that 11 states across the country are reporting increasing rates of new cases.

"We may be seeing some of our neighbors turning in this direction as well," Lyon-Callo said.

Public health experts have tied the rising numbers to changes in Michigan's epidemic orders, pandemic fatigue and the variants.

The increases came after promising downward trends in January and February prompted Whitmer's administration to allow restaurants to reopen indoor dining on Feb. 1, push for schools to offer in-person learning by March 1 and ease restrictions on public gatherings on March 5.

Elizabeth Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, didn't directly answer a question Wednesday about how the changing trajectory of key metrics could affect future decisions on restrictions.

“We continue to monitor the trends that were outlined," Hertel said at the end of Wednesday's briefing. "Our hope is that this is not the beginning of a severe increase in cases across the state."

Michigan is experiencing increasing cases among those under the age of 70, including rising rates among young people. Individuals ages 10 to 19 currently "have the highest case rate and are increasing faster than other age groups," according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last week, the state tracked 162 outbreaks at K-12 schools, more than any other category of location tallied, including senior and long-term living facilities, which had 145 outbreaks.

Of the 162 school outbreaks, 105 are in high schools, Lyon-Callo said.

"As COVID-19 is still circulating in the general population in the state, we knew we would see cases that are associated with schools," Lyon-Callo said Wednesday.

The top five Michigan counties for reported new cases per population over the last three weeks are Missaukee, Wexford, Sanilac, Huron and St. Clair.

Ann Hepfer, the health office for the Huron and Tuscola county health departments, said she's "very concerned" about the increase in infections in her region.

"With spring break and Easter gatherings, we know that cases are once again going to surge," Hepfer said while encouraging people to wear masks, socially distance, avoid crowds and wash hands frequently.