Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalizations rising at faster rate than in fall

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

The number of Michigan residents in hospitals with confirmed cases of COVID-19 is now increasing at a faster rate than it did in the fall before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shuttered indoor dining and suspended in-person high school classes.

Through Monday, the state reported 2,144 adults were hospitalized with the coronavirus, a 53% jump from a week earlier when there were 1,404 hospitalizations. Over the four weeks before Whitmer announced the "Pause to Save Lives" on Nov. 15, the largest percentage increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations over a week from Monday to Monday was 45%.

The fall restrictions were announced when there were about 3,000 hospitalizations. The number of adults hospitalized with COVID-19 reached above 3,800 by the end of November.

"We are seeing concerning rises in COVID-19 cases across the state," tweeted Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive, on Monday. "Everyone please continue to #MaskUp, wash hands, socially distance, and get your vaccine when it becomes available."

Michigan's new case rates and the percentage of tests bringing positive results have been steadily climbing for five weeks after declining in January and February. Michigan now ranks behind only New Jersey and New York City for new cases per population over the last seven days, according to tracking by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last week, the state reported 27,758 new cases, a 14-week high, and an 11.3% positivity rate, a 15-week high.

Changes in the state's epidemic orders, increased hopefulness, pandemic fatigue and emerging variants have led to jumps in infections, according to public health experts. Dr. Jennifer Morse, the medical director for 19 counties in northern Michigan, described the situation as a "perfect storm" earlier this month.

Ruthanne Sudderth, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Health & Hospital Association, said her organization believes the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, is "widespread" in Michigan and "is much more contagious and can be more deadly."

Michigan has the second-highest number of United Kingdom variant cases in the country at 1,279 confirmed cases and five possible cases through Monday. It trails Florida's 2,274 B.1.1.7 cases, according to the CDC's website. 

Michigan also has four confirmed cases and one possible case of the more contagious B.1.351 variant from South Africa and its first case of the B.1.429 variant from California — the dominant variant on America's West Coast "with some increased transmissibility," state Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin said Monday.

"We’re very concerned about these upward trends in COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates," the hospital association's Sudderth said.  "We need people to get their vaccine as quickly as possible and continue to wear masks — especially if at school, social, church or other gatherings with people not in their household — and practice social distancing and hand washing.

"Our member hospitals are already feeling the additional strain of this significant increase in cases and are again facing challenges with staffing, reimplementing visitor restrictions and more."

Feeling of 'impending doom'

Last week, the Michigan Health & Hospital Association said hospitalization rates were particularly increasing among unvaccinated populations. From March 1 to March 23, hospitalizations increased 633% for adults ages 30-39 and 800% for adults ages 40-49, the association said in a statement.

On Monday, Henry Ford Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Adnan Munkarah said there had been a substantial spike in its COVID-19 admissions — up 236% since March 3 — and the positivity rate among patients is 16%. The Detroit-based health system also tightened its visitor policies at three hospitals — Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Henry Ford Macomb Hospital in Clinton Township and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital — to include mandatory mask-wearing at all times by staff, patients and visitors age 5 and older and COVID screenings for all before entering facilities, including a temperature check.

Dr. Walid Gellad, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's school of medicine, tweeted Monday that "preventable suffering" is happening in Michigan.

"I remain optimistic about the summer. No, the surge won't be as bad as the last one. That doesn't mean a surge is okay," Gellad said. "Good luck keeping schools open as cases surge.

"We decided to make the end of our pandemic as painful as possible. That's why I'm angry."

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referenced a feeling of "impending doom" during a Monday briefing. The trajectory of the pandemic in the United States looks similar to those in countries in Europe, including Germany, Italy and France a few weeks ago, she said. Those countries have since experienced "a consistent and worrying spike in cases," Walensky said.

"I so badly want to be done," the CDC director said. "I know you all so badly want to be done. We are just almost there but not quite yet. And so I'm asking you to just hold on a little longer, to get vaccinated when you can so that all of those people that we all love will still be here when this pandemic ends."

Michigan has now administered 4.1 million vaccines, according to a Monday press release from Whitmer's administration. The statement didn't address the rising number of COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations.

"We continue to meet or exceed our goals as more and more Michiganders become eligible to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine,” Lt. Governor Gilchrist said. "With every vaccine administered, we get one step closer to eliminating this deadly virus once and for all. I’m asking every Michigander to make a plan to get the vaccine when it is your turn.

"We can all be part of the solution that saves lives and helps us get back to normal."

What Whitmer is saying

About 1.5 million Michigan residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, about 19% of the adult population, according to the state's data. The Whitmer administration's goal is to vaccinate 70% of the adult population.

Currently, all residents over the age of 50 are eligible for a vaccine as well as people between the ages of 16 and 49 with certain medical conditions. But some vaccine providers have been allowing people outside of those groups to receive the vaccine if they have open slots available.

Vaccine providers still are encouraged to give priority to the most vulnerable, Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said Monday. 

“In an effort to ensure no vaccine goes to waste, we continue to ask providers to fill every vaccine appointment with someone 16 years or older,” Leddy said. “We know the quicker we can vaccinate Michiganders, the quicker we can eliminate COVID-19 and get back to normal day-to-day activities.”

All Michigan residents age 16 and older are set to become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on April 5.

On Thursday, Whitmer said her administration wasn't "actively considering" imposing new restrictions to stem jumps in COVID-19 infections in Michigan.

"The difference between where we were a year ago and now is we know a mask is the best thing that you can do, social distancing," Whitmer said during the Michigan Chronicle's Pancakes & Politics event. "We have access to vaccines now."

Whitmer's administration has been easing restrictions on gatherings and businesses since January after the late 2020 surge in cases subsided. Orders from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services allowed restaurants to reopen indoor dining on Feb. 1, the governor pushed for schools to offer in-person learning by March 1 and the department eased restrictions on public gatherings on March 5.


Staff Writers Beth LeBlanc and Sarah Rahal contributed.