Michigan braces for omicron as feds send help to weather surge

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged Michigan residents Tuesday to get vaccinated or boosted against COVID-19 as the state braces for expected increased transmission with the arrival of the omicron variant. 

The plea came as President Joe Biden announced he was sending a fourth emergency response team to Michigan as well as a portion of the 500 million at-home COVID-19 tests being delivered nationwide. 

As of Tuesday, eight cases of the highly contagious variant have been identified in Genesee, Kent, Macomb, Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Whitmer's comments at Tuesday's press conference in Grand Rapids marked the first time the governor participated in one of the state's COVID briefings since June, and her participation in part was spurred by the unknown threat of omicron in Michigan.

"We see it moving fast so please act fast moving forward," Whitmer said of the variant. "We’re in for a tough four to six weeks because of omicron."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged Michigan residents Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021 to get vaccinated or boosted against COVID-19 during a press conference in Grand Rapids as the state braces for increased transmission with the arrival of the omicron variant.

State Health Director Elizabeth Hertel said Tuesday the state expects its cases per million people "to rise and rise very rapidly with the omicron variant."

Biden announced Tuesday that six additional emergency response teams with "more than 100 clinical personnel and paramedics" would be deployed to Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Vermont. Prior to Tuesday's announcement, the administration had already deployed about 300 federal medical personnel including crews to Michigan.

Tuesday's announcement marks the fourth federal medical team deployed to Michigan in recent weeks. The prior three were sent to Beaumont in Dearborn, Covenant in Saginaw and Spectrum in Grand Rapids.

Hertel noted Tuesday morning the state had utilized federal resources in terms of additional medical equipment, ventilators and personnel, but those resources may not be lasting. 

"If the strain on hospitals increases, we are unsure of any additional federal resources that are available at this time," Hertel said. 

About 2.1 million eligible individuals have received a booster, including 64% of eligible seniors, Whitmer said. More than 56% of Michigan residents are fully vaccinated.

On Monday, the state added nearly 14,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to the state total from over a three-day span — Saturday, Sunday and Monday. It also reported 160 deaths during that window, 63 of which were identified during a vital records review. 

Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the state has tallied 1.4 million confirmed cases and nearly 26,000 deaths. 

Last week, Hertel told The Detroit News that Michigan potentially had hit a plateau after six months of rising case rates. But it's unclear what effect the holidays or omicron will have on the state's numbers.

As of Monday, the state health department reported 3,896 adults were hospitalized, down from a pandemic high of 4,518 exactly one week ago.

Additionally, last week, the weekly percentage of COVID tests bringing positive results dropped 2.5 percentage points to 17.1%. Hertel said the state's current positivity rate stands at about 16.2%.

Whitmer was hesitant to call the decreases long-lasting. But she said there was still hope on the horizon in the form of therapeutics and the potential approval of the Pfizer COVID pill. 

"I just don't think we can take any solace in a somewhat downtrend," Whitmer said. "It's a good development but I don't think it's indicative of a trend. We can't make that assumption."

Whitmer and Hertel noted between Jan. 15 and Dec. 3, unvaccinated individuals accounted for 85% of COVID cases, 88% of hospitalizations and 88.5% of deaths. 

"Please, right now, take action," Whitmer said. "We all want this to be behind us. Since March 2020, we have been facing and fighting this virus. And it feels like we take two steps forward, one step back and every one of us is tired of it."

Whitmer and Hertel urged people to get vaccinated or boosted, wear a mask in indoor public places or outdoor crowded locations, to get tested before and after events, to stay home if sick and to check therapeutic options if one contracts COVID-19. 

"One person's decision has the potential to affect everyone around them," Hertel said.

When asked whether she'd put any mandates or health orders in place to slow the spread, Whitmer said vaccines were the best tool and those remaining unvaccinated people likely wouldn't respond to mandates. 

"Sweeping mandates are less likely to influence and encourage that population to get vaccinated," Whitmer said. "That's why it's an education effort."