Beaumont warns fourth surge of virus could last for months

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Beaumont Health has 400 COVID-19 patients admitted at its eight hospitals and the medical system's top epidemiologist said Thursday that officials there are considering this Beaumont's fourth surge of the virus and warning it could last for months.

Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s director of infection prevention and epidemiology, said transmission rates in the tricounty region are about double what's being seen across the country and Metro Detroit "is once again becoming a hotspot."

Gilpin noted that the positivity rate, or percentage of tests coming back positive, reached a very low point over the summer, but began to creep up in August — and it has continued to rise since then.

"I have a feeling we're going to be living in this world probably for the next couple of months and possibly even through the winter," he added during a Thursday morning briefing. "Because I don't see anything out there that's going to stop this in a meaningful way unless people radically change their behavior and start getting vaccinated and masking up.

"This is going to be a tough one," Gilpin said. "This one is shaping up to be a little bit more of a marathon than a sprint." 

Dr. Nick Gilpin, Beaumont Health’s director of Infection Prevention and Epidemiology, said Thursday that transmission rates in the tri-county region are about double what's being seen across the country and Metro Detroit "is once again becoming a hot spot."

Beaumont's update on its COVID-19 admissions comes as Michigan on Wednesday reached a six-month high in hospitalizations for the virus. Projections suggest the uptick won't level off for at least six weeks. 

Last year's fall surge of COVID-19 cases represented the high point so far during the pandemic, with the state peaking a year ago in November. Wednesday's hospitalizations reached more than 2,600 people statewide ailing from the virus — nearly identical to one year ago. Michigan's infections have been trending upward for months.

So far this week, the state has added 15,194 and 210 deaths from the virus. The latest figures push the overall totals to 1,172,800 confirmed cases and 22,684 deaths since the virus was first detected in the state in March 2020.

In Traverse City, the Munson Healthcare system activated protocols on Tuesday for its Pandemic Response Level Red for the first time in the organization’s history. The highest alert level on a five-color scale, the status gives officials flexibility to delay non-COVID services or surgeries on a case-to-case basis to shift staffing and resources toward caring for COVID-19 patients. 

The seven-hospital health system had 92 COVID-19 patients as of Wednesday, with 49 in Traverse City, 15 in Cadillac, one patient in Charlevoix, 14 in Grayling and five at Munson's hospital in Manistee.  

Gilpin said Thursday that it's impossible to know the exact cause of the latest surge, but he believes it's being driven by unvaccinated people in the community.

Generally, about 65% to 70% of patients admitted to Beaumont hospitals with COVID-19 on any given day are unvaccinated, Gilpin said, compared with about 30% to 35% who have had their shots. Of Wednesday's admissions, around 260 were unvaccinated with about 115 breakthrough cases in vaccinated people, he noted. 

The majority of breakthrough cases in vaccinated individuals, he said, are occurring either in people who are immunocompromised or elderly, rendering the vaccines less effective. Other cases, Gilpin said, have emerged in people who were vaccinated early on in the pandemic and the shots' effectiveness is wearing off.

"This wave is predominantly driven by unvaccinated individuals," said Gilpin, adding Michigan's now-cooler temperatures make it easier for the virus to replicate, and drive people indoors where there's more opportunity for transmission. 

"We're also seeing more relaxed attitudes toward masking, more and more large gatherings take place, and we know that those are the conditions that are going to make for more transmission," he said. 

"Much of that is because there is still a significant proportion of that population that is yet to be vaccinated," he said, noting that the Pfizer vaccine was only recently FDA-approved for 5- to 11-year-olds, and there is significant vaccine hesitancy among parents. 

About 69.8% of Michiganians 16 years and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. About 54.4% are completely vaccinated, according to the state health department's website. 

Since Michigan began vaccinating children 5-11 on Monday, 1.7% or 14,100 children as of Wednesday had received first doses, state data shows and 42.5% of children ages 12-15 had received one dose.

Gilpin said the largest increases right now are among school-aged kids, followed by outbreaks in long-term care facilities. Most new case outbreaks, he said, across Michigan are in schools. There were 15 pediatric cases among the 400 COVID-19 inpatients at Beaumont Hospitals on Thursday, according to the health system.

"Kids might not get very sick from COVID, but they can still catch COVID, they can spread COVID to others, to their teachers and households, and then it just becomes a way for the virus to propagate more," he said.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN