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Statewide COVID hospitalizations see slight decrease, but patient age, lack of vaccination worrying

Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit
Paulette Parker
Michigan Radio

Nurses in the Henry Ford Health System say they're feeling the strain of the latest COVID-19 surge.

When Lauren Varley saw her first COVID-19 case in the ICU last year, she told her parents she couldn't see them for a month. That month stretched into six as she worried about exposing her parents to the virus that claimed the lives of so many of the patients she risked her own life to treat.

"It made me feel extremely hopeless and very helpless as a nurse because I knew that any patient that I saw with COVID, I knew there was a very high possibility that they just were not going to survive," Varley said.

Dr. Adnan Munkarah is the hospital's chief clinical officer. He pointed to a 10 percentage point decrease in admission rates over the last few days as an early indication that COVID-19 cases might be on the decline. This tracks with overall state numbers, which have slowly declined the last few days, following a peak of 4,158 people on Monday, April 19. 

Munkarah says that positive sign is paired with a worrying one. Fewer people are getting vaccinated at Henry Ford, a trend mirrored at other sites in Detroit. 

Varley says it's "devastating" to see so many people still getting sick with COVID, especially now that there's a vaccine. Across the state, the average age of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Michigan has been dropping.

"I understand personal choice. Absolutely. But the individuals and the patients that I'm seeing, they're very young, in their 20s, 30s and 40s. That is way too young to be put in a compromising situation," she said.

Varley says she feels like life in the ICU has come full circle to a year ago.

Outside of southeast Michigan, two-thirds of people hospitalized at Munson Healthcare, a network of hospitals and clinics across Northern Michigan, were under 65 years old, said the organization’s chief medical officer, Christine Nefcy.

Nefcy said a high vaccination rate among the oldest members of the population was protecting them from the disease. But younger age groups, where vaccination rates are lower, were much more susceptible to the virus.

“We have a much more contagious variant, and then a completely vulnerable population,” Nefcy said.

The B.1.1.7 variant of the novel coronavirus, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, is now the dominant strain in the U.S., the federal Centers for Disease Control has said, and it’s growing increasingly prevalent in Michigan.

But school-age populations only recently became eligible for vaccination in the state. Roughly 21% of Michiganders between 16 and 19 years old have had at least one dose, according to state data posted Friday morning.

So the state is enlisting the help of young “vaccine ambassadors” to encourage their peers to get the shots.

Lauren Stallman, a 16-year-old student at Traverse City Central High School, said she got the vaccine so she could spend time with her grandparents and help her school get back to normal in-person activities.

Evan Carlson, an 18-year-old senior at Alpena High School, said young people are subject to the same forces that have made older adults mistrust vaccines.

“What drives vaccine hesitancy in Northeast Michigan is specifically conspiracy theories and misinformation that people take as fact,” Carlson said.

As of this week, the state is tracking more than 260 ongoing outbreaks in Michigan schools. 43 new outbreaks were reported in schools last week.

More than 46% of Michiganders age 16 up and have had at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

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Brett joined Michigan Public in December 2021 as an editor.
Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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