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Here they come: Northern Michigan health officials brace for unmasked tourists

Photo by Nicole Geri on Unsplash

It’ll be an “interesting test.” That’s how Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for Grand Traverse County, is looking at the weeks ahead.

“For me as an epidemiologist, between now and July 1, it'll be interesting to see what happens with our [case] numbers,” Hirschenberger said Tuesday at a Munson Health press conference.

Asked whether she was concerned about a potential surge during the summer months as tourists flock to the area and Michigan's mask mandates are being lifted, Hirschenberger said it's "a great question." 

"And whether or not we will see the surge here, or [if] the surge will be realized actually once they return home, which might be the question," she said. 

But there’s reason for optimism: cases stayed fairly flat last summer in the Traverse City, Leelanau, and Mackinaw County areas, and that was before COVID vaccinations. Now some of the most popular tourist destinations are in counties with some of the highest vaccination rates in the state, with Leelanau County at 72%, Grand Traverse at roughly 65%, and Mackinaw 57% of residents receiving at least initial doses.

“The good thing about summer and Memorial Day, is most of the activities that people are doing are outside,” Hirschenberger said. “So if people are still being careful around those who are unvaccinated and planning the majority of their activities outside, then hopefully we will not see a surge. That combined with our high vaccination rates, we’re truly hoping they stay stable and low.

“But we will be, to some degree, learning as we go. And seeing how everybody handles some of the freedoms we have been given.”  

And Michigan’s tourism industry, which brought in $26 million in 2019, is hoping for a better summer than last year, when statewide tourism spending fell anywhere from 25% to 50% week to week.

Meanwhile, health officials up north are also doing more mobile vaccine clinics at places like gas stations, food pantries, and even wineries.

“This year, when we're looking at festivals [and] instead of figuring out how not to have them, we are [thinking] ‘How can we be there and get more people vaccinated?’” said Lisa Peacock, health officer of the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department and Health Department of Northwest Michigan.

“And so I think it is just a different time. And I also am hopeful that people will do the right thing, and especially those who have not been able to be vaccinated. But I am hopeful this year will be better.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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