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Testing shortages, COVID-19 surge hitting Northern Michigan and U.P.

Courtesy of the State Theatre and Bijou by the Bay in Traverse City

Grand Traverse County health officer Wendy Hirschenberger hit a milestone this week she was hoping to never reach: 100 cases of COVID-19 in the county since the pandemic began. While that’s a fraction of what some Michigan counties have seen (Oakland County, for instance, is close to 10,000) what worries Hirschenberger is that 55 of those cases are just since July 1.

“We are seeing more cases among 20 and 30-year-olds, and a few in their teens now as well,” she says. “We are seeing some clusters that are related to group activities. Things like trips together or boating together, different kinds of celebration events, whether it's graduation parties, bachelorette parties, things like that, and then some sporting events, some teams.”

And these social butterflies aren’t just attending one or two events: the number of direct contacts people are reporting to contact tracers is rising steadily, Hirschenberger says. 

“We had one that had 50 contacts… And so then you've got more contacts that need to be tested. You've got more community exposure. So the exposures and those who need to be tested is exponentially increasing, while your cases are increasing too.”

Yet even as the number of tests the northern Lower Peninsula region is performing has increased to 643 per day, based on a rolling 7-day average, it’s not enough to meet the current need, Hirschenberger says.   

“And of the testing that we do have, it's hard to get it scheduled. So if you're symptomatic, sometimes you're scheduling five-plus days out. That's not good public health. That makes it really challenging for us to be able to follow up on cases quickly.”

Part of the issue there is lab capacity, she says, as well as supply shortages. Local hospitals and doctors’ offices often don’t want to take the risk of offering COVID-19 testing, which could expose vulnerable patients.   

“Then we're not getting the results back in a quick manner either, which then slows down the case investigation and the contact tracing. And all those things are things that are going to increase your chances of community spread and transmission.”

Then there are the travelers. Every day, flights come into the Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City  bearing passengers from hot spots like Florida, Texas, and Arizona. And once in Traverse City, they travel to other parts of the state as well: health officials from Grand Traverse County, Chippewa County, and the Benzie-Leelanau health department have all alerted their residents about passengers on those flights who tested positive. 

Some of those travelers had actually been tested for COVID-19 before their trip, but didn’t wait to get their results before getting on a plane. 

“People were also traveling before they got their test results, but they’d already been tested,” says Hirschenberger. “I think one was in the air, or somewhere very close to after they got to their destination [when they received a positive test result.]” 

Meanwhile, the Health Department of Northwest Michigan (which covers Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties) just hit the 200 case mark, according to health officer Lisa Peacock. She’s also the health officer for the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, which has tripled its cases in the last four weeks to more than 60 cases. 

And the Upper Peninsula now has more than 20 cases per million people per day, according to the state’s medical director, Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. 

“In the Upper Peninsula, cases have been rising for six weeks, and this is the highest rate they’ve had during the entire outbreak,” Khaldun said at a press conference earlier this week. “Traverse City also has more than 15 cases per million people per day, and has been steadily rising.” 

The case numbers in Northern Michigan and the U.P. aren’t nearly as dire as places like the Grand Rapids region, which currently has the state’s highest rate of cases with 53 new cases per million people per day, according to Khaldun. But the rapid increase in case numbers over such a short period of time is challenging for departments that already have small staffs, Peacock says. 

“In one weekend, our staff was completely overwhelmed, and we had to bring in additional help,” she says. “I’m bringing on additional staff, [and] we’ve connected with the state to opt in to the state’s contact tracing volunteers and technology that they’re offering. So our public health capacity has been extremely strained by the recent uptick in cases...It’s definitely a surge for us.” 

Part of the issue, both Peacock and Hirschenberger say, is the way testing supplies and other resources are being distributed. 

“All of the allocation of resources, including testing, are based on numbers like total population and total cases,” Peacock says. “And Northern Michigan always loses in those situations, because we have a major surge in some of our small towns in northern Michigan. Our population doubles or triples in the summertime... And so it strains our hospital system. This summer, it's straining our public health capacity because we're in the middle of a pandemic.” 

It’s especially concerning as the start of the school year looms, Hirschenberger says. 

“We need for kids to be able to get a quality education this fall. And so we have to be able to contain the virus, and the supply and demand issues is kind of a chronic part of the pandemic and something that we have to navigate through,” she says. “There's no one easy answer. But we have to find the balance somewhere, because that need for testing is going to be critical when school starts. You can just imagine, there will be kids in school with the sniffles, and we'll need to know if they have COVID-19 or not.”


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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