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State health chief warns of possible “second surge” as hospitalizations rise

Olga Kononenko for Unsplash.com


Michigan is seeing nearly record-high levels of COVID-19, with case rates approaching what they were in April when the pandemic first devastated the state. Combined with rising hospitalizations and the coming cold weather, state health officials sought to raise alarm at a Tuesday press conference. 

“It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s chief medical executive and chief deputy for health.

With more people hospitalized, she said, deaths will continue to increase. Recently, the state’s been hovering around an average of 11 to 13 deaths per day – far below the record 157 daily deaths we saw back in April.

“We had that surge in April. We were able to significantly bring that curve down. And then we started slowly tripping up and maintaining at a somewhat higher level. But it's very possible that this is the beginning of an additional surge or wave of cases. And that is why we are asking everyone to please remain vigilant, and do these basic things like wearing masks and avoiding these social gatherings.” Khaldun said.

Toward the end of September, Michigan had an average of 93 new cases each day per million people; that’s the highest we’d seen since April’s peak of 128 new cases per million. Currently, Michigan is seeing an average of 75 new daily cases per million people, according to the most recent available data. 

Across the state, 999 individuals have been admitted to hospitals with suspected or confirmed COVID cases.  

“In the past few weeks, the number of Michigan residents admitted with COVID-19 to our member hospitals throughout the state has risen by more than 80%,” said Brian Peters, CEO of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. “This is not an isolated trend.”

In the last 24 hours, Peters said, some hospital officials have told the MHHA that their emergency rooms are filling up or that staffing is difficult as more employees are quarantined. “Here we go again,” one hospital representative told the association. 

“We must stop this problem and we must stop it now,” Peters said. “The good news is we're not in a capacity crisis in our hospitals today, but we could be soon if our communities don’t return to the level of vigilance we saw earlier in the year.”

But with school back in session, more businesses reopened, and colder weather forcing people inside, the probability of a return to lockdown-level behavior seems doubtful, as evidenced by the current crisis in the Upper Peninsula. 

“I think it's important for everyone to recognize that we have not seen this level of spread in the U.P. before now,” said Nick Derusha, President Michigan Association for Local Public Health. Initially, the region braced for an increase during the summer tourist season, Derusha said. 

But while there was an uptick, it’s only the last couple of months the cases have surged, he said, with U.P. hospitals having “one of the highest percentage of inpatient beds with COVID-19 patients in the state.” And the current outbreaks are associated not with vacationers, but with “schools, long-term care facilities, restaurants, and social gatherings such as funerals, weddings or parties...We are seeing local transmission.” 

But regional public health officials are having difficulty, Derusha said. 

“Sadly, we have seen on multiple occasions where individuals have broken quarantine to attend another social gathering and have later tested positive, exposing more people to the virus, leading to more cases,” he said. 

That’s a departure from the spring, when “folks were doing all the things that were being asked, staying home, avoiding crowds. They were doing all these public health measures that we had asked them to do very diligently.” 



But that’s grown harder as the weeks stretched into months, pandemic fatigue set in, and case counts stayed low, Derusha said. 

“Specifically, with regard to quarantine isolation, it becomes difficult as folks are talking about what has to happen in isolation, quarantine,” he said. “Most folks are working. They certainly need to go to work and need to be able to get their paycheck. And when you're asking folks to stay home for 10 days, or if they were exposed to someone with a case, 14 days, that’s kind of a difficulty. So folks are really hesitant to say maybe who they have been around...for fear that those folks may need to isolate and quarantine. 

“In addition, we do have some folks that just, for whatever reason, they don't believe that they need to abide by public health guidance. And they don't believe the pandemic is as severe as it is. And those folks oftentimes are unwilling to cooperate with us. Some, sometimes, can be really confrontational and not nice, frankly, to our staff who are working tirelessly throughout this pandemic.”


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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