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Michigan on track to hit 100 deaths per day in December, state's medical chief says

person holding test tubes with blue gloves on
Trust "Tru" Katsande

If the spread of COVID-19 continues at its current trajectory in Michigan, the state is on track to see an average of 100 deaths per day by the end of December, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, the state’s Chief Medical Executive, said at a press briefing Thursday.

“We have models that estimate that at the rate we are going, if we don't do anything else, if we don't change our behaviors, we could be seeing up to 100 deaths a day by the end of December,” Khaldun said. “We are really at a tipping point right now when it comes to Covid-19 in the state.”

“The numbers that Dr. J[oneigh Khaldun] just shared are very alarming,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said at the same briefing. “And I think that something that really stuck with me as we covered it, was that she acknowledged there's a model that shows if this trend continues, we could be losing 100 people a day around Christmas here in Michigan. 

“That's a devastating thought, and that's why we are really urging people to double down on the protocols we know that will keep us safe. And to have a plan going into the holidays where we don't bring many generations who don't live together, together.”

That same model, which is a simulator created by the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Technology Assessment and Harvard Medical School, also predicts Michigan would run out of ICU beds before Christmas, and hit about 6,000 daily new diagnosed cases before January. 

No new orders, but asking Republicans to pass mask law

While Whitmer said she has no current plans to enact new executive orders or push for more mandates from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, she repeatedly called on the Republican-led legislature to pass legislation requiring masks be worn in public.

“I do think that clarification, while it might not change the fact that this is the law [already under the state health department’s Emergency Orders,] it will reinforce that we are all in this together,” Whitmer said. “We have to get the politics out of this public health crisis. It is killing us. It is jeopardizing our economy. It is threatening our health systems that we all rely on. And that's why I am seeking legislative support, bipartisan support for masking up here in Michigan.”

Such legislation could offer the public a clear message in the wake of the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision last month striking down Whitmer’s executive orders, the governor said.

“I think it's important now that the Supreme Court has kind of muddied the waters, and created a lot of confusion about what is the current law here in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “...I'm hopeful that it's not just that the dye has been cast and we can never get back to a place where we focus on the public health and not worry about the politics.”

A spokesperson for Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Community spread makes contact tracing harder

The Governor’s statements come as Michigan is experiencing an exponential increase in cases and a dramatic rise in hospitalizations, with more than 2,000 adults currently hospitalized from COVID in Michigan. Of those, 470 of those in the ICU, and the previous day’s COVID-related ER visits are up to 1,526, according to the most recently available data.

Currently, Michigan has an average of 19 deaths per day from COVID-19, more than double what it was two months ago. The record so far came in mid-April, when the state hit 158 deaths per day on average.

“We're seeing more than five times the number of new cases per day now than we saw in early September,” Khaldun said. “The good news is, testing is going very well and we performed 43,000 diagnostic tests per day over the past week. However, the percent of those tests that are coming back positive is increasing, and is now at 7.5%.” The Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo regions have the highest positivity rates statewide, Khaldun said, at over 9%.

General community spread is making it far more challenging to track the path of the virus and prevent additional spread. As many as 50% of positive cases contacted by case investigators “have no idea how they got the virus,” Khaldun said.

“Our local health departments are also investigating over 590 outbreaks across the state, the largest number since we began tracking these outbreaks,” she said. “...There was a family that attended a birthday party, resulting in an outbreak of six cases. A wedding this fall resulted in 13 new COVID cases. We've seen outbreaks at recreational facilities. There was a high school sleepover, a high school banquet, and multiple outbreaks associated with both K-12 and college sports teams. We have multiple outbreaks associated with funerals and it's impacting workplaces.”

Offices to be investigated, fined for noncompliance

Starting next week, Governor Whitmer announced, MIOSHA would roll out a new COVID inspection program focusing on employers and workplace safety, “to educate and seek compliance with guidelines and rules.” Violaters could be given citations and fined up to $7,000, the governor said, stressing that employers should have policies “prohibiting in-person work for employees, to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.”

Whitmer was asked several times by various reporters about whether additional restrictions or lockdown measures would be coming from the state. Whitmer repeatedly denied any such plans, but acknowledged that pandemic fatigue was driving noncompliance.

“You’re asking my theory? People are tired. We’re all tired of wearing masks, dealing with COVID. But ignoring the problem is making it worse,” she said.

“...I think the political rhetoric has created a lot of confusion and unnecessary suspicion around the efficacy of masks. Every study has shown this remains the best tool that we have. And so I think that there are a number of factors here. But here's the deal. It’s not an order that comes from a governor. It’s not a Supreme Court decision. Everyone of us has a role here, and every one of us needs to live up to that role.”

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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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