Aug. 12—Lansing — A fourth surge in COVID-19 is possible in Michigan and as many as 6,000 more residents could die because of the virus this fall, according to a presentation released Wednesday by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Another spike in infections is “likely” if vaccination efforts continue to slow and Michiganians keep increasing their rate of social contact, said the projections, developed, in part, by the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
The data update is a troubling signal for a state that has already experienced three significant waves of the virus and comes as the more contagious delta variant is causing spikes in hospitalizations across the southern United States.
“Models are projecting a continued increase in hospitalizations and deaths over the next four to six weeks, maybe longer,” according to the Michigan presentation, the latest weekly report of its kind released to the public.
COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations have been inching upward in Michigan for longer than a month. However, new deaths tied to the virus have remained low, and vaccinations appear to be protecting many against serious illness. From Jan. 15 through July 21, 95% of the coronavirus-linked hospitalizations and deaths have been people who were not fully vaccinated, according to the state’s data.
Bobby Leddy, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s spokesman, said the trends around the country “are concerning” and people should take precautions like getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. The administration is closely monitoring the metrics in Michigan, he said.
“Our administration has worked swiftly to make the free, safe and effective vaccine available to every eligible Michigander, but the ability to prevent the spread of COVID-19 ultimately rests with people making the decision to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their families,” Leddy said.
So far, Michigan has faced three COVID-19 surges — an initial one in spring 2020, a second that began in fall 2020 and a third in the spring of this year, when the state led the nation in new cases for more than a month.
Michigan officials had hoped that case numbers would remain low as vaccination coverage increased. However, the deteriorating metrics and the more contagious delta variant appear to be dashing the optimism. About 54.5% of the state’s population that’s eligible for the vaccine, those age 12 and older, have received their complete vaccinations.
When it comes to the entire state population, 49.3% of residents have received their full vaccinations, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Michigan ranks 24th among the 50 states, just behind Florida, which has reported the second most new COVID-19 cases over the last week, according to the CDC.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, an epidemiologist and former Detroit health director, said he would tell friends and neighbors they should be “concerned” about what’s ahead with COVID-19 in the state. If they’re vaccinated, they should feel better, but if they aren’t, they should be “quite concerned,” El-Sayed said. The delta variant is “substantially more transmissible” and doesn’t care if someone has already had the virus, he said.
“We are like the rest of the country where COVID-19 is barreling back down because, in large part, too many Michiganders are still unvaccinated,” El-Sayed said.
Over the last four weeks, 99% of the positive COVID-19 tests analyzed in Michigan were linked to the delta variant, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. But state officials only sequenced or analyzed a small number of positive test results. The delta variant is “highly contagious,” nearly twice as contagious as previous variants, according to the CDC.
Michigan’s most recent COVID-19 surge peaked in April with more than 4,000 adults hospitalized with the virus on April 19. New case numbers and the percentage of tests bringing positive results declined and bottomed out in late June. Whitmer lifted the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions on June 22.
While deaths linked to the virus have remained low, case numbers and the positivity rate have been trending upward for longer than a month now, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Michigan reported 2,786 cases and 24 deaths from COVID-19 over a two-day period on Wednesday. The figures bring Michigan’s total number of confirmed cases to 916,006 and confirmed deaths to 19,982 since the virus was first detected in March 2020.
Last week, the percentage of COVID-19 tests with positive results reached 6.9%, a 13-week high. On Wednesday, the number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 745 across the state, a 153% increase over the 294-person total 12 days earlier.
If the fourth wave follows the pattern of the previous two, hospitalizations will peak in October, according to the projections by the Department of Health and Human Services. But the department’s presentation said there is insufficient data to “estimate the magnitude of any fourth wave at this time.”
Under current vaccination and social contact trends, which could change, the projections from the University of Michigan say the state could experience 3,937 to 6,177 deaths linked to the virus from August through November. Amid the last surge, the state reported 4,562 deaths from February through May, according to its daily data releases.
The UM’s projections say the potential surge would be reduced or stopped if social contact rates return to low levels and vaccination rates increase. But both of those possibilities appear unlikely.
Vaccination rates have only inched upward for weeks. And last month, Whitmer said she didn’t anticipate her state health department would issue another epidemic order that could limit social gatherings and outings in the “near future” and “maybe not ever.” Likewise, many Michigan schools will open their new years in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, the board of the Detroit Public Schools Community District decided students and staff will have to wear masks this fall regardless of their vaccination status and employees will have to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
The Detroit Health Department on Wednesday issued a recommendation that everyone, including those fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors to mitigate spread of the delta variant.
“We are encouraging Detroiters to mask up indoors out of an abundance of caution,” Detroit’s Chief Public Health Officer Denise Fair said in a Wednesday press release. “We want everyone to stay safe and healthy. Gather outdoors instead of indoors when possible. Stay home if you are sick. Get tested if you are experiencing symptoms.”
As it stands, multiple of Michigan’s current COVID-19 metrics are in a worse position than they were one year ago. On Aug. 11, 2020, the state reported 796 new cases. On Wednesday, the state reported a two-day case average of 1,393 new cases per day.