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COVID hospitalizations on the rise statewide, with a big uptick in the Thumb

a hospital hallway with people at the end of it
Robin Erb

Michigan's COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising, and they're rising fast. As of Monday and Tuesday, there are 2,144 people hospitalized, marking a 53% increase from 1,404 hospitalizations last week.

Back in November, there was a 45% jump in hospitalizations in one week: November 2 to November 9. On November 15, Governor Gretchen Whitmer enacted the "Pause to Save Lives." She's expressed that she has no current plans to enact similar restrictions to this recent spike.

Dr. Mark Hamed is the medical director for eight counties in the thumb region: Huron, Lapeer, Sanilac, Tuscola, and District Health Department #2 (Alcona, Iosco, Ogemaw, and Oscoda), as well as the medical director for McKenzie Hospital's emergency medicine department.

At McKenzie Health System in Sandusky, Hamed says they don't admit patients with COVID-19, as they don't have an ICU or a separate wing for COVID patients. They stabilize patients, and send them out to other hospitals in Saginaw, Port Huron, and even Detroit, if necessary.

"Whoever has the space available for what we need, we get them over there," Hamed says.

And patients are getting sicker, he says. 15-20% of people who test positive for COVID-19 in the thumb region require hospitalization, a number that he says is alarming. 

"So with the first wave we saw definitely older folks, in their 70s, 80s, who were coming in moderately to severely ill, required oxygenation, some intubation," Hamed said. "However, with this current wave, we’re seeing a lot younger folks: 30s to 60s, coming in with very atypical conditions."

The increased frequency of acute neurologic and cardiac complications with these patient is especially concerning: "Strokes, kidney failure, heart attacks, along with the pneuomonia and respiratory issues," he listed.

More younger people being hospitalized with COVID lines up with statewide data from the Michigan Hospital Association that people under 50 make up 30% of the state's hospitalizations. That's likely thanks to vaccines available to the older demographic that was so disproportionately impacted last year.

Hamed says he understands that people are tired of pandemic restrictions, that people want to see friends and family again, but the number of younger people getting the virus and the severity of their illness shows that this is something people need to take seriously.

"Definitely, we want to keep this from getting worse, and keep the kids in school as best we can, keep businesses open as best we can," he said. "You know, we want people to live their life, at the same time, we want them to be disease free and illness free. This is a very rough virus."

It's an issue that's received pushback in his community, he says.

"We put the messaging out there to community leaders about a month ago, saying we really need to tighten things up. And we had buy-in from most of them, but some, particularly one county commissioner, was still reluctant to spread the message. But I think he's not now," Hamed said.

Hamed thinks that the nicer weather and the more contagious b117 variant are contributing factors to this rise in cases. 

Annette Mercatante is the medical director for the St. Clair County Health Department. Last week, she expressed agreement with Hamed that the b117 variant and less stringent compliance with health and safety guidelines were leading to the region's uptick in cases.

St. Clair County is still leading the state in hospitalization rates. The county saw a 30% increase in that hospitalization rate this week from the previous week, and county hospitals are seeing increased bed occupancies for COVID patients. Mercatante says she thinks the state needs to re-tighten restrictions to combat this new uptick in cases and hospitalizations.

"We really can't afford our hospitals to become overwhelmed. When you think about our healthcare system and how fragile it is to begin with, and how many times now they've had to do this, a lot more people suffer when our hospitals and our healthcare system is frayed. I think when you look at that situation, we're not going to have any choice but to try and do more," she said today on Stateside.

In response to a question about new restrictions to combat the rapidly increasing hospitalizations, spokespeson for the governor, Bobby Leddy, issued the following comment:

We continue to work closely with our state’s leading health experts to monitor trends in COVID-19 spread throughout the state. Unlike other states like Texas and Florida that have abandoned public health protocols altogether, Michigan continues to have smart health policies in place, such as a mask mandate and capacity limits on large gatherings. We are still very much in this pandemic, but we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That’s why every Michigander has a personal responsibility to do their part by wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distancing to help us slow the spread of this virus. The state is moving forward with plans to ramp up testing for schools, businesses, and nursing homes. This is the first week of expanded testing protocols for all student athletes. And we have increased our vaccine program over the last couple of weeks, which has helped us reach an historic milestone of four million vaccines in under four months. The most important thing people can do is to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to protect themselves and their families, and help us eliminate this virus once and for all.

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Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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