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The unvaccinated are driving Michigan's current COVID surge. These five charts show how.

man receives a COVID-19 vaccine shot in his right arm
Spectrum Health

It has been nearly 11 months since the first shipment of the first COVID-19 vaccine rolled away from the Pfizer factory in Portage, carrying with it the hope of millions for an end to this brutal pandemic. On December 14, a doctor at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids rolled up his sleeve and became the first person in Michigan to get the shot. Millions more joined him in the months that followed, lining up at clinics, doctor's offices, and at massive vaccination sites at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor and DeVos Place in Grand Rapids. Today, more than five million people in our state have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with very few documented serious side effects.

So how is it possible that COVID-19 is now once again ravaging our state, with some hospitals now reporting record numbers of patients infected with the virus?

Many times throughout this pandemic, we have faced difficult questions that have complicated answers.

But this is not one of those times.

This time, the answer is simple. The reason COVID-19 is ravaging Michigan, despite millions of people being vaccinated, is that millions of other people still are not vaccinated. Across the state, the overwhelming majority of COVID patients crowding hospitals are unvaccinated.

Here are five charts released in the past week that show the trend:


Spectrum Health COVID-19 patient breakdown as of 20211117
courtesy of Spectrum Health
A breakdown of Spectrum Health's COVID-19 patients by vaccination status as of November 17, 2021.

First is a visualization prepared by Spectrum Health, which reported an all-time high number of patients infected with the coronavirus on Tuesday.

Spectrum’s patient data show that not only are unvaccinated patients the vast majority of those in the hospital right now, but the vaccinated patients are on average seven years older and have an average of four underlying health risks. We’ve known for a while that people who are older and who have underlying conditions are most at risk for severe cases of COVID-19; that’s why these groups were allowed to get the vaccines first.

If you’re young and healthy, your risks of being hospitalized because of COVID are still lower. But there are no guarantees, and the Spectrum data show the risks are clearly higher for the unvaccinated — even the unvaccinated who are otherwise young and healthy.


Henry Ford Health System COVID-19 patient breakdown 20
courtesy of Henry Ford Health System
Henry Ford Health System
A breakdown of how many patients are vaccinated and unvaccinated in Henry Ford Health System hospitals as of November 15, 2021

If you are wondering if Spectrum Health is an outlier, it’s not. Leaders at Henry Ford Health System in metro Detroit held a briefing on Tuesday. On the video call, they included this chart, which shows almost exactly the same thing as the chart from Spectrum Health. The numbers are a bit different, but the trend is the same. Most of those who are hospitalized right now are people who have not been fully vaccinated. That's even more true for the most severe cases.


MI COVID Response Data and Modeling Update 20211116
courtesy State of Michigan
Chart from MI COVID Response Data and Modeling update provided by the State of Michigan on November 16, 2021.

These trends don't just apply to the patients who are hospitalized with the virus right now. The state of Michigan released information this week on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID-19 since January. Here again, people who are not fully vaccinated make up the majority of cases in every category.


MI COVID Response Data and Modeling Update 20211117
courtesy state of Michigan
Chart from MI COVID Response Data and Modeling Update provided by the state of Michigan on November 16, 2021.

Another chart from the state's presentation shows how this trend has changed over time. While it’s clear from this chart that unvaccinated patients still make up the majority of cases and deaths, that trend has been shifting recently. More vaccinated people have been infected in recent months, and more vaccinated patients have died from the disease.

How can this be?

Again, the answers are not that complicated.

First is the Delta variant. The much-hyped variant took its time reaching Michigan, but once here, it has become the dominant strain infecting people in our state. Delta spreads much more easily than previous strains of the virus, and though vaccines are effective, they don't prevent every infection. So as Delta has spread, so too have so-called "breakthrough" cases among the vaccinated.

The second explanation is that as the community spread of COVID overtakes Michigan, everyone is just more likely to be exposed right now. The vaccines are not 100% effective. No one ever said they would be, because no vaccine ever is. And as COVID circulates more in communities, the chance of a breakthrough case increases.

“When vaccinated people are more exposed to the virus and to the infection, that is going to be [when you have] some breakthrough infections,” said Dr. Adnan Munkarah, chief clinical officer for Henry Ford Health System. “So the reason we are seeing this increased rate of breakthrough infection, is because of the fact that [there are] more and more cases of patients who have the infection that are around us at this point.”


MI COVID Response Data and Modeling Update 20211116
courtesy state of Michigan
Chart from MI COVID Response Data and Modeling Update provided by the state of Michigan on November 16, 2021.

The next chart, also from the MDHHS presentation, shows that over the past 30 days, 28% of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Michigan and 24% of deaths have been among people who were fully vaccinated.

This again brings home the point: the current surge of cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 is mostly affecting those who are unvaccinated. But while the risks are certainly much, much lower for those who are fully vaccinated, there are still risks — especially if you are older, or you have underlying health conditions.

To reduce those risks, doctors and public health officials recommend the same things they’ve been recommending for more than a year: Avoid large indoor gatherings if you can. Wear a mask indoors whenever COVID-19 is spreading in your community (as it is now in every Michigan community).

And if your last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine was more than six months ago, chances are you can get a booster shot to give you even more protection against the virus.

Clarification: Spectrum Health updated its data to reflect the most recent information on patient vaccination status. The copy above reflects the change that unvaccinated patients are seven years older and have an average of four underlying health conditions.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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