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Year in Review 2021: Covering COVID-19

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Much like 2020, we spent a lot of time in 2021 covering the COVID-19 pandemic. From new variants, to personal narratives, here are some of the year's biggest stories.

COVID "long haulers" ask, "What am I gaining to say that I'm still sick?"

More information is coming out about the potential long term symptoms of COVID-19. The CDC recently put out a list of the long term effects of the virus. And post-COVID treatment centers are growing in number.

It’s being called “Long COVID.” For people living with it, there are a lot of unknowns. They’re also navigating a health care system that isn’t always supportive.

The Michigan COVID-19 Recovery Surveillance Study showed that one in four people with confirmed COVID had not recovered to their normal state of health 10 to 29 weeks after their initial diagnosis.

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A lot of people with Long COVID are young - in their 20s, 30s, and 40s with no underlying health conditions. Brown is just 35. She’s part of a whole new group of people that needs to interact with the health care system in a way that they've never needed to before.

Not only is there little information about Long COVID, but long haulers are also grappling with the reality that who we are affects the care we receive.

In one UP county, some "identify as fully vaccinated" even though just 35% are

Fewer than 2,000 people (or 35% of all residents) here in Luce County are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Just 40% have had at least an initial dose.

And even in the U.P., where all but one county went for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, that makes Luce something of an outlier compared to its neighbors. (In Alger County, 57% have had initial shots; Mackinac’s at 56%, and Schoolcraft’s at 52%.)  

“We saw that same hesitation when we would hold drive through testing events last summer and last fall in our counties,” said Kerry Ott, public information officer for the Luce, Mackinac, Alger and Schoolcraft (LMAS) health department. “And it was always, our slowest one was Luce.”

“A lot of people are using the phrase, ‘I identify as fully vaccinated’ and taking their masks off," Ott sighed.  “I’m not kidding. ...They’re not vaccinated, but they’re going to take their masks off.”

But she’s telling local businesses there’s not much they can do, beyond making a “good faith” effort. 

Christian school says parents can write "medical" mask exemptions for their kids

It was Sunday, August 22, and the board at NorthPointe Christian Schools in Grand Rapids was holding an urgent evening meeting. Just two days earlier, the Kent County Health Department issued an mask order for pre-K through 6th grade students and staff, unless they had a “medical reason confirmed in writing from a Medical Doctor (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) currently licensed to practice medicine in the State of Michigan.”  

Until then, NorthPointe, a private school boasting “100% Christian staff” and full-time tuition ranging from about $7,500 for kindergarten and just under $10,000 for high schoolers, told families masks would be optional “but welcome at all campuses.” 

A little after 8 p.m. Sunday night, head of schools Todd Tolsma and board president Jeffrey Keessen sent an “important update” to families: after “much prayerful thought and consideration,” NorthPointe would allow parents to write a “medical” exemption for their own kids. 

“As a school we believe that no one knows what their child needs physically, spiritually, socially and emotionally better than the parent,” the email read. “That is why you chose NorthPointe Christian Schools. NorthPointe Christian will enact the KCHD mask order, but also will accept a parent’s or guardian’s written representation stating that your child is not wearing a face covering because they cannot medically tolerate a face covering. This includes the consideration for a child’s mental health.”

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

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.

Workers weary, patients angry, as COVID fills Michigan hospitals — again

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Ryan Garza
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Bridge Michigan

With an eye on his father’s bloodied face, Barry Jensen began punching numbers into his cell phone from the hospital emergency room.

His 90-year-old dad had fallen on a gravel driveway. His glasses were broken. His family worried that his bones might be, too.

Seats inside the Beaumont Hospital emergency room in the downriver Detroit community of Trenton were filled that day in late March. Several people lay on gurneys.

The son remembers thinking “it looked like a scene from a disaster movie, just on a smaller scale.”

A doctor might be free to see his father in another three, four, maybe even five hours, Jensen was told.

And don’t bother trying Henry Ford’s Health Center in Brownstown or its Wyandotte hospital, the hospital staffer warned — they were just as busy. As Barry Jensen listened, his wife used a water bottle and some antiseptic foam to dab her father-in-law’s face.

Similar scenes have been unfolding in emergency rooms across Michigan these days amid a steep rise in COVID-19 cases. 

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West Michigan’s largest health system moves to red status: "We don't know what comes next."

Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest health system, announced to its employees Thursday that it was moving to “red status” for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.

The announcement came after the Grand Rapids-based health system once again set a record for the number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals. And it came a little more than a week after Munson Healthcare in Northern Michigan announced a similar move. Hospitals across the state have been flooded with coronavirus patients over the past two weeks, the vast majority of whom are unvaccinated.

And hospital leaders say COVID-19 isn’t the only problem they’re facing. Many hospitals across Michigan are also seeing high volumes of patients sick with non-COVID illnesses. The combination of those high volumes along with rapidly increasing COVID cases is sending many hospitals into crisis mode.

Michigan's fourth surge was preventable. Now, "people die who don't have to die."

 In the spring of 2020, everyone talked about “flattening the curve” and keeping the health system from getting overwhelmed. But now, in late 2021, experts say the system is completely overwhelmed, with the state seeing the highest daily case count since the pandemic began. Yet unlike Michigan’s previous three surges, this one was preventable.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking what we are seeing,” says Dr. Rosalie Tocco-Bradley, chief clinical officer for Trinity Health Michigan, which has eight hospitals in the state, including St. Joseph’s. Every one of them is seeing a record number of COVID cases.

“We have actually had to ship ventilators in from other sister hospitals outside the state, because we don’t have enough ventilators to care for all the COVID patients. The nursing staff, the other clinical frontline staff...they are exhausted. They are frustrated. And I would say they are heartbroken, because they are seeing people die who don’t have to die.”

Don’t have to die, because the vast majority could have gotten vaccinated. In Michigan, 87% of hospitalizations and 86% of deaths are among people who aren’t fully vaccinated. And breakthrough hospitalizations are concentrated among older adults with multiple underlying conditions, Malani says.

Michigan hits 1 million COVID-19 vaccine doses — here are the highlights

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It's been seven weeks since the first COVID-19 vaccines were distributed in Michigan and, as of Monday, the state has now officially seen over one million shots in arms. 

 The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services tracks its vaccine distributions in a dashboard that is updated throughout the week with metrics for first and second doses, doses by county, and more. 

 As of Sunday, more than 200,000 people are now fully vaccinated. 

 Detroiter Marilyn Robinson will join that group when she receives a second dose on Wednesday.  

 “I am going to allow my grandson and my granddaughter to come in and see me. They haven't been here for months and I miss them,” the 89-year-old Detroit resident said. “But I've asked them to wear masks just to be on the safe side.” 

Here are the biggest reasons Michiganders say they don't want the COVID vaccine

White Michiganders are more likely to think the risk of COVID is overblown, and that they don’t think they’re at risk of getting sick.

But Black and Latinx residents, who are more likely to know someone who’s died of the virus, say they’re more worried about the vaccine itself - that it’s too new, for instance, or that they don’t trust vaccines in general, or that they “worry that I could get COVID-19 from the vaccine."

That’s according to survey results released by the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan on Monday.

About 1,000 Michigan adults were polled online between March 19 and April 1, just a few days before Michigan opened vaccinations to the general population 16+. The questions focused on whether they intended to get vaccinated/already had been vaccinated, and if not, sought to measure how strong the resistance was and the broad reasons behind it.

Across the board, 86% of Michiganders who say they’re not intending to get vaccinated, say the biggest reason is “side effects.”

Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Radio. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.