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Michigan slowly entering a new phase of the pandemic

Children at school
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Keeping schools open and kids in class is one of the biggest priorities moving forward - even if it means accepting some risk.

It may not feel like it yet, but we may finally be entering a “new normal.” (Please ignore the previous times, like early summer 2021, when everyone was also like “It’s basically fine now!”)

Here’s the good news. Yes, Michigan is only now coming off the highest COVID case counts and hospitalizations of the entire pandemic. But the omicron surge seems to have finally peaked. In Southeast Michigan, both case numbers and hospitalizations from the virus have nose-dived over the past week. And the booster shot appears highly effective at preventing serious illness or death, even against omicron.

That’s why state and local health officials are shifting away from trying to contain COVID (they can’t) to trying to keep death counts low, keep the health system from getting even more overwhelmed, and keep the foundations of daily life (kids being in school and businesses having enough workers to stay open) functioning.

These are the “guiding principles…[of] what we’re trying to accomplish in the pandemic response at the current stage,” says Lisa Peacock, health officer for both the Health Department of Northwest Michigan and the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.

So universal contact tracing? Done. Wasn’t working. Only 4% of people reached by contact tracers were even participating. Also, no need to report your positive at-home COVID test - it wouldn’t really make a difference, and wasn’t being counted in the official state tally anyways.

Peacock says instead of “tell us if you test positive,” the new approach is essentially “tell us if you need help.” The link on the health department website that says “Please report your positive home test here” will now become a link for “if you have tested positive at home and you would like a call from the health department, please click here and fill out this information.”

“With this exponential [case] increase that we're seeing right now, it's just really not effective or possible to cold call every single person who has tested positive and give those instructions directly to individuals,” she says. “So we are really shifting our efforts toward being available for those who need us and have questions and need to work through what they should do if they tested positive.”

Health workers instead say they’ll focus on high-risk outbreaks in places like schools, jails, or nursing homes. In January alone, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says it distributed nearly 1 million antigen tests, with the bulk going to schools and long-term care centers.

Hospitals are still hurting. In West Michigan and up north, adult ICUs remain more than 90% full, according to data published by the state on Wednesday. And staffing problems are still the worst they’ve been since COVID, as frontline healthcare workers continue to contract the virus themselves. At Spectrum Health, West Michigan’s largest healthcare system, 680 staff members tested positive for COVID-19 just in the past week.

Still, there are signs that the worst may soon be over. In Muskegon for example, people who need to go to the emergency room will no longer be forced to sit in a tent while they wait to be evaluated. Mercy Health Muskegon erected the tent in the parking lot as patient numbers climbed, and the existing waiting room had to be converted to care for patients.

Since January 7, the outdoor tent has served as the new waiting room. But as of Thursday, the hospital announced the tent is coming down.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is unfortunately not over yet, so we are still looking to community members to continue doing their part to help slow the spread,” said Justin Grill, the hospital’s chief medical officer, in a statement. “However, these efforts are making a difference. We’ve seen enough of a decrease in our volumes coming into the Emergency Department that we are able to remove the tent and return to using our original waiting room.”

Mercy Health Muskegon is still receiving staffing help from an Air Force medical team, one of five Department of Defense teams currently in Michigan. But that team is scheduled to end its deployment on Monday. Teams assigned to hospitals in Grand Rapids and Dearborn are also scheduled to depart next week, though another team will arrive at Sparrow’s Lansing hospital.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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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