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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

After 2 years of COVID, how can Michiganders get back to "normal?"

A person holding a medical face mask
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You’ve got to give yourself some time.

It’s been two years since Michiganders got the news they’d been bracing for: late in the evening of March 10, 2020, officials announced two people had tested positive for COVID-19, the first known cases in the state. Then, eight days later, came news of the first death: Beaumont Health announced a man in his 50s had succumbed to the virus.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration was swiftly moving the state into lockdown, and nobody knew how long it would last - at the time, K-12 schools were just closed “until Monday.”

For thousands of Michiganders, life will never be the same. MOre than 32,000 people in the state have died of COVID-19. Loved ones that are gone forever.

More than 2.3 million cases have been reported, and thousands are struggling with the long term side effects of the disease.

Even now, with COVID hospitalizations the lowest they’ve been since last summer, none of us are going to feel like our old, pre-pandemic selves.

“There's still going to be for many of us, I think that feeling in the back of our head: ‘Do I still need to be worried here? This doesn’t feel right.’” said Dr. Jeff Guina, a psychiatrist at Beaumont Health and chief medical officer of Easterseals Michigan, a non-profit community mental health provider. “And it’s going to take time.”

That wariness and vigilance make sense, given the cycles of surges over the last two years. Guina compares it to active duty military who’ve returned home, but can’t shake the sense that a sniper or explosive device could be anywhere.

“It doesn't mean you just turn off that way of thinking and that behavior,” he said. “And for some people, it takes weeks, some months, some years. Some people deal with that sense of vigilance for the rest of our lives.”

Two years of loss, grief and isolation adds up, Guina said.

“Those cumulative traumas over time can have an effect on how we think, feel and behave, and how we think about ourselves and about the world.”

Thinking of COVID as a weather pattern

But by this point, we do have a general idea of what to expect, said Emily Martin, an epidemiologist with the University of Michigan: cases tend to go down in summer, start rising in fall with the return to school, and spike in the winter. And new variants could determine whether those spikes are seriously disruptive.

“We need to watch for those emergencies to happen, and then watch to really quickly figure out, how severe are they?” Martin said. “How good is the vaccine match [in protecting against it?] And then plan around that to say: what do we need to do next to prepare for this to come? And I think we're getting better at doing that.”

That strategy looks very different than what many were imagining this time last year, as older and immunocompromised Michiganders were getting vaccinated. Once everyone was eligible for the shot, officials hoped vaccination would be our path out of the pandemic. Governor Gretchen Whitmer initially tied the rollback of restrictions to immunization rates.

“We can get to 70%,” Whitmer said last spring. “We've got the supply now, thanks to the Biden administration. We all got to be focused on and trying to get to that mark, because that's really where we have the greatest protection as a community, as a state, and it's really the best thing we can do for our economy as well.”

Yet nearly a year later, only 66% of Michiganders have had at least one shot, with many regions seeing rates below 50%. Only some 3 million have received the booster, out of a population of nearly 10 million. And health officials have consistently struggled to combat vaccine misinformation, which has run rampant.

But we are getting better at predicting COVID’s patterns, Martin said, pointing to the recent omicron surge: officials had a general sense of when it would hit and how long it would last, even if the sheer size of community spread exceeded some expectations. And the booster shots were highly effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths. That’s what we should hope for moving forward, she said: forecasting COVID surges like the weather.

“Weather sometimes disrupts our lives, but we usually have a little bit of warning, and we know what to expect and we know what actions that we take when there's a storm coming,” Martin said. “We also know we take different actions when there's an ice storm coming versus when there's, you know, tornado weather versus wet weather.”

Continuing to push vaccinations, even if the impact is incremental, still matters. Vaccinations and boosters are still the most effective means of preventing deaths or overwhelming the hospital system: 80% of COVID deaths in the past year were among people who weren’t fully vaccinated, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s especially important as the public health response has shifted from community-wide mandates and lockdowns, to individual choice.

“We've moved away from this model that when hospitalizations or disease rates get to a certain level, we as a community and the businesses and the schools and whatever do things a little bit differently for that period of time,” Martin said. “We've largely just switched to this individualistic decision model, which is very exhausting, right? Because when you’ve got no clear recommendations on different pieces of behavior, you're sort of left with almost too many choices.”

But even now when case levels are low, Martin worries that will lessen the public push to improve paid leave, increase the supply of COVID outpatient therapies, and make free testing a regular, reliable part of daily life. If people can’t stay home from work with a sick kid, or even figure out if their kid is sick, then progress will be slower.

We need to “put the onus back on communities and institutions, where we can be doing these things on a larger scale as well,” she said. “We haven't done enough as institutions to move that needle, instead of putting the burden on individuals…to be safe.”