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Michigan COVID hospitalizations climbing, but still relatively low

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Lester Graham
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Michigan Radio
Sparrow nurse Maddie Schrauben caring for Annette Cyphter in the spring of 2021, when hospitalizations surged. This spring, cases are expected to rise, but health officials hope severe illnesses and deaths will remain low.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising faster in Michigan than we’ve seen over the last several weeks. But state and local health officials say they’re expected to remain relatively low overall, even as the omicron BA.2 is expected to mean an increase in cases between now and the end of May.

“Hopefully what we see here is an increase [in cases and transmission] but not necessarily that severe illness following that,” said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, spokesperson for Washtenaw County Health Department. “And that's really what we want to keep an eye on and do everything possible to prevent.”

Unlike previous surges, there are several buffers that could help limit BA.2’s impact: a relatively high vaccination rate among the elderly, boosters, therapeutics, and some residual immunity in those who already got sick in the previous omicron surge.

On average, about 84 people per day were being admitted to the hospital with COVID as of April 25, according to the state health department. That’s a nearly 20% jump from last week, and a significant increase from just a few weeks ago. But there are only about 500 adults currently hospitalized with confirmed COVID in the state. Compare that to January’s record-setting peak of 4,500 adult hospitalizations.

“The increase we are seeing in hospitalizations isn’t unexpected and what happens next depends on severity of cases during this uptick and who is getting infected,” said Lynn Sutfin, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human services, in an email.

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Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
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If transmission rates of the BA.2 subvariant are what they were in the UK, then state health officials predict we'll see a modest rise in cases between now and the end of May.

“If [new] cases are among those who [are] unvaccinated and/or older or who have other health issues, then we could see additional hospitalizations. If cases are among those who are vaccinated, or previously infected, or generally younger/healthier, it’s possible hospitalizations and deaths will not increase.”

The state’s hospitalization data also “may not differentiate” between people who’ve been hospitalized for non-COVID reasons, but incidentally test positive once they’re admitted, Sutfin added.

Hospitals around the state are also expecting to see more COVID patients in the coming month. “...[B]ut there are clear indications that the severity of illness is down and so we hope there will not be a surge of COVID hospitalizations like the state has experienced previously,” said John Karasinski of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

Currently, only a handful of Michigan counties have risen to from low to medium “COVID-19 community levels,” a new CDC metric based on how many hospital beds are being used, the number of hospital admissions, and the total number of new COVID-19 cases in an area.

One of those is Washtenaw County, where there’s been a small spike in the daily case numbers. But that’s largely because the county’s doing more testing, Ringler-Cerniglia believes.

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MDHHS
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Recent COVID case data for Washtenaw County. The recent uptick the county's seen in cases is likely happening elsewhere, too, a local health official says.

“We estimate [the county] has 2 to 3 times as much testing as happens in neighboring jurisdictions,” she said, pointing to testing done at the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, and large hospitals systems in the area. Tests performed by professional labs are reported to the state’s data collection system, unlike home tests.

“So that means we're detecting and reporting more, and probably means things are similar [in terms of new cases] in other areas.”

Wastewater tests to detect traces of the SARS-COV-2 virus show similar patterns happening in the greater metro Detroit area. That would make sense based on students and families returning from spring break, Ringler-Cerniglia said, as well as the recent holidays. “This is nothing new, that happens everywhere: the cases tend to happen after gatherings and holiday breaks.”

But it’s still critical to be aware of the increasing transmission rates, she said, and take steps to keep yourself and others from spreading the virus to vulnerable people.

“So first and foremost, that's going to be your vaccinations and your boosters, especially if you're at increased risk,” she said. “Making sure that you have those tools on hand, like the testing kits to detect an illness early…have those well-fitted masks on hand, and make sure also that you know if you're eligible for therapeutics or antivirals and that you know how to access them. Because that treatment with those early in the course of illness is really, really critical and can also prevent that severe illness.”

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