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Michigan passes one million COVID-19 cases. Where does the pandemic go from here?

Coronavirus

Michigan crossed a COVID-19 threshold this week: the state has now reported more than one million confirmed cases since the pandemic began.

On Friday, the state reported an additional 6,080 cases over the past two days, an average of 3,040 per day. The current test positivity rate is 8.48%.

In reality, epidemiologists agree that the state crossed the one-million case threshold some time ago. But it’s hard to know how many cases were missed, says University of Michigan epidemiologist Jon Zelner.

Zelner said case numbers are important data, but might not be the indicator of pandemic severity they once were. He attributes that in large part to vaccinations.

“The case numbers, as we go along, are going to become a less and less reliable indicator of what’s going on,” Zelner said. “Because hopefully this becomes more kind of like a no-big-deal type of infection, particularly for people who are vaccinated.”

Instead, Zelner said hospitalizations and deaths are a better indicator of where we stand in the pandemic. In Michigan, both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have increased steadily since a low point in June, around the time the delta variant became the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. On Friday, there were 1,467 adult inpatients in Michigan hospitals with confirmed COVID-19.

But Michigan hasn’t seen the sort of exponential, delta-variant fueled COVID surge some other states have, or that it saw during earlier surges last spring and fall. Epidemiologists attribute that to a combination of more widespread vaccinations, and natural immunity.

Zelner thinks Michigan’s vaccination rate, which he calls “not great, but not bad,” probably put a ceiling on the state’s Delta wave. “That’s making a huge difference, probably in the overall number of cases, and then in the severity of those cases, which probably means there are some that have just not been reported because they’re fully asymptomatic,” he said.

Zelner said the pandemic is “on the way down,” but “how it ends is an open question.” He said vaccinating young children, and more people globally, will be key to moving from a full-blown pandemic to a more manageable virus. But he cautioned that the virus could still possibly evolve into something even more lethal.

“The vaccines we have are very effective, but what we've seen with the emergence of things like Delta is that, particularly if they haven't been updated to account for these new variants, they become less effective with time because the pathogen evolves,” Zelner said. “And so we have a window in which we can make the best use of the vaccines that we have.”