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Stateside Podcast: Michigan leads U.S. in COVID-19 cases

courtesy of Spectrum Health
West Michigan’s largest hospital system, Spectrum Health, on Tuesday reported more COVID inpatient cases than the hospital has ever had at any point in the pandemic.

This week, Michigan’s COVID infection numbers exploded into a fourth surge that has worried doctors, overwhelmed hospital systems and left the rest of us asking what could be next.

Over the past few months, case numbers in the state have slowly been creeping up, according to Michigan Radio’s Dustin Dwyer. But that slow increase? “In the last week,” he said, “that really changed.”

Michigan is now leading the nation in COVID infections.

West Michigan’s largest hospital, Spectrum Health, on Tuesday reported more COVID inpatient cases than the hospital has ever had at any point in the pandemic. In addition, more tests are coming back positive, more kids are being hospitalized and people seem to be sicker than in previous months, Dwyer said.

Why Michigan, and why now?

Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan, is responsible for the health and safety of tens of thousands of students, faculty, and staff. She’s also a practicing physician at Michigan Medicine who specializes in infectious disease.

“It's easy to forget that this is a novel coronavirus,” Malani said. While doctors have made strides in prevention and treatment, the way the virus moves and changes is not fully understood.

“We still don't understand it even almost two years into this. Although it's changed all of humanity, we're still learning,” she said.

But we do know who’s most likely to become severely ill from contracting the virus. According to Dr. Malani, most people hospitalized due to COVID are unvaccinated or those with underlying health conditions.

“We still have work to do in terms of getting folks vaccinated,” she said.

As if hospitals don’t have enough on their plates with the surge, the state continues to be threatened by another virus: the flu. Dr. Malani warned of what she called a “twindemic”—being hit by a flu outbreak amid the pandemic. Although she first started worrying about how both viruses' paths might collide last year, her fears didn't pan out -- possibly because many Michiganders were staying home and avoiding one or the other disease. But this year, the fourth surge, combined with low vaccination rates, may be cause for concern.

Around 70% of Michiganders are fully vaccinated against coronavirus. But, according to state records, only 20% have gotten flu shots this season. At this time last year, Michigan’s vaccination rates were nearly 50% higher. Health systems paid a lot of attention to vaccinating against the flu because, in addition to avoiding the bug, their ERs and inpatient beds were already overwhelmed, Dr. Malani said.

To the extent they know health care systems are swamped by COVID, people may be more motivated to get their flu shots in coming weeks.

Most flu vaccines are free with insurance, but free vaccines are available for those without insurance as well. Locations for COVID and flu vaccines can be found at vaccines.gov.

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Claire Murashima is a production assistant for Stateside.
Mercedes Mejia is a producer and the Director of Stateside.