With Michigan in the midst of rising cases again in the COVID-19 pandemic, St. Clair County is being hit especially hard. St. Clair County's average test positivity rate over the last two weeks, at 20.3%, is nearly double the statewide average. The county's hospitalization rate is currently the highest in the state, and is more than double the hospitalization rate in the next hardest hit county, Crawford.
Dr. John Brooks is the chief medical officer for McLaren Port Huron Hospital. He says the hospital has definitely been seeing an uptick in COVID-19 patients, most of whom are younger than 50.
"If we go back through February, we were doing quite well at that point in time. Our in-patient was around six COVID patients, and that was a huge improvement we had seen over November, early December in wave two for us. But then we kind of ramped up. Last week, we actually touched a day where we had 60 COVID patients in the hospital."
But, he says, the situation is not deteriorating like it did during the winter, indicating a potential plateau.
"What's been good is that as of today, we're at 47. That's a snapshot in time of right now, but what we didn't see is the 60 go to 70, 80, or 90 like we saw back in December. It did certainly increase, we saw a rapid change, but now it seems to be stabilizing."
He says the B.1.1.7 variant is probably playing a role in the increased spread in the region: research shows that the variant appears to be more contagious than the original version of the virus.
"The ability to give it to more people since it’s more transmissible, may be also driving part of this in that younger age group, because they’re not vaccinated. And certainly we’re back to school, we’re back to after school activities, all the activities of life have picked back up as the weather got a little nicer, so that seems to be part of the driver," he says.
Dr. Annette Mercatante is the medical health officer for the St. Clair County Health Department. She agrees with Dr. Brooks' assessment.
"The assumption is that human behavior is driving this, although I do think the variant has a component in St. Clair County. I think we do have a problem maybe with that," she says.
But that's not the only factor contributing to the uptick in cases, she says. Dr. Mercatante adds, "I think St. Clair County has pockets of communities that are not very compliant, I'll be honest with you. There's individuals who failed to respond to isolation and quarantine requests and by the time we find out, their quarantine periods are over. We struggle with that, as many communities do, and unfortunately it doesn't take a lot with a highly transmissible virus like this to kind of start a wildfire. "
She says it's going to be more important than ever for residents to take all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, whether it's the variant or not.
"We need to be proactive and assume that we’re dealing with the variant in every case, I believe. And at that point, just really strengthening and tightening up mitigation strategies." Sticking to those mitigation strategies hasn't always been easy, Dr. Mercatante says. "There was this move towards loosening everything up, shortening quarantine periods, and there was a lot of pressure to start doing that."
She says the increase in cases puts a strain on the health department's ability to trace and track outbreaks, making them harder to contain.
"When we're at 20-30 cases a day, we do a great job. We're a small health department of less than a hundred people, we are utilizing all of our state support programs, but we're closer to 200 new cases a day now, and quite honestly, we focus on the highest risk ones." Those priority cases include school related outbreaks and cases related to the B.1.1.7 variant.
The focus in the coming weeks, Dr. Mercatante says, is to vaccinate as many people as possible, to protect as many people as possible.
The reopening of K-12 schools also likely played a role in the increased transmission, according to Dr. Mercatante and Dr. Brooks. In response to the increased cases, a number of schools in the county, including Algonac Junior and Senior High School and all of Port Huron Schools' middle and high schools have put a pause on in-person learning until April.