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Michigan COVID situation ‘critical’ as state seeks more ventilators: health officials

December 13, 2021
The Detroit News
Dec. 10, 2021
Craig Mauger 

Michigan’s top public health officials described the surge in COVID-19 that continues to afflict the state as a “critical” situation and “deeply concerning” as they seek 200 more ventilators to treat serious cases.

But as coronavirus infections and deaths continue to surge, health officials indicated no new restrictions were coming to try to combat the numbers.

Instead, during a press conference on the 21-month anniversary of Michigan’s first COVID-19 cases being reportedElizabeth Hertel, the health director, and Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, the chief medical executive, again urged residents to get vaccinated, obtain their booster shots and voluntarily wear masks. Their pleas came a day after Michigan reported its first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and amid record numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“The situation in our state is critical right now,” Bagdasarian said. “Cases are surging. Hospitals are full. And we have a new variant.”

Likewise, Hertel, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the state’s COVID-19 numbers were trending in “a deeply concerning direction, heading into the Christmas holiday and the new year.”

The state is seeking 200 additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan health department.

It’s a request that points to the seriousness of the current situation and recalls the early months of the pandemic when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration feuded with then-President Donald Trump over access to health care supplies from the federal government.

On Friday afternoon — hours after the cautionary comments by health officials — Michigan surpassed 25,000 deaths tied to COVID-19.

The state Department of Health and Human Services reported 11,783 new COVID-19 cases and 235 deaths linked to the virus on Friday, including numbers from Thursday. The new deaths pushed the overall tally since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to 25,080.

Deaths tied to the virus were increasing, Bagdasarian told reporters.

“Eighty-seven people died of COVID-19 each day in the last week here in our state,” she told reporters. “Eighty-seven people each day. (I) just want to emphasize that number.”

Record hospitalizations tallies

The state also reported a record number of adults were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases on Friday: 4,502. The number was higher than the peaks of the three past surges and has been increasing since July.

The tally has spiked in recent weeks, spurring concerns about when the surge will crest and the health care system’s ability to handle the crush of new patients.

About 75% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients across the state are not fully vaccinated, according to state officials.

During the surge at the end of 2020, the number of adults hospitalized with confirmed cases peaked at 3,884 on Dec. 1, 2020. Friday’s tally was up 16% over that number.

Last week, the percentage of tests for the virus bringing positive results hit 19.6%, a potentially troubling sign of the disease’s prevalence and the highest percentage since the early weeks of the pandemic when much less testing was taking place.

Hertel: Vaccines are focus

During another virus surge a year ago, state health officials closed indoor dining at restaurants and suspended in-person learning at high schools and colleges. This month, some have called for a statewide mask mandate for indoor gatherings or at K-12 schools.

But Hertel said the state’s focus is making sure people are getting vaccinated and getting booster shots.

“Masking is important while we go through trying to achieve our herd immunity through vaccinations, but vaccinations are the absolute best tool that we have,” she said. “It is imperative that people get vaccinated as soon as possible or get their booster shot if they’re eligible.”

Likewise, Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Friday stressed the importance of vaccines.

In March, Walensky said she had a sense of “impending doom” amid rising COVID case numbers. Asked about that remark Friday, Walensky said she’s not feeling the same amid the current surge because the country has “many more readily available tools” than earlier this year.

“We have 200 million people who are fully vaccinated, and we have boosters readily available and 80,000 sites for people to roll up their sleeves and get maximum protection from our vaccines and our boosters,” she said at a press briefing. “We have vaccinations for our children down to the age of 5, and we have a lot of science that informs many of the things that we can do to prevent COVID-19 in ourselves and our families and in our communities.

“It is the collection of all of those things together — vaccinations, boosters and preventive measures — that really gives me a lot more faith in our where we are currently.”

New variant arrives

A day before the comments, the Michigan health department revealed the first case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus was detected in a fully vaccinated Kent County resident. The variant is believed to be more transmissible than other variants, including delta, which is driving Michigan’s current surge.

It might be too soon to determine whether the omicron variant is associated with less, similar or more severe disease, as evidence is still in its early stages, said Stephen Hawes, professor and chairman of the Department of Epidemiology, School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

“In terms of vaccination, the message remains that vaccination is the most important prevention method, both at an individual and population level, and that boosters are currently necessary to ensure best protection against the current and emerging virus strains,” Hawes said.

Asked if the omicron variant has changed her thinking on requiring students to wear masks in K-12 schools, Hertel said the state continues to recommend masks be worn in schools.

For months, the state health department has declined to issue a statewide mandate for masks in schools, instead choosing to encourage districts and county health officials to institute the requirements.

The current surge continues to crowd hospitals across the state. It has the ability to hinder everyone’s access to health care, Hertel said.

Meanwhile, a team of 23 military nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and other personnel has been stationed at Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn to assist with COVID-19.

Dr. Paolo Marciano, chief medical officer for Beaumont Hospital in Dearborn, said receiving staffing assistance from the federal government at his facility had been a “tremendous lifeline.”

“Where we are today is really just keeping our head above water,” he said.

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