COVID making a comeback in Michigan?

Scientists have been chattering about New York City lately because of the concerning South-African-style variant that’s emerged there, one that’s turning up in more and more patients. But that threat for now remains hypothetical. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in NYC are all down from their averages over the previous four weeks. Cases in the city didn’t fall this past winter as sharply as they did in other parts of the country, which has experts wondering if that might be a prelude to a new spike driven by the variant. But that’s all it is right now — a possibility.

In Michigan, it’s not a possibility. Cases are rising, as are hospitalizations. The increase is modest, but scientists fretting about one last wave before the vaccines put coronavirus to sleep now have a solid reason to worry. Something’s happening in MI. The question is how bad it’ll get.

It’s ironic that two of the Democrats’ biggest pandemic stars, Andrew Cuomo and Gretchen Whitmer, helped create the conditions for the virus’s “last gasp” in their home states. It’s not all their fault, of course, but both have been criticized by experts lately for opening up businesses too soon, at a moment when variants are circulating and the vaccination program still has a ways to go. Whitmer became a national figure, in fact, because of her willingness last year to lock down aggressively. Now she’s gone the other way and has a COVID resurgence on her hands to deal with:

It’d be one thing if cases were rising while severe cases were falling, i.e. a “casedemic” in which the vaccine was preventing bad outcomes from infection. But as you can see, hospitalizations are up too. What gives? How can that be when we’re three months into a mass immunization program?

For starters, Michigan’s vaccine rollout isn’t going great. They’re in the bottom half of the 50 states in both first doses and second doses administered. They’ve been particularly bad about keeping up the pace in Detroit and among black residents statewide. The COVID Tracking Project has numbers:

The vaccination of people 65 and older and of nursing-home residents should blunt the death toll of a rise in cases. But according to state data, Michigan has administered first doses to 61 percent of its residents aged 65–74, and 62 percent of residents 75 and older. Detroit’s figures are much lower: The city has given first doses to only 43 percent of those aged 65–74 and 39 percent of people 75 and older. For comparison, the CDC reports that 66 percent of the U.S. population aged 65 and up has received at least one dose of vaccine. The numbers are even worse for Black people in Michigan: Statewide, just 28 percent of Black residents 65 and older are known to have received at least one dose of vaccine. Overall, Michigan has administered first doses to only about a quarter of its total population, and that number falls to 15 percent in Detroit.

Next week the state is opening a mass vaccination center at Detroit’s Ford Field to try to pick up the pace. Meanwhile, Michigan has been bedeviled by the spread of the British variant, which is both more contagious and possibly more lethal than common “wild-type” coronavirus.

Along with Florida, Michigan has one of the highest numbers of identified cases of the B.1.1.7 strain that first emerged in the United Kingdom. That variant has been identified in 725 cases in 31 Michigan counties.

“Just a reminder, this variant is more transmissible, so someone who is infected of COVID-19 will transmit that virus more easily to to others,” Dr. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the MDHHS Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, said in a March 17 press briefing.

Michigan has the second largest number of B.1.1.7 cases in the country according to the CDC, behind only Florida. Having an especially infectious virus circulating in a population that’s lagging in vaccinations is … not great.

Then there’s Whitmer’s contribution, the new reopening policy. Not only is that fostering more personal interactions, it’s signaling to residents that the pandemic has eased to the point where they can relax some of their own precautions — even though cases are now on the rise. Go figure that the average joe, observing his otherwise highly cautious governor beginning to soften restrictions, might conclude prematurely that COVID is over and it’s time to get back to normal.

Whitmer eased restrictions earlier this month, increasing capacity limits at restaurants, retail stores and gyms from 25% to 50% capacity, with a maximum capacity of 100 people per locale…

[Dr. Jennifer] Morse said the rollback of restrictions has led to poor mask wearing. She also said that news of emerging vaccines led people to believe they could relax some of the their hygiene habits such as wearing masks…

Michiganders are also starting to travel more, nearing levels not seen since before the pandemic, Morse said — a claim backed by data from the Bureau of Transportation.

Put it all together and the state has the conditions in place for another wave. Hopefully (certainly?) it’ll be one with a limited death toll due to the level of natural and artificially induced immunity in the population, but the situation in Michigan is one the Faucis of the world can point to as evidence that continued precautions are the right move for now. You don’t want to fumble on the five-yard line, right?

Speaking of which, he’s already taken to using the state as an example of what not to do, albeit while taking care to praise Whitmer effusively, of course. Here he is on CNN last night nudging other governors not to relax just yet.