Michigan reported 195 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, its highest number in more than two weeks.
The state’s seven-day average of new cases has crept up from 110 on Monday to 125 as of Wednesday, the first upward trend since mid-April.
How much should Michiganders worry?
If they are vaccinated, not at all — at least at this point.
But this week’s pop in the caseload is a reminder that the virus hasn’t gone away, the pandemic isn’t over and people who aren’t vaccinated are still vulnerable to catching COVID-19.
The rise in numbers also isn’t surprising, considering that Michigan lifted its mask mandate on June 22, and life has returned to near-normal for many people, vaccinated or not and despite the fact that Michigan health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control still recommend masks for people who haven’t been immunized.
“Nobody’s taking any mitigation measure anymore,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, a Grand Rapids infectious disease specialist with Spectrum Health. “They’re all done with that.”
Emily Martin, a University of Michigan epidemiologist, said she was excited to see the numbers drop so much in June. The seven-day average was 466 on June 1, and the state reported only 40 new cases on Friday, June 25.
“We were super, super happy to see that happen,” she said.
But Martin also said she is not “completely surprised” that the state reported 173 new cases on Tuesday and 195 on Wednesday, June 29 and 30.
“Vaccination rates are still too low to keep from ever bouncing back up,” she said.
About 62.4% of Michigan residents age 18 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine. That’s below the national average of 66.5% and below President Biden’s goal of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by July 4.
Still, vaccinations are the main reason that Michigan’s COVID-19 numbers have plummeted for the past two months, experts say. As proof of the vaccines’ effectiveness: Of Michigan’s 300,000 confirmed coronavirus cases since February, only 7,263 — 2.4% — involve people who are fully vaccinated.
But vaccination rates vary considerably around the state, and Sullivan said it’s no coincidence that counties with the highest per-capita case rates in June — Branch, Kalkaska, St. Joseph, Baraga and Ionia — also have been counties where the vaccination rate is below the state average.
Martin agreed, saying she anticipates that “we’re entering an era where some areas will have low to nothing (in terms of cases) and some areas will be numbers that will swell up and then go away.”
Under-vaccinated communities are much more vulnerable to such outbreaks, she said. That’s particularly true if they are communities that haven’t been hard-hit by COVID-19 outbreaks in the past year, which means fewer people lack natural immunity.
It’s not just about vaccination rates, experts say. It’s also a matter of luck.
Michigan currently has very low rates of community transmission. That considerably reduces the chances that an unvaccinated person will be exposed to the virus.
On the other hand, the B.1.1.7. variant is currently the dominant COVID-19 strain in Michigan and the Delta variant that originated in India has gained a foothold. Both strains are considerably more contagious that the original strain of COVID-19, which increases the risk of infection if someone is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And experts say those risks likely will increase in the fall, when children return to school and people of all ages spend more time indoors.
“It will be really interesting to see what happens with schools,” Sullivan said.
Traditionally, caseloads of respiratory virus pick up when schools go back into session and “traditionally, the thought is that kids serve as incubators and transmit the virus to adults,” he said. With COVID-19, “it’s been the opposite case, where it’s been circulating mainly in the adult population and the adults have been the major transmitters.”
However, COVID-19 transmission is now limited to people who are unvaccinated, and that includes children under 12, who are too young to be vaccinated and two-thirds of those age 12 to 19.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the fall when you have a bigger group of unvaccinated people coming together,” Sullivan said. “Is that going to influence the pandemic? It will be interesting to see what rate of infection you’ll see in that group and the outbreaks that we’ll get.”
Experts agree that getting more people vaccinated will lower the risks for children.
Dr. Dennis Cunningham, an infectious disease specialist with Henry Ford Health System in metro Detroit, said countries such as Israel with higher rates of vaccination than the Unites States “really started getting the virus under control when around 60% of the population is vaccinated. When you get to 70% of the population, it’s really under great control and we’re not yet there to 70% fully vaccinated.”
“It’s very unpredictable,” Cunningham added. “Virus mutations happen very quickly. There are always new and emerging barriers (in fighting the virus). Right now, the vaccines are protecting against all those barriers so I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m feeling the most optimistic since this pandemic started.”
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