The late summer wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Michigan, driven by the highly contagious delta variant, appears to be finally declining, but winter is around the corner.
Last December and January, as the weather grew colder and people began gathering indoors, Michigan experienced its deadliest surge, with COVID-19 claiming the lives of more than 100 residents a day. Nearly 5,000 new coronavirus cases were reported every day in those two grim months.
Will this winter be any different?
“It’s very difficult to project where the hot spots will be,” Dr. Justin Skrzynski, who has run the COVID-19 unit at Beaumont Health’s flagship hospital in Royal Oak, tells Metro Times. “We predicted surges that haven’t come, and we predicted low numbers that have turned into the worst in the state.”
Here’s what we do know: Last winter, virtually no one was vaccinated. Now, 63.7% of Michigan residents are fully vaccinated.
On the other hand, COVID-19 cases surged despite the closure of schools, movie theaters, stadiums, bowling alleys, and casinos, all of which are now open. Concerts and sporting events are drawing large crowds, though many of the venues now require people to be vaccinated. In the first eight weeks of this school year, more than 450 COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at schools, a majority of them in counties without mask mandates.
To prevent another deadly surge in Michigan, Skrzynski says it’s critical that people continue to wear masks and get vaccinated.
“Vaccinations are supremely important in terms of preventing further surges,” Skrzynski says. “When you’re vaccinated, you are taking that protection wherever you go. There is promising data that indicates that vaccinated people don’t transmit nearly as much.”
In fact, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services estimates that fewer than 1% of people who are vaccinated end up contracting the virus. Unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The majority of people in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated,” Skrzynski says. “The people who are really sick tend not to be vaccinated.”
Despite the success of vaccines, the state has been unable to reach its goal of inoculating 70% of the eligible population.
In the metropolitan area, vaccination rates are highest in Oakland County and lowest in Macomb County and Detroit. In Oakland County, nearly 75% of residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 46.8% in Detroit and 63.7 in Macomb County. The vaccination rate is 72.2% in Wayne County and 74% in Washtenaw County.
Unsurprisingly, Oakland County has the lowest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths in metro Detroit. Macomb County has the highest rates.
In the event of a surge in the winter, Detroit and Macomb County are far more vulnerable than the rest of the region.
In Detroit, the problem isn’t access to vaccines. The city has created more vaccination sites than anywhere in the state and is even offering to inoculate residents in their homes.
In the majority Black city, there is a deep-rooted distrust of the federal government and medical community.
In the event of a COVID-19 surge in the winter, Detroit and Macomb County are far more vulnerable than the rest of the region.
“We’ve been very aggressive about getting shots in arms,” Barb Roethler, spokeswoman for the Detroit Health Department, tells Metro Times. “We have done everything we can to make it easy for Detroit residents to get vaccinated. One of the areas we know is still an ongoing issue is the distrust in vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is still very much caused by a lack of accurate information. There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially on social media.”
In October, the city launched a campaign cleverly called, “Get the vax, not the fiction,” which is aimed at dispelling conspiracy theories and myths that have gone viral on social media sites. The posts falsely claim that vaccines cause infertility, infect people with COVID-19, and alter the body’s DNA.
The face of the city’s campaign is a beaming 9-year-0ld boy, who appears on billboards and social media with messages such as, “The vaccine will not make you magnetic.”
The city is also running ads on the radio, television, and websites and is sending every resident a postcard with information on a hotline center for anyone with questions about vaccines.
The city is even going door-to-door to encourage people to get vaccinated, and holding weekly town halls, some of which take place in salons and barbershops.
To help get out of the message about vaccine safety, the city has recruited pastors, social media influencers, professional athletes, and health care professionals to spread the word.
“Those are the people that Detroiters trust,” Roethler says. “We have to help alleviate fears so we can continue to get Detroiters vaccinated.”
Health officials recognize the urgency. With holidays approaching, many Detroiters will be gathering with friends and loved ones.
Aware that many people won’t get vaccinated, the city is encouraging Detroiters to take extra precautions.
“We want people to be able to celebrate the holidays with their loved ones in person,” Roethler says. “We believe that people can do that if they just follow a few of the safety protocols, like small gatherings. We are encouraging people to get tested at least 72 hours before their celebration or before they travel.
“We do want to get our lives back and celebrate during the holidays without seeing a surge that will take us back a few steps.”
Meanwhile, in Macomb County, like many Republican strongholds, vaccines have become politicized. According to a Michigan poll, Republicans and supporters of former President Donald Trump are less likely to get vaccinated. An EPIC-MRA poll in February found that 47% of Republicans don’t plan to get vaccinated.
Even Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a moderate Democrat, has shied away from advocating for vaccines. He also said he won’t voluntarily require Macomb County government employees to get vaccinated, and when asked by The Detroit News if he had been inoculated, he responded, “I won’t answer the question. It bothers me that someone would even ask the question. I think it’s wrong. It’s unbelievable the bullying that goes on.”
Hackel boycotted the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island in September because attendees were required to get vaccinated. He also opposes mask mandates.
For its part, the Macomb County Health Department is spreading the message about the importance of vaccines on its website, press releases, bi-weekly newsletters, social media, billboards, videos, and postcards. The county also has a fully-staffed COVID-19 helpline (586-463-3750) that answers residents’ questions about vaccines.
“Because the CDC and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have sponsored broad-based broadcast media awareness campaigns, we have focused our efforts on using locally-driven communications and outreach channels to promote COVID-19 vaccinations,” Andrew Cox, director and health officer of the Macomb County Health Department, tells Metro Times. “A great deal of our messaging focuses on how and where people can get their vaccinations.”
Whether the outreach campaigns will make much of a difference remains to be seen. The vaccination rate has remained relatively stagnant for the past few months.
“Unfortunately it seems the hesitancy seems pretty firm,” Skrzynski says. “Everyone who was enthusiastic about getting vaccinated has already done it. It’s pretty well stalled out. You can show people all the data and the sad stories and all the images, but quite frankly, I don’t know how many minds we are going to change at this point. It’s still very much worth the effort.”
The next important front in the battle against COVID-19 is vaccines for children. On Friday, the Food & Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that only 27% of parents are planning to get their children vaccinated right away.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on Oct. 26 to accelerate the distribution of pediatric doses once they become available.
“This is a game-changer for our kids that will protect them as they continue to learn in-person in the classroom this school year, participate in extracurricular activities, or see friends and family this holiday season,” Whitmer said in a statement. “My directive today ensures equitable, expedited distribution of the vaccines.”
Schools remain one of the biggest sources of COVID-19 outbreaks and could play a significant role in determining the severity of this winter’s infections.
In metro Detroit, Macomb is the only county without mask mandates in schools. Since the beginning of the school year, Macomb has reported more than 50 outbreaks in its schools — the most in Michigan. Of the outbreaks, 11 have involved 25 or more students. At Eisenhower High School, 62 students were infected in one outbreak. Another 54 students were infected at Adlai E. Stevenson High School.
By comparison, schools in Wayne County reported just 12 outbreaks, and each involved only a handful of students. In Oakland County, there were 22 outbreaks, and none involved 25 or more students.
Parents in Macomb County have been holding rallies to urge county and state officials to impose a mask mandate.
“The data shows us clearly that schools without mask requirements are COVID-19 super-spreader sites where people are getting sick and making other people sick and overcrowding hospitals,” Macomb County parent Emily Mellitis, a member of the Michigan Parents Alliance for Safe Schools coalition, said. “The current strategy of letting local schools and health departments decide isn’t working and is making things worse for all of us. We need the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to show leadership, step in and require masks in schools to protect Michigan kids and families.”
Whitmer’s administration has encouraged school districts to require masks but stopped short of issuing a mandate.
“If we are able to reduce the transmission among children, I think that would have a big impact on community numbers,” Skrzynski says.