Michigan set a new daily record for reported coronavirus cases with 2,030 revealed Thursday amid fears of a potential second wave and questions of how state officials will respond.
While some of the COVID-19 cases disclosed Thursday were from the prior day and their reporting had been delayed because of a processing problem, the seven-day average for new cases in Michigan reached its highest point since early April.
Deaths and hospitalizations linked to the virus are also trending upward but remain well below where they were during the initial COVID-19 peak here in the spring.
“You may not see yet the rise in hospitalizations and deaths because it depends a lot on the age group getting it,” said Nigel Paneth, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University. “But it doesn’t stay that way.
“(Infected people) go to the store, next thing you know, some older person gets infected — and it doesn’t have to be an older person. Young people die. It happens.”
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed of Ann Arbor, an epidemiologist and former Detroit health department director, said Thursday that he’s “worried that this is the beginning of a real surge.”
“And by the time we recognize the common trend, it’s already behind us,” he told The Detroit News. “People are going inside more, spending more time at institutional facilities, colleges, daycares, and it’s also the pandemic fatigue that people are choosing to forego and doing only the very basic things to protect themselves.”
Michigan’s overall case total hit 141,091 on Thursday. The state Department of Health and Human Services also reported 32 new COVID-19 deaths, pushing that total to 6,973.
Before this week, Michigan hadn’t experienced a week with at least two days when 30 or more new deaths were reported since early June. Thirty deaths were revealed on Tuesday.
Hospitalizations tied to the virus have also been on the rise. Health care facilities are concerned about the impact of the flu and the coronavirus potentially both sickening people and testing medical capacity.
As of Thursday, 1,017 adults were hospitalized with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan, an 80% increase from the 564 hospitalizations reported a month earlier.
As of last week, 104,271 people were considered “recovered.”
State health officials were aware of a “slowdown” in laboratory processing that began on Tuesday, delaying the processing of some entries into the state’s disease surveillance system, said Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
As a result, Thursday’s report featured some data that would have normally been included Wednesday, Sutfin said.
While the reporting issue might have inflated Thursday’s total, the seven-day average for daily new cases now stands at 1,293, the highest seven-day average since April 5-11, when it was 1,395.
“We know case numbers are going up across the state, which is why we continue to urge all Michiganders to take precautions against COVID-19, including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and staying home if they are ill,” Sutfin said.
Response to possible second wave
In addition to hospitalizations, deaths and cases increasing, the percentage of COVID-19 tests bringing positive results is also on the rise.
The seven-day percentage has reached above 4% in recent days. For months, the key metric that health officials watch closely for COVID-19 had been below 4%, sometimes below 3% — the threshold that state officials have said they want to hit.
“It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave,” Michigan Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun told a Tuesday meeting of state and public health officials.
But unlike the first wave, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will likely have fewer options to unilaterally combat the virus’s spread if there is a second wave starting.
The Michigan Supreme Court essentially struck down the governor’s ability to issue unilateral executive orders to institute capacity restrictions and mask requirements on Oct. 2. She needs the Legislature’s approval.
The state’s high court ruled 4-3 that a law allowing the governor to declare emergencies and keep them in place without legislative input — the 1945 Emergency Powers of Governor Act — was unconstitutional because it delegated too much legislative authority to the governor.
The court also ruled unanimously that the Democratic governor didn’t comply with a 1976 law that required her to get legislative approval after a 28-day deadline to extend her COVID-19 emergency declaration. That meant she couldn’t simply issue new declarations every 28 days to keep emergency powers.
While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has issued its own orders to keep mask and capacity requirements in place, El-Sayed said the Supreme Court’s rulings were a “real blow” to the government’s ability to protect people if there’s another wave.
“I think it’s really incumbent on local communities to do what they can to pass the kind of protective ordinances that we’re going to need to really bring this spread down,” said El-Sayed, who ran for governor against Whitmer in the 2018 Democratic primary.
During the Supreme Court’s oral arguments that led to the Oct. 2 rulings, Justice Richard Bernstein questioned what powers the governor would have if a second wave hit and the court knocked down her powers tied to the initial wave.
The governor could declare a new emergency “if the changed circumstances on the ground warranted” and seek legislative approval after 28 days, said Amy Murphy, an attorney for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based research group that represented medical groups affected by Whitmer’s orders.
U.P. getting hit hard
Counties in the Upper Peninsula, a rural region that was once relatively untouched by the virus, continue to see jumps in COVID-19 cases.
During the past month, seven of Michigan’s top 10 counties for new cases per population are located in the U.P. The top county is Iron County, which is on the border with Wisconsin, a state that’s been reporting virus surges.
Iron County has reported 251 new cases since Sept. 15, or one new case for each 44 residents, according to state data. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Iron, Delta and Menominee counties have now reported more overall cases per population than Wayne County, which was once the hardest-hit county in the state.
“Something has gone wrong,” said MSU’s Paneth, adding he attributes the climb to complacency in communities that were not previously affected by the virus.
“The Upper Peninsula got a false sense of security, I think, because they had no cases — for a long time,” he added. “But eventually, it always breaks through, and you have as high a level of infections as we have now.”