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5 million Michiganders are vaccinated and COVID is surging. Here’s why

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Unvaccinated social bubbles, maskless public events and the delta variant are behind the latest COVID spike in Michigan. (Shutterstock)

Dec. 16: Michigan has an obesity problem. That could make COVID even worse
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Dec. 9: Omicron variant arrives in Michigan. What you need to know
Dec. 7: Michigan Gov. Whitmer calls Biden’s vaccine mandate ‘a problem’ for businesses

A year ago, Michigan was averaging nearly 7,000 new COVID-19 cases a day and more than 3,700 people were hospitalized with the disease.

“We are in the worst moment of this pandemic to date,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Nov. 15, 2020, before ordering sweeping restrictions in an attempt to stem the spread.


Restaurants and bars were closed. Colleges, universities and high schools could only operate remotely and anyone who could work from home was asked to do so.

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And now? The COVID-19 outlook is just as bad.

By almost every measure — the rate of hospitalizations, positive tests, new cases — Michigan is returning to rates last seen in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 surges, despite the widespread availability and acceptance of vaccines.

But now, the same sobering statistics that prompted statewide closures a year ago are getting a muted response from Whitmer’s office.

Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy told Bridge Michigan Wednesday the governor is not expected to order any kind of mandates or restrictions.


When asked if Whitmer was considering imposing restrictions like she did last fall when COVID caseloads were this high, Leddy said, “mandates or restrictions? No.”

How, in a state with 5.2 million people currently vaccinated against COVID-19, could cases and hospitalizations again be spiking, while state officials who were so proactive earlier in the pandemic, seemingly unable to take steps to curb the potentially deadly virus?

The answer is a mix of science and human nature.

‘Pandemic of the unvaccinated’

The now-record average of daily cases is occurring despite the fact that nearly 5.2 million Michigan residents are fully vaccinated, or 54.7 percent of the population 5 and older. Seventy percent of Michigan residents over the age of 16 have had at least one dose of the vaccine.

How is that possible?


That 5.2 million vaccination figure sounds big, but in a state of just over 10 million people, that still means that 4.8 million are not fully vaccinated. About 530,000 are partially vaccinated.

That’s a lot of unvaccinated people, and Joshua Petrie, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan, said it’s not randomly distributed — adults within households are typically all vaccinated or all unvaccinated, he said, and communities have different levels of vaccination rates.

That creates an opening for the delta variant of COVID-19, considered far more contagious than the original strain.

State reports show that 90 percent of current cases, hospitalizations and deaths are among the unvaccinated, who make up just under half of the population.

“The high numbers are achievable because we still have a lot of people in the community who are not vaccinated,” said Derel Glashower, senior epidemiologist with the Ottawa County Health Department.


Leddy, the Whitmer spokesperson, said the state is in a different position than last fall, before vaccines were available. The unvaccinated population can choose to get the vaccine or take other precautions like masking up, but the governor, who has strongly recommended that people follow guidelines like wearing masks indoors, will not be issuing mandates.

“It’s strictly that the science has caught up with the pandemic,” he told Bridge Michigan. “Because this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Glashower said transmission remains highest among close social circles like family and friends. “COVID is still finding those who are unvaccinated,” he said.

COVID-19 cases have slowly risen in Michigan since late summer. The state now has the highest infection rate in the country.

That’s led to a rise in hospitalizations, too, with the state’s hospitals reporting critical situations in metro Detroit, west Michigan and the northern lower peninsula.

Like the Whitmer administration and many other health officials, Glashower implored the unvaccinated to get the shots that have proven effective. “Protect yourself, protect your neighbors, protect your healthcare system,” he said.


More school, fewer masks

Other things differ too. A year ago, schools had remote options and hybrid-learning. Kids were wearing masks. Many of those who could work remotely did so.

The Lions played in an empty stadium. No concerts were being staged.

Now? The Rolling Stones just played before 30,000 at Ford Field. Restaurants and bars are open. School buildings are open, and at least 40 percent do not have mask mandates.

For many, that has meant a return to what life looked like before March 2020. “They’re doing things more closely back to normal,” U-M’s Petrie said.

And that has put people directly in the path of the virus just as the holidays are arriving. A year ago, Whitmer put a limit on indoor gatherings at two households and 10 people.

There are no suggested limits this year. 

Petrie said he expects cases to continue to rise for a couple more weeks.

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