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CDC recommends masks in 11 Michigan counties. Most have low inoculation rates

So-called “breakthrough” COVID infections among the vaccinated are rising in Michigan and nationwide, propelling a call for booster shots. (Bridge photo by Daytona Niles)

Aug. 12: Michigan recommends masks for businesses, as fears rise of fourth COVID wave
Aug. 6: CDC raises Michigan COVID risk level: Why it matters, and why it may not

Aug. 4: Gov. Whitmer urges Michigan schools to mask up, stops short of mandate

A sick food worker may have triggered one of three COVID-19 outbreaks in Branch County — one of several factors behind its unenviable ranking as one of two Michigan counties with “high” transmission of COVID.

“That seemed to start with a staff member who came to work with some symptoms and it ended up (that) other staff members got sick as well,” said  Rebecca Burns, health officer for the Branch-Hillsdale-Joseph Community Health Agency, which represents the three counties along the state’s southern edge.

Michigan has largely avoided the surge in coronavirus cases sweeping the nation, but daily cases have inched up in recent months, from 110 average cases a day to 437 average daily cases as of Tuesday.


Statewide, though, there are pockets of high instances where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that even fully vaccinated people once again wear masks while indoors.


The guidance, published Tuesday, is an about-face for the CDC, which had previously said those who are vaccinated don’t need to wear masks.

It now recommends masks in Branch and Dickinson County in the Upper Peninsula, which have  “high” transmission rates, along with nine counties have “significant” transmission rates: Gogebic and Iron in the western Upper Peninsula; Mason, Kalkaska and Alpena in northern Michigan; and Van Buren, Cass, and Hillsdale, neighboring counties of Branch County.

All but one of those counties (Mason) have vaccination rates lower than Michigan, where 59.6 percent of 16 and older have received at least one dose.

The CDC recommendations are that only — recommendations, leaving it up to individuals to choose, said Norm Hess, executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health.

And in reality, “county lines are sort of superficial or not real. They don't mean anything to disease,” he said.

All but three Michigan counties have case rates in the single digits: Kalkaska has a rate of 11 cases per 100,000 residents and Mason with a rate of ten cases per 100,000 residents.

But Branch County stands alone with a case rate of 28 per 100,000 residents.

It’s a somewhat fuzzy number because, as a rural county with just 44,000 residents, the case rate can fluctuate wildly with a single outbreak.

Branch also is investigating an outbreak at a “work facility” and one at a “faith-based organization,” Burns said, though she would not name them.

Making matters worse for the rural community is that at least ten cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant have been confirmed in the county, separate from the outbreaks, Burns said.

The county also ranks low in vaccination rates: 45.1 percent of its population is listed as having at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, although numbers may be confounded along the border county as some residents may have been vaccinated in Ohio.

Those low vaccination rates, along with virulent variants, allow cases to spread quickly, health officials have said.

In Branch County, Coldwater Ponderosa posted on its Facebook page that it was voluntarily closing to the public for several days.

“For us, we always put our team members first, hands down,” Trienne Top, its operating partner, told Bridge Michigan.

She said she was not required to do so, but a dozen staff — nearly a third of the staff — were infected with COVID more than a week ago, and the rest needed a mental and physical break, too.

“We don’t want to burn out the crew. Once they’re burned out, that alters their immune system,” she said.

While some counties are struggling with low vaccination rates, five have distributed at least a first dose of a vaccine to 70 percent or more of their population — the goal set out by the state as a way to achieve herd immunity: Leelenau (77.4 percent), Grand Traverse (72.4 percent), Oakland (71.9 percent), Emmet (70.8 percent) and and Washtenaw (70 percent.)

All the counties are deemed by the CDC to have “moderate” community spread.

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