As coronavirus spreads in Michigan, racial and age disparities shrink

Coronavirus cases in the Upper Peninsula as well as among patients over 50 have risen. (Shutterstock)

The coronavirus is striking older Michigan residents disproportionately in the past few weeks, raising concerns that an increase in hospitalizations will worsen.

From mid-August through mid-September, younger residents — including college students — made up the lion’s share of new COVID-19 cases, some 60 percent of new cases.

During that time, hospitalizations fell statewide. Now, hospitalizations have climbed to 876 on Wednesday from about 500 two weeks ago, as cases rise in the Upper Peninsula and across the central, southern and southwestern parts of the state.


That corresponds with a jump in the number of people over 50 who are contracting the virus.

In the four weeks preceding Sept. 22, an average of 1,500 new infections per week were reported among people 50 or older. In the last two weeks, there have been 2,135 and 2,652 new cases, one-third of new infections. In August, they comprised a quarter of cases. 

“Any time we see a big rise among the vulnerable population … we’re going to be concerned,” said Ruthanne Sudderth, spokesperson for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.

In Calhoun County, surrounding Battle Creek, health officials are watching with worry as cases among those 50 to 59 have climbed in recent weeks, along with an uptick in hospitalizations to 11 from five a few weeks ago, said Eric Pessell, the county’s health officer.

“If that continues I would assume our hospitalizations will increase and it’s something we’ll watch,” he said.


To be sure, the recent increase in hospitalizations is a far cry from the worst days of the pandemic in April, when Calhoun County had 28 patients hospitalized and Michigan had upward of 4,000 statewide.

The changes demonstrate that, more than seven months into the pandemic, the virus is changing and evolving.

In March and April, southeast Michigan and especially the city of Detroit were hardest hit and African Americans were disproportionately stricken. At one point, they comprised 40 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, despite being 14 percent of the population.

Through Aug. 18, African Americans comprised 24 percent of cases and 40 percent of deaths. But since then, it’s 8 percent of cases and 22 percent of deaths.

Over that same period, white residents, 79 percent of the population, comprised 44 percent of cases and 53 percent of deaths. Since Aug. 18, the share is 68 percent of cases and 79 percent of deaths.

(The state listed the race as “unknown” in 18 percent of cases and 3 percent of deaths.)


The biggest driver of increased hospitalization is age, in part because older people have tended to have more of the comorbidities like diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Since the pandemic began in March, over 7,100 people have died from COVID-19, making it the third leading cause of death this year. 

But more telling is who’s dying: Over half of those deaths occurred among people over 77 years old.

That’s why an increase in cases among those over 50 worry health officials across the state, from southwest Michigan to the Upper Peninsula and most places in between.

Lynn Sutfin, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the state is aware of rising cases across much of the state. 

“We are carefully monitoring the case rates across the state and continue to strongly urge Michiganders to take the precautions we have available to us, wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and staying home if they are ill,” she said in an email to Bridge Michigan.

In the Upper Peninsula, hospitalizations jumped in recent weeks, from single digits to about 30, but have held steady despite a rise in cases. 

Even so, many residents aren’t following suggested safeguards such as wearing masks, said Michael Snyder, health officer for Delta and Menominee counties.

In the last two weeks, the counties have recorded 508 cases combined; nearly half of the 1,083 cases reported since March.

“Unfortunately, I have not seen a change in behavior because of the rising rates,” Snyder wrote in an email to Bridge. 

“Many residents believe that the Supreme Court ruling now allows them to go about life as they did pre-COVID,” referring to last week’s ruling that invalidated Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders on the virus since April 30.

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Rob Pollard
Thu, 10/08/2020 - 4:30am

Good info. So it seems we have had three surges with cases
- Initial surge (primarily in Mar-May) when we had little idea what hit us & little PPE. This disproportionally affected people of color, as they are overrepresented in "essential" jobs (e.g., delivery; cleaning; warehouse worker; farmhand; health aides) and b/c it was a lot of middle age and elderly folks, deaths were real high.
- Second surge (mid-Aug-Sept) which was mostly college-aged kids and they congregated in high numbers. Fortunately for this virus, hospitalizations and deaths for this group are real low, and non-college aged people largely stayed away from them (e.g., many campuses were mostly/all online), thus they didn't infect many other folks.
- Third increase (Oct-present) which is not quite a surge, except in the U.P. This is driven by the "I'm over it" people, largely white Republicans who are partying like they are at a Rose Garden ceremony; this will continue to happen based on Trump's messaging that masks are for wimps & that this disease is "just the flu" (wrong in March; wrong now). Unfortunately, these middle-aged & up folks are in higher risk categories, so while cases might not be a lot higher than a month ago, deaths are up.

We're still doing better since May than other states (e.g., Florida; Louisiana; Georgia), but still so many preventable deaths which could have been avoided with just some minimal & moderate effort, but it's not happening consistently everywhere. Maybe next year.

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 12:53pm

I was with you until you politicized your comments and undermined your points.

John Gorentz
Fri, 10/09/2020 - 11:18pm

"Unfortunately, these middle-aged & up folks are in higher risk categories, so while cases might not be a lot higher than a month ago, deaths are up."

1) I'm not sure which measure of deaths you're referring to, but I would like to see the data for this. It's something I have been wondering about the past few days.

2) I wonder if it's accurate to blame Emmanuel Goldstein for people not taking the coronavirus seriously enough. You could also blame the news media for having done so much to earn our mistrust. They tend to sensationalize everything, so the natural tendency is for people to apply a hefty discount. There is nothing new about that, but more recently their participation in the Russia hoax has caused people to be especially wary of what narratives might be told to support a political agenda.

Erwin Haas
Thu, 10/08/2020 - 8:38am

One of our kids lives in Georgia and was aghast when Gov. Kemp stopped enforcing the whole public health hoax. Schools and businesses opened, no masks, do what you need to do, you're not in a police state.
Our son predicted mass disaster, everyone would sicken, the hospitals would be overrun and "that fool Kemp would be impeached, or something."
6 weeks later, calm. The new cases and deaths continue to fall, our grand kids go to school and our son and wife work daily.
Meanwhile the governor of Michigan continues to push her public inspired "science" diktat. Numbers of cases and deaths slowly rise and Bridgemi cheers her on.
Reporters, all working for corporate interests and continuing to push the C19 propaganda-should just shut up.

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 11:07am

This is misleading. A number of the largest cities in Georgia have issued their own mask mandates and business restrictions immediately after Gov. Kemp loosened restrictions at the state level.

Ed of GB
Thu, 10/08/2020 - 9:01am

Not a bad article, but 50-59 is not the group that will likely have issues. It is the 70 plus, and even more so, the 80 plus where this virus is deadly. The article is shallow and appears to spread fear.

Frank Koob
Thu, 10/08/2020 - 9:03am

Learning to live with covid-19 does not mean playing Russian roulette with it. Learning to live with that means continuing to take the precautions necessary to keep from being infected and from infecting others. For me that means masks went out of my house, social distancing, washing hands. As a 78 year old geezer I depend on the population around me to keep me safe since I am and a higher risk category than most. Of course we all looked through the vaccine ask the salvation and return to what we consider the old normalcy. In the meantime we have to live as if covid-19 is wanting to Chomp on the tissues of our lungs. The New Normal May mean living a life of taking necessary precaution. And what will we do when the next coronavirus visits us? The estimate is that there are 3200 varieties of Coronavirus in bats in Wild places right now.

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 9:24am

You assume it's evolving, Weather? Testing? Behavior?

Thu, 10/08/2020 - 9:56am

This article is deceptive because the disparity was never in cases, but always in mortality rate and testing availability. If you want an eye opener look at the correlation between deaths and ventilator use.

Excessive ventilator use is what I believe to have caused most of the increase in deaths this year.

Ventilators are dangerous.

Economic shutdowns also have caused increased the increase in drug overdoses and homocides this year (in my opinion).

George Hagenauer
Thu, 10/08/2020 - 10:28am

The UP cases are probably due to Wisconsin's surge that is out of control due to republican policies there and mainly hitting the more Republican areas in the north of the state. Which brings up an interesting question about closing borders not just of the state but possibly of counties. The logical question is could the UP cut off Wisconsin but an even more interesting question as we move from coordinated state policies to a patchwork driven by local health departments- could we get into a situation where Detroit calls a quarantine to keep out people from Macomb County if they have different safety requirements. After all while this has impacted Black people in Detroit heavily- the virus seems to have been introduced in Macomb and Oakland counties and then spread to Detroit. While it sounds crazy that is exactly how some counties have contained and controlled the virus.

John Gorentz
Fri, 10/09/2020 - 9:19pm

The past couple of days I had got to wondering if there are data on case fatality and case hospitalization rates over time for the different age groups. When I saw the headline I thought maybe I would find those data here, but no such luck. If anyone knows where to find those data, I would be interested.