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Coronavirus surges in Grand Rapids area, bucking trends in rest of Michigan

April 26 update: Grand Rapids area coronavirus cases climb over 1,000

Coronavirus cases are rising sharply in Kent County even as numbers decline statewide, and local officials attribute the increase to an uptick among those who are homeless.

In the past week, Kent County recorded 430 new cases, up from 152 the prior week and 108 two weeks ago. The daily average of 60 per day for the past week is triple than just last week.

County officials say the caseload likely will peak in mid-May, about six weeks after Michigan’s statewide peak.

 

“It’s real,” said Brian Hartl, an epidemiologist for Kent County. “We’re seeing community spread.”

Kent County is home to Grand Rapids and Michigan’s fourth-most populous county. On April 1, it had 119 cases, two fewer than Ingham County (121) and less than two dozen more than Livingston County (101).

As of Friday morning, Kent County had 815 total cases, while Ingham had 370 and Livingston had 312.

The increase comes after county health officials noticed that homeless people were testing positive for the virus and tested 250 people at the Mel Trotter Ministries’ shelter in Grand Rapids. About 70 tested positive.

Health officials partnered with another homeless shelter, Guiding Light, to accommodate those who tested positive or were sick and awaiting a test result, said Joann Haganson, a registered nurse and director of community wellness for the county health department.

Thirty-nine people were in the Guiding Light facility as of Thursday.

Kent County’s caseload is surging as those of neighboring counties are growing as well, but at a far smaller rate: Neighborhood Ottawa County’s average rate has jumped from three per day last week to 10 now, while Muskegon’s average has increased from five to 11 over the same time.

 

The increase comes as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday extended her stay-home order until May 15 and relaxed portions of it, allowing motorized boating, some golfing and other activities.

In west Michigan, business leaders are lobbying to reopen the economy and ease restrictions, sending a letter this week to Whitmer and Republican legislators noting that dire case predictions have yet to occur.

“Data is accumulating concerning unprecedented costs that are being imposed on Michigan citizens due to the ongoing idling of our economy,” the letter read. 

“More Michigan workers have lost their jobs than anywhere else in the continental United States.”

The group called for a “phased, data-driven approach to reopening our economy” that trusts Michigan businesses to keep workers safe, according to their letter to Whitmer.

Both Hartl and Hoganson, however, said they remain cautious about a quick relaxation of restrictions. 

“I would hate to see all the work done up to now and the gains reversed because we couldn’t wait another week or two weeks,” Hoganson said.

Hartl said he understood the imperative to reopen the economy. But with Kent County’s numbers trending up, he said it might not be the time.

“From a public health perspective it makes me wary that we’re talking about putting people in contact with one another,” he said. “I prefer we would be seeing declines in cases rather than the other way around when we’re talking about reopening the region.”

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