Michigan coronavirus cases rise. Here’s why we are not Texas or Florida.

Texas residents wait in a line to get a coronavirus test. Case numbers have exploded there and across the West and South while in Michigan they have risen, but at a far slower rate. (Shutterstock)

Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter was exasperated.

On Wednesday, he saw his county record its highest one-day coronavirus case count since May. Fitness gyms in the county have opened in defiance of state regulations. And more young people in Oakland, like those across the state, are getting infected as they fail to heed calls to remain vigilant with masks and social distancing.

So he took to Facebook to implore people: Get with the program. Or else.

“I know we don't want to be burdened by this virus but we are and we have a responsibility to each other,” he said. “If we don't work together to halt this second spike we could be at risk of going backwards and not being able to send our children back to school in the fall.”

Cases are rising across much of Michigan, a direct result, experts say, of the relaxation of the lockdown, a change that allowed people to work and socialize more broadly. In the weeks since, the number of daily confirmed cases has risen and statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations have jumped by more than 100 since a low of 315 patients on July 2.

 

But what’s not happening, at least so far, is the explosion of cases seen across the South and West, where cases are rising at staggering levels, far beyond what Michigan experienced in March and April. They have triggered mask mandates and new restrictions on businesses and gatherings from coast to coast. 

So Michigan hovers for now among a second tier of states: with elevated cases and hospitalizations, but no hair-on-fire numbers. If Michigan is akin to a moderate ski hill that requires caution, states such as Arizona, Texas and Florida are the treacherous black diamond runs.  

“It’s not exponential increases” in Michigan, said Joseph Eisenberg, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of Michigan, “as we are seeing in other states.”

The White House has acknowledged the differences too: A report leaked July 14 shows Michigan is not among the 18 states in a so-called “red zone” for increasing cases (over 100 cases per 100,000 people. Over that same time, Michigan was at 35, according to the report). The White House task force for the coronavirus is recommending “red zone” states enact tougher restrictions to combat the spread.

 

Comparisons with other states aren’t the only metrics for judging where Michigan now stands. Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the bureau of epidemiology and population health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said she is concerned by the uptick in cases, the location of some new cases — northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are seeing an increase — and a rise, albeit slight, in the percent of coronavirus tests that are coming back positive.

“We certainly keep an eye on other states’ indicators as a cautionary tale, but mostly what I'm doing is spending my time keeping my eye on Michigan trends,” Lyon-Callo said.

Here’s how Michigan differs from the hardest-hit states:

Positive test rates

One of the trends that does concern Lyon-Callo is a recent rise in positive tests. A low positivity rate, combined with higher numbers of tests, means a state is better identifying where the virus is spreading and reacting with calls to quarantine. In March and April, the positivity rate in Michigan hit 40 percent, an indication of widespread infection that prompted the initial lockdown.

The rate in Michigan had dropped dramatically, for several weeks down to just under 3 percent of tests coming back positive. That rate hit 4 percent this week and, on Tuesday, when the most tests ever done on a day were reported, 3.5 percent came back positive.

That remains well below the 5 percent level identified by experts at Johns Hopkins University as a threshold of safety — and a fraction of what is seen in states with fast-rising case loads: A quarter of Arizona tests have been positive since July 2, for instance. In Florida it’s been 19 percent and 16 percent in Texas, according to a New York Times analysis.

Increases in cases

Lyon-Callo and Eisenberg both acknowledge an increase in cases was inevitable when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer relaxed some of the stay-at-home rules that had severely limited movement in March, April and May.

The hard part, Eisenberg said, is finding that “sweet spot” of restrictions and freedom that keeps counts low enough that health-care providers can handle those who do get sick — and yet do not require more restrictive measures that could shutter the economy again.

“We know what happens when it’s business as usual,” Eisenberg said, recalling the huge spike in cases in March following a period when Michiganders moved around freely. “And we know what happens when there’s a lockdown.”

After Whitmer’s March 24 stay-at-home order, case counts rose for just over a week before steadily falling, though hospitalizations and deaths rose for a few weeks longer.

On July 1, Michigan experienced about 4 new daily cases for every 100,000 people. That rate rose to 6 per 100,000 on July 15 — but still well below the 20 cases per 100,000 the state experienced April 3.

By contrast, in Texas the rate hit 52 new daily cases per 100,000 people on Wednesday while it was at 45 in Arizona and 33 in Florida.

Hospitalizations

One of Lyon-Callo’s biggest concerns is the ability of the state’s health-care system to provide care to all COVID-19 patients when there is a surge. At the height of the pandemic in April, nearly 4,000 COVID-19 patients were lying in Michigan hospital beds at a time when the death rate also soared.

By July 1, there were just 315 beds being used for COVID-19 patients. This week that census rose to 428. 

“The question that everybody has is to what extent the (spread would have to reach) before it really starts to impact the hospitals, before it starts to impact the ability of healthcare to provide care,” Lyon-Callo said.

Elsewhere, the trend has been far worse: In Texas, hospitalizations have risen from 6,900 to 10,500 over the same time frame and from 2,900 to 3,500 in Arizona.

Deaths

While cases have increased, Michigan has seen its death count plummet. Experts say that if there is a return to higher death rates, they’ll follow an increase in cases because of a lag time between infection and potentially dangerous illness.

Still, Michigan is averaging just under 10 COVID-19 deaths a day in July, down from an average of 117 daily deaths in April.

Part of the reason, in addition to fewer cases, is the demographic make-up of the infected: younger adults — those under 40 — are making up more than half of new cases, when before June they were less than a third.

Studies have shown that younger people are less likely to be hospitalized or die as a result of COVID-19 infections.

Even so, Florida, Texas and Arizona all posted their highest single days for deaths in the last week.

Gov. Whitmer and public health experts say the state is at a critical stage, pleading with residents to continue to follow basic safety measures recommended for months: wear a mask in public, wash hands and avoid crowds.

The recent rise is a reminder that COVID-19 hasn’t gone away. It’s still infecting people, Eisenberg said, it’s still sending them to the hospital and people are still dying.

“We’re still in the middle of this thing,” Eisenberg said. 

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Comments

Raymond
Fri, 07/17/2020 - 3:22pm

If executed everyone they got COVID it would be over pretty quickly.

Sherri King
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 9:35am

For every licensed physician that claims masks are essential, there is another one that says they do not prevent spread. Well respected medical journals publish conflicting info. And, people are not wearing masks properly- and what about the person that developed Legionnaires disease from having to wear a mask all day? I’m compliant because I don’t have $500 to throw away, but please- let’s get some consistency and quit telling people masks are the panacea when they are not.

Matt G
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 9:43am

Everyone focuses on death counts, but there are people who had COVID-19 back in March/April who have cleared the virus and test negative but can't get around the house because they're still coughing and having breathing issues from lung damage.

And yet people are still willing to risk it for non essential activities like parties and getting a cut and color.

Now people are clamoring for schools to reopen amongst limited data suggesting kids transmit the disease at a lower rate (which has been distorted by the
grapevine to mean not at all). What people call fear is really just evidence based prediction of a likely possible future. What the fearless have is not courage but rather an ignorance-based lack of imagination about what is likely to happen.

A family friend said a family of 4 came into her SE Michigan hospital last night. Fresh back from their vacation in Florida. Her ICU went from 2 cases to 7 overnight.

Life isn't going to resemble normal for a while, people... especially when so many are treating things as if they're currently normal.

CM
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 10:04am

We need to keep the data released in perspective. Big numbers are great for media headlines. Keep in mind our state total cases since March is less than .8% of the population. Everyone needs to question some of the media reports. What is current active case level vs total cases? Where are the hot spots? What is the current average age today vs March (when covid patients were sent to 'care' facilities)? There numerous questions to be asked vs hyping Headlines with partial truths. The virus is real and we need media to help push the common sense approach vs trying to scare people into locking down the state.

Diane J
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 10:07am

There needs to be a way to hold both the businesses and the people refusing to wear masks responsible for the spread of the corona virus.
In my city even some of the workers in the grocery store(a Kroger) refuse to wear the masks, follow the 1-way aisles, or social distance where space permits. There is no excuse for that. If I can wear a mask with COPD so can they.

Bernadette
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 11:10am

Thank you for the updates Has anyone determined why California has so many cases? They have been physical distancing for a while, haven’t they?

Jack H
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 11:14am

NEW POSITIVE CASES do NOT MATTER.
ONLY PERCENTAGE OF POSITIVE TESTS AS COMPARED TO TOTAL NUMBER OF TESTS MATTER.
Why are you NOT reporting relevant data and continue to point to this meaningless "number of new positive cases" data?
Has everyone forgotten basic statistics??? What in the world is going on!

Salle
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 11:27am

I think the text by the reporter doesn't match the lines on the graph. One of them must be wrong. In the text I read (under New Infections, that Texas had 52 new cases per 100,000. The graph shows somewhere near 33. Are the lines for Florida and Texas switched, so that they have each other's label?
Other than this distraction of confusion, I appreciate the information and the clarity with which it is written.

George Hagenauer
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 11:51am

We have a family friend who is a medical doctor and who does regular briefings on the virus for health care providers in another state. We sat in today and it is interesting the complexity of this disease. That said , my sense is that sadly direct experience with the disease determines the seriousness with which people approach safety measures to avoid infection. Even in hot zones it is easy to not know anyone who seems to have the infection. However here most of us have friends who know people who have not only had the infection but have died. That tends to be transformative. Unfortunately the lack of testing and leadership in the south and west hid the amount of virus there and now they are seeing the full force of it. Hopefully what we have sadly learned from the early stages will keep with us and we'll will stay the course in terms of safety measures.

Matt
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 12:54pm

And if there's no vaccine forthcoming, a good likelihood, is it a bad thing (relatively speaking) if younger less vulnerable people, more likely to recover, get the get the virus? Or are we better off making extra efforts to protect the vulnerable rather than shutting down?

Mary GJ
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 1:18pm

Hospitalizations are at a higher level than you represent in this article.
https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus/0,9753,7-406-98159-523641--,00.html
There are 680 Covid patients in Michigan today.
(Your mistake was that you were looking at inpatients, instead of combining inpatients, those on respirators and in critical care. If you go down to the box that lists patients by hospital...the box that says Patient Census, you will see the total number of hospitalized patients is 680)

Anonymous
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 2:10pm

Tired of the pandemic, tired of the division. Looking for a better tomorrow.

Arjay
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 2:36pm

Very simple answer to why Michigan is not Florida or Texas - Michigan does not have the draw of the Gulf or Southern Florida beaches. It is the younger set that seems to be driving the corona virus surge. The bar in Lansing is a small case. Put the younger generation together with beaches and it is a recipe for disaster. I can hear Florida saying, Please, Michigan, keep your kids home.

Michigan observer
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 2:41pm

Mr. Wilkinson's graphic showing new cases from June 7 through July 15 for Michigan and other states would have been more interesting and informative if he had included a similar graph for the earlier period from early March to June.

Larry Good
Sat, 07/18/2020 - 6:35pm

Mike,
Great job of using multiple key indicators to tell this story. Appreciate your great work with data; you’re the only reporter in the state doing consistently good work making meaning of data.

Larry
Tue, 07/21/2020 - 8:31pm

This article follows the standard liberal mantra of bashing the southern states and especially Florida and Texas. Yet Florida's death rate is 1.41 and Texas is 1.2 per 1 million population. They are among the 10 states with the lowest death rates. Michigan is the third highest in the country with 7.68. It is the northern states who have the absolute worst death rates. If I lived in Michigan, I would be wishing that it was like Florida or Texas, so I had a better chance to live.

Liz Benefield
Sun, 08/02/2020 - 7:40pm

It is not necessary to politicize this article, i.e. "liberal mantra." Plus, your statistics are not correlated with others I have read. Perhaps you might add links which substantiate your questionable math.