Michigan appears to have passed its first big holiday coronavirus test.
Travel fell substantially over Thanksgiving, following warnings to avoid large gatherings, and state health officials say a slow but steady decline in new coronavirus cases may indicate Michigan has missed a feared surge.
“We’re holding our breath, biting our fingernails right now,” said Steve Kelso of the Kent County Health Department.
Like many counties, Kent had fewer cases in recent weeks after a month in which its hospitals approached capacity as thousands got sick with COVID-19.
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Two weeks ago, the county averaged nearly 560 infections a day; it’s been down to just under 400 per day, on average, the past week.
“We’re hopeful yet,” Kelso said.
Likewise, hospitalizations have fallen the past week and the percent testing positive, though still far higher than the 3 percent the state wants to see, has fallen in recent days to 12 percent. Most counties in the state are seeing the same trends.
The decrease in Michigan comes as daily COVID cases have surged by nearly a third nationwide, as daily cases on Dec. 10 jumped 28 percent to 233,570 from two weeks ago, while deaths were up nearly 50 percent.
Fearing a Thanksgiving surge, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and national health leaders urged people to limit the size of holiday gatherings. The state health department pushed a simple message: “Do things small.”
In Michigan, it appears many did exactly that.
Travel records compiled by the Michigan Department of Transportation show that the miles driven on Thanksgiving were down 39 percent from 2019, a stunning drop that is almost double the decline seen since Whitmer’s health director, Robert Gordon, ordered a three-week “pause” on some schools and businesses that began on Nov. 18.
A state traffic engineer, Chris Hundt, said the typical traffic numbers fluctuate 5 percent, based on weather and other events. The 39 percent drop is equal to if every person in the state, all 10 million of them, drove 10 miles less on Thanksgiving, he said.
At Jerry’s Market in Tecumseh near Adrian, the proof was in the poultry.
Because so many were choosing smaller gatherings, people didn’t want the big 30-pound turkeys, said Steve Walmsley, Jerry’s grocery manager. Instead they turned to small cornish hens and relatively small 15-pound turkeys.
“Those were all gone quickly,” Walmsley said.
Walmsley said he didn’t know anyone who had a big gathering, including himself. Typically he’d get together with four families and 25 people, he said. This year it was just him and his daughter.
“I think there were a lot of smaller [gatherings,]” he said.
Nationally, the Transportation Security Administration reported that pre-Thanksgiving airport traffic was less than half what it was in 2019, with 1.2 million passengers screened this year compared to 2.9 million a year ago.
In April, after Whitmer enacted her stay-at-home order, average daily motor vehicle traffic fell 56 percent as many businesses and schools were closed in an effort to tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.
But after a steep increase in cases in late October and throughout November, Gordon ordered the action that closed restaurants to dine-in service, closed high schools and colleges to face-to-face instruction and affected other businesses.
Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Henry Ford Health System, said Michigan likely missed the surge because people heeded warnings.
But he fears that such good news might falsely reassure Michiganders that it's safe to gather for December holidays, despite high hospitalization rates and "staggering" caseloads nationwide.
"We're not out in the woods yet," he added, "but definitely the news that we've not seen a significant surge at the present time is reassuring."
— Robin Erb contributed to this report.