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For now, Michigan is a success story in flattening the pandemic curve

flu swabs

Once one of the hardest-hit states, Michigan has – at least for now – managed to  flatten the coronavirus curve in a way that is drawing national attention.

And while health officials warn that the deadly virus could come roaring back if residents let their guard down, the trends are encouraging.

Consider: 

According to the data released Tuesday by the Michigan Department of Human Services:

  • Michigan’s COVID-19 cases have fallen to below 200 for a seven-day stretch — its lowest since March 11. On Tuesday, the state reported 125 new cases.
  • Deaths fell into single digits for several days this week, with a high of 26 deaths reported June 11 and less than 100 for the entire week — compared single-day totals of more than 100 cases for 18 days in April.
  • Just 343 people remained hospitalized with COVID-19 as of June 16, less than one tenth of the hospitalizations — 3,674 — exactly two months earlier.
  • Positive results of diagnostic tests made up less than 3 percent of the total tests every day since the rate fell to 2.37 percent on June 6 — an indication not only of lower infection rates, but also of the availability of testing compared to the early days of the pandemic.
    Precisely how many tests are needed before reopening states has been hotly debated, but the World Health Organization has recommended that positive cases need to be below about 10 percent of the total before safely reopening the economy.
 

COVID-19 slammed into Michigan in early March. In 3½ months, the virus has sickened more than 60,000 residents and killed at least 5,790 Michiganders. Just two months ago, hospitals in southeast Michigan were nearly overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. At one point, refrigerated trucks were used to store bodies of those who had succumbed to the virus. 

Since then, Michigan's decline in cases and deaths has been substantial and, relative to neighboring states, largely unique. Just a month ago, Michigan was averaging more than 700 new cases a day, well above Ohio's 500 to 600.

But since then, Ohio's case count has remained between 400 and 500, while Michigan has fallen to roughly 150 a day.

Since May 1, Ohio has had 5,200 more confirmed cases than Michigan (23,267 to 18,029) and 81 more deaths (1,595 to 1,514).

Michigan’s data stretch back to March 1 — more than a week before the state announced its first confirmed case on March 10. Subsequent case investigations placed the virus in Michigan earlier than previously detected, confirming 14 infections as March opened and at least 200 active infections by March 11. 

 

Within days, the state was shuttered, its hospitals and morgues in southeast Michigan overwhelmed.  Daily case counts continued to climb to a high of 1,953 new cases April 3 before beginning a halting drop downward days later.

At the University of Michigan “we have seven ongoing clinical trials for COVID patients and no COVID patients, and that's a good thing,” said Dr. Robert Hyzy, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with the University of Michigan. 

National attention

Michigan’s precipitous decline in coronavirus cases has been noticed nationally.

 

The data analysis website Covid Act Now has marked only Michigan and New York as states “on track to contain COVID,” and CNN listed Michigan as the only state in the country to see infection rates drop by at least 50 percent week-over-week. Overall, CNN identified Michigan as one of 22 states with declining cases, even as 18 others see an increase in cases. In 10 states, cases are stable.

"Michigan is standing out," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a Wednesday morning press conference, crediting stay-at-home orders with forcing the downward trend, and noting the uptick in cases elsewhere.

Some states — Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma and California, among them — are reporting sharp increases in COVID-19 numbers.

 

What we want to avoid desperately is for Michigan to emulate what is happening in other states where people have dropped their guard, where people will have reengaged in an unsafe manner, and where they see positive cases ramping back up,” Whitmer said. 

And she again called on social distancing measures and the use of masks in public: "Masks should not be political. They are designed to save our lives.”

Despite the encouraging trend, U-M’s Hyzy and others, including Dr. Teena Chopra, who oversees infection control at Detroit Medical Center, cautioned that Michigan will continue to teeter on the edge of a second wave of the deadly virus for months.

Michigan now must focus on “outbreak management,” said Dr. Emily Toth Martin, whose influenza surveillance lab at U-M is helping track COVID-19 activity in Michigan both for the state and for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public health must be able to react quickly to reports of symptoms in workplaces, for example, even as test results are pending, she said.

“Any chance we have to buy time” is crucial, she said.

Another key to reopening the state both economically and socially will in large part rest on personal responsibility, Chopra at the DMC said. For example, playing tennis in the open air is safer than cramming into a crowded bar.

Sarah Lyon-Callo, state epidemiologist, credits aggressive state measures, including the shelter-in-place executive order, for the continued downturn in cases, but she noted that the virus remains in the state.

As of Tuesday, 364 patients who had tested positive with COVID remained hospitalized. Eighteen more deaths were reported, too.

The goal, she said, “is to keep the numbers tamped down until there’s a vaccine … We have to maintain vigilance. We have to maintain discipline for this to continue to work.”


Bridge writers Mike Wilkinson and Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report

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