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Worst yet to come with omicron in Michigan, officials warn

case estimates
Researchers predict COVID-19 cases to soar even higher in Michigan, peaking in late January, early February, with as many as 8,000 COVID-19 patients, up from just over 5,000 now. (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services)

Feb. 10: Michigan counties drop mask mandates as COVID plummets. Schools may follow.
Feb. 2: Next up: COVID vaccines for Michigan children under age 5
Jan. 20: How many COVID cases are in Michigan schools? State has no idea anymore
Jan. 18: Mailbox-bound: Free COVID tests now available for Michigan homes

COVID-19 hospitalizations could rise 60 percent in the next few weeks, further pressuring hospitals already at a breaking point amid the omicron wave, the state’s chief medical executive said Tuesday.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian said models predict as many as 8,000 COVID-19 patients could be hospitalized by late January or early February, well above the 5,000 now being treated.

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“This is a very dangerous time for us and this is not what we want to see with cases exploding the way they are,” she said.

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The prediction is among the more pessimistic — but not the most pessimistic — of models crafted by teams of researchers from around the country, including Johns Hopkins University, the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California.

While those models are predictions, hospital officials across Michigan are sounding alarms about what’s happening now. 

More patients are showing up every day with COVID-19, affecting hospitals’ ability to help all patients — at the same time hundreds of staff members are also contracting COVID-19.

“It’s the sheer number of people infected with omicron that is overwhelming our resources,” Dr. Marschall Runge, dean of the University of Michigan Health System, told reporters Tuesday.

Already, the U-M Health System has canceled 250 surgeries, discontinued accepting transfers of critically ill patients and instituted a two-week pause on visitors. 

Since Jan. 1, over 700 U-M Health staffers have tested positive, said Dr. David Miller, president of U-M Health. The system employs 30,000, including 5,220 nurses, to provide care for 1,100 licensed beds.

“This staffing shortage is the most serious we have ever seen,” Runge said.

High case rates likely to climb higher

Though evidence is growing that the omicron variant of COVID-19 is causing less severe illness, the state is experiencing unprecedentedly high case rates.

Before the current surge, the state’s highest rate of cases was about 80 cases per day per 100,000 people. 

On Monday it hit 161 cases per 100,000 people. If other states’ experience is a guide, the rate will soon top 200 cases per 100,000; because so far, omicron is concentrated in metro Detroit and only detected in about half of Michigan counties.

Bagdasarian and others said they believe models that forecast Michigan’s current cases will nearly double from 112,500 in the past week.

She and other health care officials continue to urge people to get vaccinated and boosted, to wear quality masks in public indoors and avoid large gatherings.

“When we look at our most pessimistic model, we're looking at about 200,000 cases per week in Michigan. And in fact, the most pessimistic model does seem to be the most accurate,” she said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters from across the state.

New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey have rates already double Michigan, while Rhode Island’s rate — 507 cases per 100,000 per day — is triple. Omicron hit those states earlier than it hit Michigan.

All of those states have vaccination rates far above that of Michigan, where 58 percent of those 5 years-old and older are fully vaccinated. 

Rhode Island is at 77.3 percent; Massachusetts, 75.2 percent; New York, 72.6 percent and New Jersey, 71.2 percent.

Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that a quarter of Michigan hospitals have staff shortage. Statewide, 28 percent of all hospital patients are COVID-19 positive, as of Tuesday.

Officials for the state's largest health system, Beaumont Health, said last week that it was “at a breaking point,” reporting that its numbers of patients with COVID had shot up 40 percent in a single week.

The system asked its doctors to cancel non urgent surgeries, especially those that required overnight stays. 

Cancer-treating and other time-sensitive surgeries went ahead as planned, but "if there's a total knee replacement that can wait, then we'll wait,” said  Dr. Jeffrey Fischgrund, Beaumont’s chief clinical officer.

Not all COVID-19 patients know it

Bagdarasian and others have acknowledged that not every COVID-19 positive patient is in the hospital because of the virus.

Many patients are showing up for surgery or treatment and are testing positive, unaware that they have it.

Fischgrund said one of his fellow surgeons at Beaumont last week had four surgeries scheduled for the day to mend broken bones; three of the four patients tested positive for COVID before surgery. 

Even if they’re not being treated for COVID illness, a COVID positive patient requires a private room, more staff, and more personal protective equipment, he said. For surgeries, operating rooms must be left empty a full hour before a cleaning crew enters.

U-M’s Miller said 8 percent of patients coming in for other procedures or treatment have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Case rates have jumped the highest among those in their 20s and 30s, also the two age groups with the lowest vaccination rates.

Although many people who are fully vaccinated are getting infected by the omicron variant, hospital officials reiterated that the most seriously ill have been the unvaccinated.

Of 128 current COVID-19 positive patients in U-M’s hospitals, officials said 38 percent were fully vaccinated. 

But just 21 percent of the ICU COVID-19 patients were fully vaccinated and 25 percent of those on ventilators.

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Omicron may cause a bigger problem for hospitals serving Detroit, which has one of the highest case rates and lowest vaccination rates. 

Currently nearly 200 people per day per 100,000 are coming down with COVID-19 in Detroit, where 78 percent of the population is African American.

Statewide, African Americans are now contracting COVID-19 at rates more than double white Michigan residents, reversing a trend that had seen African Americans have a lower rate for over a year. African Americans are now getting infected at a rate of 1,003 per 1 million people per week, compared to 382 per 1 million people for white residents.

Although the estimates are low because the race of 11 percent of the vaccinated are unknown, an estimated 37.6 percent of African Americans are fully vaccinated, compared to 51.6 percent of whites.

Bridge reporter Robin Erb contributed

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