The COVID-19 patients filling Michigan’s hospitals are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. They hail from throughout the state, from the tip of the Upper Peninsula to the Ohio and Indiana borders; they live in city apartments and old farm houses on land dotted by cornstalks.
They are younger than many of the COVID-19 patients in the past — parents with small children, recent graduates, people heading into their first-ever jobs.
And, overwhelmingly, they are unvaccinated.
“We are seeing a younger cohort of patients being admitted to hospitals across Michigan — younger and unvaccinated,” said Dr. Matthew Denenberg, vice president of medical affairs at Spectrum Health West Michigan.
“We are worried about the trends we’re seeing across the country,” Denenberg continued. “And our numbers here are increasing. About 90 to 95% of positive cases in Michigan are the Delta variant. … If you’re unvaccinated, the rates of [hospital] admissions and infections go up.”
In terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths, COVID-19 is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, doctors across the state told the Michigan Advance. Overwhelmingly, they are the ones who have been hospitalized and died from it.
And, now, as the contagious Delta variant rips through the state and country, they are the ones once again filling hospitals, where already traumatized and exhausted health care workers are bracing for another possible surge — this time among people who medical experts emphasized could have been healthy but instead are struggling to survive because they have not gotten vaccinated.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved COVID-19 vaccines on an emergency basis in December. There were initial limitations on who could receive the vaccine in Michigan, with groups like health care workers and seniors having priority. By April 5, all Michiganders 16 and up were eligible to get their shots. In May, the feds signed off on children 12 to 15 receiving the Pfizer vaccine.
Between Jan. 15 and July 21, 98% of the state’s COVID-19 cases were among people who were either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
There were a total of 393,631 positive COVID-19 cases during that time period, and 384,929 of those were people who were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, DHHS reported. There were 8,702 “breakthrough” cases, or people who had been vaccinated, according to the health department. Less than 1% — .189% — of fully vaccinated people developed COVID-19 during that time, DHHS said.
Unvaccinated individuals also made up the majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. Between Jan. 15 and July 21, 95% of COVID-19 hospitalizations were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated individuals, DHHS said.
Of the 11,494 people hospitalized with COVID during that time period, 10,915 of those people were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. There were 579 fully vaccinated individuals who were hospitalized with COVID-19, representing about 5% of the hospitalizations, DHHS said. A DHHS spokesman and doctors noted that the fully vaccinated individuals who do end up in the hospital are far less likely to get very sick or die from COVID than those who have not received the vaccine. Just .013% of the approximate 4.6 million people fully vaccinated between January and July were hospitalized with COVID-19, DHHS said.
About 95% of COVID-19 deaths during that same time period were individuals who were not vaccinated or not fully vaccinated, according to the health department.
There were 4,864 people who died from COVID-19 between Jan. 15 and July 21; 4,628 of those individuals were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. There were 236 fully vaccinated people who died from COVID-19, or 4.9% of the total number of COVID deaths, DHHS reported. About .005% of fully vaccinated individuals died from COVID-19.
These kinds of numbers, medical experts said, are not going to disappear. And, with COVID-19 admissions now on the rise again, they’re expected to get worse — potentially significantly so.
“The more we allow the COVID virus to infect people across the country, the more opportunity there is for these variants to evolve,” Denenberg said. “What I worry about is that one of these viruses will mutate, and we won’t be protected by the vaccine. Viruses are very smart.”
After a lull in cases and hospitalizations following this past spring’s surge in Michigan, the numbers of cases and hospitalizations are once again rising in the state, with hospitals across Michigan seeing their COVID-19 patient numbers double in a matter of weeks, or less.
Michigan has had 2,786 new cases since Monday, bringing the total to 916,006 people who have tested positive for COVID-19. The state has had 19,982 COVID-19 deaths.
The Spectrum Health System, which is based in Grand Rapids and has facilities throughout western Michigan, had 54 patients with COVID-19 as of Monday — more than three times the 17 patients hospitalized with COVID two weeks ago.
On the eastern side of the state, hospitals are witnessing the same kinds of increases. Dr. Adnan Munkarah, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, reported there were 48 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 last week, double the number of admissions from one week prior.
And, in numbers mirroring hospitals across the state and country, almost all of those patients at Spectrum and Henry Ford are unvaccinated.
“Let’s get this [pandemic] behind us,” Munkarah said during a press conference last week urging the public to become vaccinated. “Let’s make sure we’re part of the solution so that we don’t have another major crisis ahead of us.”
That idea of “another major crisis ahead of us” seems plausible, if not downright inevitable, if more people do not get vaccinated, according to medical experts.
“The highest risk right now is going to be the unvaccinated individuals,” Dr. Joel Fishbain, the medical director for infection prevention at Beaumont Hospital Grosse Pointe, said, referring to the future COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Michigan and across the country.
Both Fishbain and Denenberg noted the rise in cases is happening as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads across the state, and country. The vaccines we currently have are effective against the variant, but doctors emphasized that the longer the country, and world, lives with low vaccination rates — meaning rates below at least the recommended 70% for herd immunity — the more likely it becomes that there will be a variant that’s unresponsive to the vaccines.
“I’m concerned about breakthrough variants” that vaccines would not protect against, causing us to “go back to extreme measures of control” against the virus, Fishbain said.
“That’s why we need to stop the spread of COVID,” Fishbain continued. “We need to get our vaccinations.”
Because, as we are now, Fishbain said, “we’re going to be dealing with this for years.”
In order to tackle vaccine hesitancy, Denenberg said the medical field must tap into the trust between patients and family physicians.
“We’re hearing stories of people regretting not getting the vaccine as they lie sick in the hospital; that issue of hesitancy is something that we have to tackle by taking advantage of our primary care physicians,” Denenberg said. “People trust their primary care physician.”
Ultimately, what is going to make this pandemic finally disappear?
“It’s very simple,” Fishbain said. “Get your darn vaccine. Take some personal responsibility. Wear a mask, no matter what other people say.”Originally published August 13, 2021 on MichiganAdvance.com. It is republished here with permission.
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