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Fourth COVID Wave Arrives in Northwest Michigan

  • 7 min to read

TRAVERSE CITY – Amid spiraling COVID-19 cases across Michigan and nationwide news that regulators had opened vaccine boosters for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech shots to anyone 18 and older, Oneupweb employees showed up to roll up their sleeves.

The idea came about simply enough: company CEO and Owner Fernando Meza also serves on the Northwest Michigan Health Services Inc’s board of directors, and knew the network of community health care centers had doses to spare. At the same time, most of his company’s 48 employees wanted a booster.

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So Meza and NWMHSI arranged for a pop-up clinic just outside Oneupweb’s office in Grand Traverse Commons on Friday, he said.

It made perfect sense to Meza because he believes it’s important for people as a community to realize that they have a role to play in helping to manage the pandemic, he said. Linking resources like NWMHSI’s clinics and willing partners like his company helps achieve that.

”And so for me as a father of three young kids, one of which is immunocompromised, anything I can do to help move that mission forward is in line with who we are as a company, and who we are as a person,” he said.

The fourth and most intense wave of COVID-19 has crashed upon Michigan, fanning into northern regions of the state that had largely dodged the worst of previous waves.

This time, ICUs and hospital beds are being filled primarily with unvaccinated adults, as well as mre children than in previous waves. Day-by-day, the positive case numbers continue to climb. Hospital officials are seeing no sign of abatement, on the doorstep of the holiday season and the congregate family settings that triggered a similar surge this time last year.

On Thursday, Munson Medical Center reported 127 hospitalized patients across 6 facilities, a record for the hospital system.

Meanwhile, 10 different schools have had outbreaks, with the most contagious outbreak occurring at Glen Lake Elementary in Leelanau County. The school has traced 19 cases to that outbreak, which shutdown classes.

And since Nov. 1, county officials have identified an average of 45 new probable and confirmed cases per day. The high numbers have strained health departments, which say the recurring waves and surges have taxed employees tasked with tracing new outbreaks and pushing against anti-mask initiatives that run counter to modern science.

”None of us understood how stressful that could be,” said Michelle Klein, Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department personal health director.

They’ve had to talk to people who must take time off from work because they are sick or quarantined, those whose kids must stay home from school because of the virus or those who’ve lost family members.

They’ve known seven-day work weeks and have taken calls at 5 a.m. and at 11 p.m., sometimes from people who are frustrated, angry and hostile.

”It’s not as if after eight hours you can turn off your phone and your computer,” Klein said.

In comparing last year’s November spike to this year’s seemingly never-ending rise in cases there are at least three factors at work, Klein said.

The first is that the virus is more contagious than last year, owing to the ascendancy of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The second factor is higher transmission occurring in schools than last year.

And the third, most novel factor, is that protection from the vaccine has begun to wane for those who were in the first wave of inoculation — the elderly and the immunocompromised. Numerous studies now show that vaccine effectiveness begins to wane between 5 to 6 months after inoculation, although protections against hospitalization remain strong.

There are still outbreaks in long-term care facilities, but those who test positive are having no symptoms or very mild cases of COVID-19 because the vaccine is still offering protection, Klein said.

”Last year we had outbreaks that were absolutely devastating,” Klein said. “Residents would end up in hospitals and dying. This year they’re not as ill and they’re not going to the hospital.”

Klein said seeing such a large and protracted case surge has not made those who’ve worked so hard during the past year to get people vaccinated feel like their efforts were in vain.

With children 5 and older now able to be vaccinated and new oral treatments coming out soon, Klein hopes that by January the region can begin to transition from pandemic to endemic, which means COVID-19 will be a part of our lives just as the flu is.

The hope is that when kids come back to school after the holiday break, many of them will be vaccinated, she said.

Discussions are happening right now about how that will look.

”We may find that every November will have a huge surge of COVID and if that’s the case maybe we can be a little more proactive and give vaccines in August.”

Prior to the FDA’s decision on boosters — affirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel hours later on Friday — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer urged every eligible person in Michigan to get a booster shot. In a statement she touted the state’s national standing of giving out the seventh-most booster doses, at 1.1 million and counting, and urged building on that momentum as well as vaccinating newly eligible 5- to 11-year-olds.

Booster doses have been available for those 18 and older in high-risk jobs or with underlying health conditions, plus anyone 65 and older, since Oct. 20. A few other leaders didn’t wait for the FDA, with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis made anyone 18 and older eligible for one, declaring in his executive order that the state had a high risk for COVID-19 exposure or transmission.

Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer, said in an email that Michigan’s governor was watching the Food and Drug Administration, which by midweek was already expected to open up booster dose availability as soon as Friday.

That could help tamp down a spike in COVID cases gripping the state, Klein said.

“I think the more people that are vaccinated and well-protected from vaccines, the better we’re going to be when it comes to protecting everybody, so yes, if we gave boosters to everybody I think there would be some help,” she said.

That said, plenty of people qualified for boosters even without regulators making them more widely available, Klein said. And recent surges in cases among those 12 and younger showed the need to vaccinate that age group now that they’re eligible.

Still, vaccine uptake among children has not occurred rapidly enough to save local schools from making tough decisions around closing.

Last year, superintendents mostly followed directives from health officials and leaned on virtual learning as a response to surges of COVID-19. This year, school districts have been left to make case-by-case choices about closing and the Michigan Department of Education no longer has relaxed attendance policies that make shifting to virtual completely or having some students attend virtually while they’re in quarantine more difficult that it was last year.

Last school year, Northport Public Schools shifted to remote instruction from Nov. 30, 2020 to Jan. 18, 2021, after announcing its second positive COVID case. Northport Superintendent Neil Wetherbee said going virtual for a few weeks this year is not a possibility “at all”.

Instead of shifting to virtual learning, some schools have had to cancel classes for days at a time in order to mitigate the spread of COVID in their classrooms.

In Mid-October, Bellaire Public Schools canceled classes for a week after eight students and two staff tested positive for COVID-19 within one week. In the first week of November, Glen Lake Community Schools canceled classes for two days after it reported COVID-19 in 10 students and one staff member.

”I think that people are under the assumption that well, we can just jump back over to virtual learning ... and that’s just not the not the case,” said Glen Lake Community Schools Superintendent Mark Mattson.

Most recently, Kalkaska Public Schools, Elk Rapids Public Schools and Kingsley Area Schools announced on Friday that they were cancelling classes for Monday and Tuesday next week because of absences from COVID-19 and other illnesses.

Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said he also thinks it is better for school districts to make individual decisions on mandates and closings this year, even if last year was easier on administrators.

The idea of closing makes him feel “sick”, Smith said, but he knows he would not have the attendance numbers necessary to keep Kingsley schools open because of COVID related quarantines and illness as well as the flu.

”It’s a tough balancing act,” Smith said. “This year I think it’s tougher. Last year it was easy when the state said, ‘hey, you need to shut.’ It makes it pretty simple.”

Nursing homes have felt the sting, too. Grand Traverse Pavilions, a 240-bed county-owned nursing home in Traverse City reported an “unprecedented increase” in COVID-19 cases among residents and staff, a Nov. 15 weekly family update posted on the facility’s website stated.

”Most of the state of Michigan is in red again,” Rose Coleman, interim director of Grand Traverse Pavilions, recently told members of the local DHHS board. “We have a high community transmission rate. That limits some of our things at the facility. We do still have visitation by appointment inside.”

Deb Allen, chief development and community engagement officer for the Pavilions said 24 residents had tested positive during the past two weeks; Coleman told the DHHS board in late October five staff members had just tested positive and in recent days nine staff had positive tests, the weekly update states.

”We have seen what we consider an outbreak,” Allen said.

Some of the residents have recovered and been moved from the facility’s COVID-19 unit back to their rooms, the weekly update said, though one resident died of the disease.

New protocols have residents remaining in their rooms whenever possible and wearing a mask when in other places in the building. All outings with the exception of urgent medical appointments have been canceled, the update states.

The surge also poses an imminent threat to homeless shelters — congregate settings where the Delta variant could easily jump between people. Brad Gerlach, Safe Harbor’s Volunteer Manager, has said the shelter has identified just one case. That person was caught at the door and re-routed directly to Munson Medical Center because of the severity of their symptoms.

But Gerlach is worried. This time last year, the shelter had far fewer nightly occupants. This month, the shelter became crowded quickly, at one point filling 66 of the shelter’s available 82 beds.

”Sixty-six is a significant jump,” Gerlach said. “We’ve never had a number that high in November or even in December. That’s a January-February number.”

Data from the Northwest Michigan Coalition on Homelessness corroborate a rise in unsheltered homeless individuals, with that number more than doubling between this October and October 2020.

Sgt. Matt Richmond of the Traverse City Police Department said officers have been advised to take precautions much the way they were instructed to do at this time last year.

”We do not have any new mandates,” Richmond said.

The Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office has provided all officers with personal protection equipment, said Capt. Chris Clark, head of patrol, although mask usage isn’t mandated.

Back at Oneupweb, the booster clinic became a reunion of sorts, as most coworkers don’t see much of each other, Meza said.

They’ve been working largely remotely since the stay-home orders of mid-March 2020, even after Meza reopened the office to all vaccinated employees in June — all but one is, and even then only because they got COVID-19 and had to wait to get vaccinated.

Meza joked he could have a Lady Gaga concert in the office and maybe 20 would show.

He doubted he would have to close the office again as cases surge across Michigan because so many stay home already.

”We have just kind of adapted to meet the needs of our employees here, and just stayed in constant communication so that they ultimately feel safe, taken care of and that we are creating an environment for them to do the work,” he said.

The Associated Press and Record-Eagle reporters Patti Burgess, Grace George, Mardi Link, Luca Powell and Jordan Travis contributed to this report.

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