TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Michigan currently has 1,646 confirmed COVID-19 cases, an increase of 135 cases in the last 10 days.
That amounts to a nearly nine-percent increase in cases across the 18-county region over the course of a week and a half. Additionally, a second Manistee County resident also died Sept. 7 in a Grand Rapids hospital from complications from COVID-19, officials reported.
That brings the region’s deaths to 65 since the pandemic began.
The numbers come on the heels of information released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reported dining out is associated with COVID-19 positivity in a recent medical study. The report states that adults in the study who tested positive for the pandemic disease were about twice as likely to have eaten at a restaurant or bar than those who tested negative.
CDC officials determined eating out may be important risk factors for COVID-19 infection, so efforts to reduce possible exposures should be used in those sorts of businesses to protect customers, employees and the community at large.
Paul Barbas, owner of Opa! Grill & Taproom, said that’s exactly what he’s tried to do at his restaurant in Traverse City. He doesn’t intend to let up on those extra efforts, either.
The eatery set up a large, outdoor tent and placed tables there to allow for better distancing among customers.
“We’re getting by with the tools we have,” he said.
Barbas said there are two types of customers during the pandemic: those who are adamant about wearing masks and being physically distanced, and those who are more comfortable sitting indoors to eat so long as all other pandemic protocols are kept up. The big tent was the solution, he said.
“We knew there was a great divide out there, so that’s what we did for our loyal customers,” Barbas said.
The tent likely will stay up until mid-October, he said, when perhaps take-out orders will increase.
Dr. Joshua Meyerson, medical director for health departments covering 10 up north counties, said it’s important to remember the types of studies the CDC recently reported about identify associations, not the absolute cause of infections. That’s true in this COVID-19 study, as well, he said.
That means eating out isn’t a guarantee of COVID-19 infection, Meyerson said.
“Certainly people who maybe do go for on-site eating and drinking may have other behaviors that put them at risk. So association is not causation,” the doctor said.
“If you’ve been exposed to someone who is positive for COVID-19, or if you’re at large gatherings, or doing activities such as eating and drinking in public — we know that all of those increase your risk for either spreading or being infected with COVID,” Meyerson said.
But the state’s chief medical executive this week pointed out evidence shows dining and drinking in public settings have been connected to coronavirus spread not only in Michigan but also nationwide.
“There’s data that shows that many outbreaks of COVID-19 across the United States have originated in indoor bars and restaurants,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun.
One local doctor said this doesn’t mean people should immediately change their behaviors, though.
Dr. Christine Nefcy, chief medical officer for Munson Healthcare, said the study was small and done imperfectly, but there are some valuable takeaways.
“It’s certainly consistent with what we think is true, that being indoors, unmasked, in close proximity with other people, increases your risk of contracting COVID,” she said, adding it becomes even more risky in areas with higher rates of positivity across the population.
There’s no doubt that dining out is a high-risk behavior and it’s an important personal decision about what level of risk to take in everyday life, Nefcy said, and those in higher-risk categories should consider taking greater precautions than others.
“If for your mental health you do need to go out, wear a mask, keep six feet distance and wash your hands frequently,” she said.
However, Nefcy said, the more risks the public collectively takes, the longer we will all be dealing with the ramifications of the ongoing worldwide health crisis.
Health officials agree community spread continues across the tip of the mitt.
Across the 18-county region, the current testing positivity rate is just below 3 percent, and the case rate is about 31 cases per million people per day, according to Khaldun.
She reported this week that the northern Lower Michigan area has been decreasing both in testing positivity rates and the number of cases among the overall population.
But up north isn’t out of the woods yet, health officials agreed; COVID-19 remains present and accounted for.
“We have community spread. It’s at a low level, and I think we’re doing what we can to try to control that,” Meyerson said.
Wendy Hirschenberger, health officer for Grand Traverse County Health Department, said the county dropped into the low-risk category for testing positivity rate for the first time in a month. The current seven-day average of percent-positivity is 2.9 percent, she said.
“Prior to that we were in the medium, medium-high and high-risk categories, but have been slowly decreasing in risk based on percent positivity for the last two weeks,” she said.
This week Grand Traverse County — where there are the region’s most number of cases at nearly 400 — the number of those infected number 26.5 per million, Hirschenberger said.
“That puts us in the medium high risk for this measure,” she said. “We were as high as 112 cases per million at our highest in later August, but again, have been slowly decreasing in this rate for the last three-plus weeks.”
But as many as half of the new cases are not connected to other known cases, she said — meaning acquired through community spread.
“For the past six weeks, approximately 50 to 60 percent of our new cases have been identified as close contacts to other cases. So that leaves 40 to 50 percent of our cases that are a result of community exposure,” Hirschenberger said.
She said contributing to the community exposure are larger group events with people not always social distancing or wearing a mask, as well as those who travel.
“Ultimately, almost all cases are from person-to-person exposure, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, which is why hand washing, masking, social distancing and staying home when sick are still as important as ever,” Hirschenberger said.
“Certainly people who maybe do go for on-site eating and drinking may have other behaviors that put them at risk. So association is not causation.” Dr. Joshua Meyerson