COVID-19 test rates falling as Michigan prepares for return to in-person learning

These days, there's a lot of good numbers that Michigan health officials are looking at and one bad number. 

New COVID-19 infections have fallen to 95 cases per million while the test positivity rate sits at 3.5%. Just under 5% of hospital beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients are being used.

However, Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun says she's worried about the rate of testing in the state. It's fallen by almost half since November.

"Testing is the only way we're going to be able to track the spread of the virus to slow its spread," she said during a Wednesday press conference.

Test rates climbed as high as 60,000 a day in November when Michigan was slammed with its largest surge since the onset of the pandemic. Last week, some days registered around 35,000.

That falling figure could pose problems as the state eyes reopening some of its essential services like in-person learning.

More tests needed to reopen schools

Several weeks since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gave schools the unofficial deadline of offering some form of in-person learning by March 1, most have. About 83% of districts have reopened classrooms to students.

Many others, including the state's largest district in Detroit, plan to in the next few weeks. 

However, pressing issues like the holdup of billions of dollars of federally-approved funds could create future issues for funding schools and increasing testing capacity, Whitmer said.

"If the legislature does not act to pass the recovery plan, Michigan will not be able to keep up with the testing demand from students, student-athletes, school staff, and teachers for much longer," she said. 

"We can't spend the money to test people and ramp up vaccinations if we don't have it (money)."

Whitmer said the state will need to purchase between three and four million antigen tests every month to maintain consistent screening of kids and teachers when they return to schools.

Another $1.7 billion of the relief money would go to schools. Superintendents from the tri-county area have chastised the legislature for using students as bargaining chips in the political tug-of-war they've had with the governor.

Republican lawmakers have declined to appropriate the funds until Whitmer releases authority on school closures.

COVID-19 vaccine momentum building

After weeks of promises of more vaccines from state and federal officials, supplies still remain limited for much of the state. However, almost 2 million doses have been administered and two of the state's most populous counties are reaching moderate coverage of administrations. According to data from the state, Oakland and Wayne County have each administered more than 200,000 doses.

The rollout of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines was slower than anticipated. Inclement weather last week also caused delays in the distribution of some tens of thousands of doses, which was capped with a visit to the Pfizer facility in Kalamazoo by President Joe Biden.

AstraZeneca's new vaccine is also effective, but only showed marginal benefits against new coronavirus variants.

However, both Johnson & Johnson's one-shot vaccine and Novavax's candidate that doesn't require cold-temperature storage mean more encouraging news is on the way after both receive final approval from the FDA.

While rolling out as many injections continue to be the state's top priority, it has also promised to do so in an equitable fashion.

RELATED: FDA releases new data on Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine ahead of decision

Recent data released from the state shows that might not be happening, however. Only 3.7% of vaccine doses administered have gone to Black residents in Michigan while 41.7% have gone to white residents.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks on Wednesday, January 13 from Lansing, Mich. Image; Gov. Whitmer's office.

Those statistics remain fluid due to almost half of the doses administered went to people who didn't have their race listed. Other statistics to keep an eye on include:

  • Women make up more than 60% of first-dose administration
  • Age groups 65-74 make up the largest proportion of first and second-dose shots. While people age 75 and up have gotten the second-most first dose shots, it's the younger age group that's gotten more second-dose shots.
  • Northern Michigan counties have received the largest coverage of vaccines. Schoolcraft County has only administered 2,033 shots but has inoculated about 30% of its residents. Oakland County, the state's most populated county has covered about 16% of its residents.

Prior to her press conference, Whitmer testified in front of a U.S. Senate committee on the need for infrastructure investment.